For a church that wants to be nothing else but “Christ centered” and “Cross focused,” it may seem a bit out of place to set aside a day on the church’s calendar to point our finger at one who adamantly insists that “he is not the Christ.” (John 1:20).
I have a feeling that John the Baptist would have blushed at getting this much attention and insisted, “NO, NO. HE MUST INCREASE, BUT I MUST DECREASE.” (John 3:30)
But which of us haven’t ever taken the time to THINK ABOUT AND GIVE THANKS FOR those who pointed us to “the Christ”? Maybe it was a father and mother who brought you to ‘the Christ’ when they brought you to the baptismal font as an infant or a toddler or a teenager and who raised you in the Word of the Lord? Maybe it was a spouse or a relative or a friend or a neighbor who said something to the effect of, ‘How about come to church with me or Sunday School with me. I want you to meet ‘the Christ’?
Whomever it may have been who pointed you to “the Christ,” it just seems good, right and even salutary that we should give thanks to God for them.
And so we are not here to WORSHIP John the Baptist, any more than we WORSHIP Mary, the mother of our Lord. But we thank God for Mary, who FAITHFULLY CARRIED OUT THE WORK that God gave her to do by bearing the holy fetus in her womb and giving birth to “the Christ.” And we thank God for John who FAITHFULLY CARRIED OUT THE WORK that God gave him to do and faithfully pointed to “the Christ” and faithfully called us to repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.
So ever since the 4th Century, “the Nativity of John the Baptist” has been on the church’s calendar so that every generation until the end of time might stop and say ‘thanks be to God’ for the one who pointed Mary’s child saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
In the same way, since the 4th Century, “the Martyrdom of John the Baptist” has been on the church’s calendar so that every generation might stop and say, “thanks be to God” for the one who pointed to “the Christ” by the most powerful witness anyone can make.
Today, June 24th, just six months before Christmas, we give thanks to God for the Nativity of John the Baptist.
John’s birth is surrounded by a great deal of intrigue and suspense. He’s one of those ‘late in life – miracle babies’ like Isaac was. We’re told that Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth couldn’t conceive. And that both she and Zechariah were both “advanced in years” just like Abraham and Sarah. And just like Abraham, the Lord visited Zechariah and told him that he would be a father. And to be sure that Zechariah didn’t make the same mistake as Abraham, the angel pointedly said, “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name, John.”
But unlike Abraham, Zechariah didn’t believe it. It was either ‘too good to be true,’ or too impossible to take seriously. “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” (Luke 1:18)
But then, the angel identified himself. “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news,” as if to say, “Believe me Zechariah, I couldn’t make this up if I tried.”
And at that point, it seems that Zechariah believed the good news. But before he can say, ‘thanks be to God,’ and ‘share the good news,’ Gabriel binds Zechariah’s tongue. “And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” (Lk.1:18-20).
What must that have been like for Zechariah to have heard this amazing GOOD NEWS, and to believe it, but not be able to share it with anyone? I sometimes think that if old Zechariah could see us, he’d say ‘how can you keep this GOOD NEWS that you have received to yourself when you’ve got tongues that work perfectly fine?”
Then, six months into her pregnancy, Elizabeth and Zechariah, who live in the hill country of Judea, get a visitor from the region of Galilee – a relative, a niece, a young girl named Mary knocks on the door and enters the house. And already, while he’s still in the womb in his third trimester of ‘fetushood,’ the child leaps in the womb, pointing his mother and father to the fetus in Mary’s womb – rehearsing his lines for the part he will play when he enters onto the stage that God has set for him – “behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
“Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son.” And all of the neighbors and relatives are so amazed and happy for old Elizabeth and Zechariah. But their amazement had only just begun.
On the 8th day, the Rabbi came to the house to circumcise the child and all the neighbors and relatives came too. Circumcision not only set the child apart and marked him as a child of the God of Israel, it was also the day when the child officially received his name.
And everyone said, “Lizzy, what are you going to name him?” For the past nine months, her mute husband had been trying to explain by writing and whatever sign language he could put together that the angel Gabriel had insisted that the child be named, “John.”
So, Elizabeth answered the neighbors and relatives, “he shall be called John.” And every, ‘no, no. There’s no one in your family with that name. You should name him after his father, Zechariah.” Can you just picture the scene? And finally, Elizabeth had about all she could stand and replied, “No, he shall be called John.”
And in disbelief, every looks at Zechariah who must be waving his arms. He asks for a tablet and wrote, NOT, “his name SHALL BE John,” but “his name IS John.” As if to say, “his name HAS BEEN John from BEFORE HIS CONCEPTION.
And with that, the proud papa has his tongue back again. And after nine months of silence, DOES HE EVER HAVE A LOT TO SAY. “Filled with the Holy Spirit,” he begins to preach a marvelous sermon that he’s had nine months to prepare.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel…” “The Benedictus,” literally, “the good speech” is this ‘SPIRIT FILLED’ father’s thanks and praise to God for this child – who has leads even his own father and mother to “the Christ.”
In the first part of “The Benedictus,” Zechariah pays no attention at all to his newborn son, John. He is “Christ centered,” and “cross focused.”
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham to grant us, that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”
There’s too much here to try to cover in one sermon. But if we could just line up THE VERBS in Zechariah’s prayer, we’ll get the point. The verbs that are directly attributed to the action of God are these:
“He has VISITED and REDEEMED his people.”
“He has RAISED UP a horn of salvation for us…”
“As He SPOKE by the mouth of the holy prophets from of old.”
The DOER of all these verbs is God – “the Lord God of Israel.”
And the first thing we notice about all these verbs is that they are all in the PAST TENSE. Technically, they haven’t actually happened yet – and won’t until the unborn fetus in Mary’s womb is born and is crucified and is raised from the dead. But already, because it is such a sure thing, Zechariah is able to speak as though it is already accomplished.
“He has VISITED” His people.
To ‘visit’ means to come from someplace else in order to be with someone else. We ‘visit’ people whom we want to be near – to celebrate the holidays with them, to help them in a time of need, or simply to maintain the relationship.
The almighty God who dwells in heaven, “has VISITED” His people – His family. He has come from far away to be WITH US in the CONCEPTION and INCARNATION of ‘Christ.” Jesus is “Immanuel” – GOD WITH US. God has ‘VISITED’ us – to be near us, to share in our joys and our sorrows, to help us in our need, to maintain and grow the relationship.
In His ‘visitation,’ He has “redeemed His people.”
“The Lord God of Israel” who is still in Mary’s womb – still 6 months before Christmas – will give His very body and blood as the ultimate and full redemption price to set us free from the grip that Satan and our own sinfulness and even the grave have on us.
He has redeemed us, as St. Peter says, “from the futile ways inherited from our forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. (1 Peter 1:18-19)
“He has RAISED UP a horn of salvation for us.”
In the bible, “horns” are a symbol of strength and power. The ‘horns’ on a bull are the sign of its strength. The altar at the Temple had carved ‘horns’ on the four corners to signify God’s power to protect and save. So if anyone was threatened by someone who was trying to kill them, all they had to do was to hold onto the ‘horns’ on the altar. These were God’s ‘horns of salvation.’
But now, in Jesus Christ, God has “raised up” a new “horn of salvation for us.” He has raised His Son who has visited and redeemed us. And now, all who are threatened by Satan, and sin, and death, may cling to this ‘horn,’ this Jesus Christ, who alone can and does protect and save us.
And all of this is just “as He SPOKE by the mouth of the holy prophets from of old.” For centuries upon centuries, ever since He promised that the offspring of Eve would crush the head of the serpent, prophets have been preaching and proclaiming the GOOD NEWS of what God was going to do – and with such certainty that they spoke in the past tense – as though it was as good as done.
It is to this one, true God who has “visited” and “redeemed” and “saved” us, that Zechariah gives all thanks and praise.
AND THEN he turns to His newborn son and speaks in the FUTURE TENSE, “You, my child, will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways, to given knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their 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, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
The ‘future’ to which Zechariah spoke about the work of his son John, is the present in which we today live as beneficiaries of John’s faithfulness to his calling.
And so today, we give thanks and praise to God for The Nativity of John the Baptist – and for all those who have pointed us to ‘the Christ’ and called us to “repentance” and faith. And we pray that we who “have been delivered from the hand of our enemies, serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness, all the days of our life.”
We stand to sing the Benedictus.