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“When all the world was cursed by Moses’ condemnation,
Saint John the Baptist came with words of consolation.
With true forerunner’s zeal, the greater One he named.
And Him, as yet unknown, as Savior he proclaimed.” (LSB #346:1)
Today, we celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist, and in doing so, we do what the Christian Church has been doing ever since the 4th century AD when it put this day onto the Church Calendar as a day for the Church to remember and celebrate.
Technically speaking, the OFFICIAL day for this Feast is this coming Tuesday, June 24th. So, why did the church pick June 24th to celebrate the birth of John the Baptist? Well, because of Jesus. It’s always, all about Jesus.
If you’ll recall from St. Luke’s gospel, when Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the virgin Mary, the angel Gabriel told Mary that her cousin, Elizabeth was already six months pregnant. So, John is 6 months older than his cousin. Jesus’ birth was fixed on December 25th and six months before that is June 24th. Like I said, it’s always, all about Jesus.
To put the birth of John the Baptist into perspective, his is the only birth recorded in the New Testament other than that of Jesus. There are lots of ‘saints days’ on the church’s calendar for us to observe, but all of the other ‘saints’ are remembered for the DEATH. John is the only one besides our Lord who is honored for his BIRTH.
The circumstances of John’s BIRTH are remarkable in themselves. He is conceived under a CLOUD OF DOUBT. When the angel Gabriel informed his father Zechariah, that he would have a son, Zechariah replied saying, “How shall I know this?” Jesus is conceived CLOUD OF FAITH. When the same angel Gabriel informed Mary that she would have a son, she replied saying, “let it be to me according to Thy word.” So, even in his conception, John points to Jesus who is GREATER THAN HE IS.
John was a “miracle baby.” Luke informs us that his mother Elizabeth was ‘barren.’ She was incapable of having children, and both mother and father were “advanced in years.” His was an impossible birth. So, even by his birth, John points to another ‘miracle baby’ whose mother was very young and a virgin.
Upon hearing the news of the angel and being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, Mary travels to visit her cousin Elizabeth. “And she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb.” So, even while he is still a fetus in the womb of Elizabeth, John points to Jesus, even while Jesus is still a fetus in the womb of Mary.
It does seem pretty clear that John’s vocation in life, from conception to death, was to point us to Jesus, who is greater than he.
Apart from Jesus, John has got to be one of the most fascinating people in the New Testament. His life is surrounded by incredible stories and adventure.
There are the strange circumstances of his conception and the giving of his name on the 8th day.
And then he disappears from sight until he is 30 years old and he reappears in the wilderness of Judea, wearing strange clothes and eating strange food.
John lives in the ‘wilderness’ and not the city. He set up a pulpit out in the wilderness next to the Jordan River and he must have been one of the most remarkable preachers the world has ever heard… except for Jesus. “All of the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Mark 1:4-5)
John chastised the religious leaders for saying that they didn’t need to be baptism because they were not sinners, never stopping to consider the effect this would have on his career advancement opportunities.
Not only was he rejected by the religious leaders, he was also despised by the civil leadership. In his preaching, he spoke against adultery and used the governor as a bad example. He was arrested and imprisoned. Here we see John’s humanity and weakness in that while in prison he begins to have his doubts and sends his disciples to ask of Jesus, ‘are you the one or should be expect another.’ But when Jesus sends his answer back, John is convinced and remains steadfast in his faith. And because he wouldn’t recant, he lost his head.
Really, we could spend all the time we have talking about the INCREDIBLE LIFE OF JOHN THE BAPTIST. And even in John’s own day, there were lots of people who wanted to do just that. And John would have to say, over and over again, “I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before Him…” (John 3:30). “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.” (Matt.3:11)
So, even on this FESTIVAL OF THE NATIVITY OF JOHN THE BAPTIST, to spend too much time talking about John would not be very fair to John; because John’s life was not about John. He would not have approved. His calling and vocation in life was to point to Jesus.
John’s father, Zechariah understood this. At the birth of his son, Zechariah is one proud papa. As soon as his tongue is loosed and he gets his speech back, Zechariah breaks out in a canticle that he must have been rehearsing in his mind for the last nine months. After praising the “Lord God of Israel” for His faithfulness and goodness, his thoughts turn to his son. Zechariah’s entire focus is not on how great his son will be because of the greatness of his son. But it is on how great his son will be because of the greatness of the one to whom his son will point.
“You my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High; to go before the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
We’re going to move on from here, but before we do, I do think that it is worthwhile to stop for minute just to say that John the Baptist is a good example for us all. The dominant question that seems to direct the course of our life and the decisions that we make is, ‘what in it for me?’ “How can this help me?” “How can this benefit me?” The technical name for this is ‘narcissism.’ Or more commonly it’s called, ‘self-centeredness.’
Actually, this is the bottom line effect that sin has on our life. The great deception of the serpent was that by eating the forbidden fruit, we would become like God, when really we became like the serpent, all coiled up, or “turned in on ourselves,” as Luther used to describe it. Everything is all about how it benefits me and how it makes me more beautiful, more popular, more successful, healthier, more secure. Everything is meant to serve me. Even sermons are evaluated on how they ‘help me be a better person.’
But John the Baptist shows us a different way. In an ‘egotistic’ world, John is counter-cultural far beyond the clothes he wears and food he eats. John states the theme for his life like this: “He must increase but I must decrease.” John’s life was not about John. Whether he enjoyed gain or suffered loss, whether he dressed in fancy clothes and ate great food or wore camel’s hair and ate locusts, whether he gained his life or lost his life was not the driving force. It was always, only about Jesus.
Luther says that for all the great stuff about John the Baptist and his amazing life, it’s really HIS FINGER AND HIS VOICE that should stand out for us. Luther writes,“O how blessed are those fingers that point to Christ!” “With his finger, he is pointing to the Son of God through whom remission of sins is promised to all who receive and believe in him.”
A man named Matthius Grunewald was an artist whose life overlapped with Luther’s. One of his most famous works was the altar piece for the church in Isenheim. I’ve printed a picture of the center section of it on the back of the insert in the bulletin this morning. Take a look at it. Christ crucified is right in the middle of things, AND MORE THAN A BIT OVERSIZED I THINK.
That fellow on the right side of the picture is John the Baptist. I’m not sure if the finger is also a bit oversized, but it does seem to capture our attention even more so that John himself. You can barely make them out, but there are words inscribed behind John that read, “He must increase but I must decrease.”
So I wonder, did Grunewald get the idea for the painting from Luther? Or did Luther get the idea for his sermon from Grunewald? Who cares? It’s not about us. It’s always, all about Jesus.
Either way, “O how blessed are those fingers that point to Christ!” And “how blessed are the eyes that will see that blessed finger which is point to the offering which is to be made for the sins of the world!”
In addition to a BLESSED FINGER, John also had an outstanding voice. “A VOICE cries, ‘In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Is.40:3) Again, John isn’t interested in compliments on his preaching. He would tell you that he is just a VOICE in the wilderness. But Jesus Christ is the WORD. John is just a voice for a time. Jesus Christ is the ETERNAL WORD from the beginning. (Augustine)
John used his remarkable VOICE to announce what the whole creation had been groaning in anticipation since sin entered the world. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
As Jesus makes His way to the Jordan where John is preaching, John sees all the little lambs that men and women brought into the temple to be sacrificed day after day for their sins. And he sees all the Passover Lambs that were sacrificed and eaten, whose blood turned away the angel of death. And he sees the great Day of Atonement when one lamb was sacrificed for the sin of all the people. He sees all of this rolled up into Jesus Christ – the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
In a sense, John is the redeemed counterpart to the fallen angel in the garden. John wants to point you and me to the fruit that hangs on the tree in the garden of Golgatha. Eve was deceived by what was “pleasing to the eye.” And just like her, we are all, all about ‘outward appearances.’ We love what is ‘pleasing to the eye.’
But “he had no outward appearance that we should look at him and no beauty that we should desire him.” (Is.53:2)
Don’t be deceived like Eve was. Despite its lowly appearance, the Fruit that hangs from this tree (cross) is GOOD FOR FOOD and is DESIREABLE FOR GAINING FORGIVENESS, AND LIFE AND SALVATION.
And in moment, you will be invited to “take and eat.” Under the bread is the Lamb of God to Whom John pointed and preached. He has taken away the SIN OF THE WORLD and He will take away your sin too.
This holy fruit hanging from the cursed tree will undo the curse that sin has cast on you. He will ‘UNCOIL’ you, so that you may look, not inward to yourself in NARCISSIM, but outward, to God in WORSHIP. He will set you free from the ‘SELF-CENTERED’ life, that you may be a slave to the ‘CHRIST-CENTERED’ life. That gives “light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and guides our feet into the way of peace.”
O grant, dear Lord of love, that we receive, rejoicing,
the word proclaimed by John, our true repentance voicing,
that we may walk upon our Savior’s way
until we live with Him in His eternal day. (LSB #346:4).