The Nativity of St. John the Baptist, June 24, 2018
Luther Memorial Chapel
Rev. Michael Larson
This morning we really celebrate Christmas in a way. Today it’s exactly six months to Christmas Eve and we remember that this wonderful story, to which we all belong, really begins with an old priest, named Zechariah, his barren wife Elizabeth, and the angel. We remember and celebrate that the annunciation of Jesus’ birth actually follows upon John’s.
Luke’s Gospel begins with these words: “In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah.” And not just any priest but of the division of Abijah, a priestly family of high rank, AND, his wife, Elizabeth, well, she’s from the line of Aaron too - whose family business was the tabernacle, the priesthood, and sacrifices.
As our elders would say, Zechariah is on duty today for the Divine Service. So as Zechariah puts on his vestments, and ceremonial robes, the temple workers ritually slice through the lamb’s throat. The blood is drained in a bowl, the sacrifice butchered and prepared.
The Divine Service begins and Zechariah splashes blood on the sides of the altar. His feet are washed before he enters into the holy place, on behalf of the people, to intercede for them, wearing the names of the 12 tribes of Israel upon his chest. He was brought burning coals, and meat, and incense to lay upon the altar. To burn for a pleasing aroma to the Lord.
And he prayed. His prayers that God would give to him a son, a child, are intermingled with prayers for the Messiah to come. And amid those prayers and the fire and the blood and the smoke there appeared to him an angel, standing on the right side of the altar, saying to him, “Zechariah, do not be afraid, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. He will be great before the Lord. He will turn the hearts of children to the Lord and move the hearts of fathers to their children. He will make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
For nine months Zechariah was speechless, as John grew in Elizabeth’s womb, a comparatively merciful punishment for temple transgressions, due to his faithless stuttering to the angel. Nine months later when this child was born, he broke ranks with tradition, and rather than taking on the family name, Zechariah, which means “the Lord remembers,” he simply wrote, “His name is John” which means “the Lord is gracious.” When John was born Zechariah was silent no more. He opened his mouth, his tongue was released, and he sang a hymn to God, saying “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel. For he has visited and redeemed his people.” He sang of his son, “You, John, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways, to give His people knowledge of salvation, by the forgiveness of their sins…to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
As John was born, and Zechariah sang, the blessed Mary, the mother of our Lord, was beginning to show, a tiny little beating heart beneath hers. And Mary would sing as well, a delicate hand upon her belly, remembering the promise also given her by the angel Gabriel, that she would conceive by the power of the Most High, that she would bear a son named Jesus – the very Son of God.
Today is the second most important birthday the world has ever seen, second, not to you, sorry, but to Jesus, our Immanuel. Who Himself would say of John: “I tell you, among those born of a woman there is no one greater than John.”
John the Baptist stood astride both the old and new testament, and beyond the strange clothing and bizarre diet, he is a preacher, a prophet, whose life, and voice, and finger pointed to Christ our Lord, saying, “Behold the lamb, that taketh away the sins of the world.”
If Lutherans bought into the idea of patron saints, which we don’t, but if we did, St. John the Baptist should be the patron saint of pastors. He is or at least should be the prime example. He’s not there to impress people. He’s doesn’t go out of his way to be eloquent. He doesn’t try to woo or impress. He’s not on the Dale Carnegie circuit, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” He is straightforward. He’s to the point: “Repent,” he preached, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand…flee from the wrath to come!”
John the Baptist is not afraid to stir the pot, to offend, and chastise. He’s not afraid to call out kings in authority. He’s willing to go to prison if necessary, to be locked up by Herod’s henchmen, and to have his head cut off for speaking the truth about God’s gift of marriage. In our day, when marriage is an open question, we can certainly learn from that!
But his preaching doesn’t just go after the corrupt and the powerful. No one is unscathed by his preaching. He gets us all. “Repent…you brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. His winnowing fork is in hand to clear his threshing floor. He will gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” He preached the law.
Whether you like it or not, the Law is God’s Word. It is His revealed will for man – yet we cannot obtain it. The law damns. It hurts. It kills. It drives us to our knees. And yet it is good, because it opens our eyes to the reality of our deep need for Christ. It shows us our helplessness and so drives us to Him who loves us. The law is in service to the Gospel to bring us to Him.
Jesus does not remove the law, He fulfills it. Jesus said: “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. For the Law was given through Moses; but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.”
John said of Jesus, “He must increase, I must decrease.” We are reminded of this fact celebrating John’s birth just three days after the summer solstice since the daylight will now decrease. And then in the cold and dark days of winter we will celebrate the birth of Jesus just days after the winter solstice when the daylight will increase. For he is the light of the world.
With the nativity of St. John we see something very new beginning – some leaping, some birth pains, a new creation dawning. Zechariah’s service in the temple came to a sudden end because something far greater had come. Consider the burning coal, and flesh, the incense. Consider the sacrifices, and the blood, the pillar of fire and smoke. But now look to Christ, our high priest, God in human flesh, the mediator of a new covenant.
Look to the sprinkled blood of Christ that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel, laying down on the altar that Isaac escaped from – the fulfilment of everything the prophets spoke of. This Jesus, who entered once for all into the holy place, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of His own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption for us all. Whose blood set us free to be children of God.
Unlike Zechariah and the Levitical priesthood, upon this Jesus He does one better than wearing the breastplate of the 12 tribes of Israel. Better yet, He goes to the cross with your name written upon His heart and the names of your children upon His lips. He intercedes for you.
“Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” said John. He suffers, He sheds His blood, He makes atonement.
Jesus is the new temple not made with human hands. He is God in human flesh to be worshiped and adored. He is risen and He lives. He gives you His blood to drink that you would have life.
C. S. Lewis said of Christianity that it is not the sort of thing anyone could have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have.
So consider Zechariah, an aging priest, his homely wife Elizabeth, and a little baby jumping in the womb of his mother – all to announce the arrival of God in the flesh – reconciling the whole world to Himself. Consider a holiness hidden from the world yet revealed to you by grace.
Today is Christmas in June. A day to celebrate that God is a man. That He is approachable. That you have been baptized by Him who has given Himself to you – His atoning death – His resurrection – His righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. All yours! Like John you can jump for joy in the womb of Holy Mother Church. You can be filled with joy, being ready to suffer all the world’s unpleasantness, remembering the words of our Lord: “In this world you will have tribulation. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
This is really the motivation behind having a church picnic at all. The incarnation of God in human flesh is the cause, the basis, for any celebrating and joy that we have. Polka music, dancing, a bouncy house, balloons, and cake is just perfect – because we’re really confessing to one another that God’s wrath has ended. That death has passed over. That in Christ, God is friendly toward you, loves you, and in fact approves of you. Enough to make you want to jump for joy. In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Prayer of the Church
Let us pray for the whole Church of God in Christ Jesus and for all people according to their needs.
Blessed are You, O Lord God of Israel. It is good for us to give thanks to You and to join with the angels to sing praises to Your name. Remember the whole company of Your baptized and comfort them always with Your unfailing love, that they may open their mouths with joy to sing of the great things You have done. Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.
Blessed are You, O Lord God of Israel. From of old, You spoke to Your people by Your holy prophets, and in great mercy You sent John the Baptist to go before Your Son and prepare His way. Continue to send to Your faithful people messengers of Your Word who will give them knowledge of salvation in the forgiveness of their sins. Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.
Blessed are You, O Lord God of Israel. You gave Your Son all authority in heaven and on earth. Look kindly on all who have been elected to positions of public trust in our land. Help them to serve with wisdom, honor and integrity. Hinder all in our common life that is not in accord with Your will. Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.
Blessed are You, O Lord God of Israel. The Dayspring from on high has visited us and given light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. May the light of His Good News bring comfort and peace to all who are sick, homebound, taking treatments, grieving or facing death. We especially commend to You those we have been asked to remember at this altar: especially Anita Leutkens, who mourns the death of her brother, Donald. Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.
Blessed are You, O Lord God of Israel. Prepare us worthily to approach the feast You have provided to set us free from the fear of our enemies. Through our Savior’s true body and blood and His new and eternal testament, grant us to worship You in holiness and righteousness all our days. Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.
Blessed are You, O Lord God of Israel. In Jesus, You came to Your people and set them free. We thank You for saints Zechariah, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Mary and all Your faithful departed. Bring us with them to the joyous and serene light of the heavenly home that Christ has prepared for us. Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.
Into Your hands, O Lord, we commend all for whom we pray, trusting in Your mercy, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.