The Nativity of St. John the Baptist, June 24th, Year of Our + Lord 2012
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
The silence of the law is finally over. Today we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist, six months and a day before the celebration of Jesus’ birth. John’s father, Zechariah, had borne the burden of God’s law through nine months of silence. Zechariah was a priest and a faithful Israelite, along with his wife, Elizabeth, with whom he had also endured another burden of the law, the burden of barrenness. That is, through many long decades of marriage, they had never received the blessing of a child, yet another consequence of human sinfulness, not the parents’ particular fault, just the sad fact that some marriages are not fruitful, even though God created marriage in order that we might fill the earth with more and more people for God to bless.
Who knows how many words of mourning, how many cries and tears came from Zechariah and Elizabeth, because they had no child. But then, near the end of their lives, during the reign of King Herod, while Zechariah was taking his turn in the priestly service rotation, burning the daily incense at the altar of the LORD, the angel Gabriel appears to him with great news: Zechariah and Elizabeth will have a son! And this son would be special, bringing joy to many, being filled with the Holy Spirit from the womb, a prophet sent before the Lord to prepare His Way.
Despite the visit by the angel, and despite the promised blessing, Zechariah doubts the Word which Gabriel declared to him. Consequently, to prepare Zechariah to receive this promise with gladness, God’s messenger announced a silent law. Nine months Zechariah would be mute, unable to speak, nine months of daily reminder that he had been given a special message of good news from the LORD, but doubted.
But now, today, a son is born, and his name will be John. With this acknowledgement of the Word of God that had been spoken by Gabriel, Zechariah’s tongue is loosed into a tremendous blessing, an expression of purest gospel, a burst of singing given by God to Zechariah, and recorded by Luke for us to hear and sing, the good news of the LORD’s salvation, coming to Israel, right now. Zechariah had suffered through nine months’ of silence, but now his unique blessing is to sing this song, called the Benedictus, a song of great joy and promise, a song about the coming Christ child, and about John, who would go before the LORD to prepare His way, to give His people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. What a blessing. In fact the name Benedictus means blessed, from the first line of the song: Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, for He has come to His people and redeemed them.
What a blessing for Zechariah. Nine long months of tough discipline were a burden, no doubt, but in this song a wonderful privilege, to proclaim such sweet Gospel. This is also God’s blessing for Zechariah’s son John, to proclaim good news to God’s people, to comfort Israel by telling her that her warfare is ended and her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. And this double back gift is Jesus Christ, the One whose way John came to prepare. Yes, John’s blessing was in the end just like Zechariah’s, the blessing of being called to tell forth the Good News of Jesus Christ. John’s blessing was the same, only different. John too, is given to preach good news, but the Law and the Gospel are more intertwined for the Baptist. Zechariah suffered through nine months of silent law, but then broke forth in pure good news, the only public proclamation that we can for sure say Zechariah ever made.
Not so John. John preached for years, day after day. And like any life time preacher, he was not given just one period of law preaching, followed by a long straight shot of only joyful Gospel. No, John had to keep coming back to the Law, over and over again, in the harshest fashion. Repent, John cried, repent, again and again, proclaiming the bitter truth of human sin, in order that the Law could prepare sinners to hear and believe the Good News that in Christ Jesus, the Law is fulfilled and our sins are forgiven.
Preachers don’t get to choose the path of their ministry. If they could, I think I would choose Zechariah’s path. Nine months of silence? I’m sure that would be difficult. But then, to be given such a sermon to preach, to sing even, a sermon song that the Church would take up and continue to sing, until Christ returns. That sounds wonderful to me.
We should be more watchful for opportunities to proclaim pure Gospel, pure Good News about Christ and His salvation. Pastors and people together should be on the lookout for opportunities to declare the utterly surprising and joy-filled message of God’s love for the world, poured out in Jesus Christ. Because most people still think the message of the Christian Church is shape yourself up, or you’ll go to hell. That Christ came to forgive sinners because we can’t shape ourselves up, that He gives the gift of forgiveness totally free, apart from any works on our part, this is good news that by and large most people don’t know or don’t understand. So we should watch for opportunities to speak of Christ’s forgiveness, watch for and seize them.
We should seize them when we can, because, more often than not, the proclamation required by any given moment in our lives is more mixed, more like John the Baptist, less like Zechariah. This is because the Gospel is good news only to those who know their predicament, their sin and the punishment deserved, their impending death and the eternal hell they lives have earned. Without an understanding of our guilt and God’s wrath, sinners may hear the message of good news, but doubt that they need it. Very rarely do we come across people in open desperation, eager to hear of the Savior. No, more often than not, there is a glaring problem that must be addressed, before the hearer is ready for the Gospel.
All too often, the problem is a callousness, a hardening toward God and His Word, a seared conscience that feels no guilt. People are dwelling in darkness and the shadow of death, and yet want nothing to do with the Way of Christ, because although salvation is by the free gift of forgiveness, Christ does call His people to a life of love toward God and neighbor. God’s Law does not save us, but it still stands. Christians are called to reject the passions and desires of sin. But these are what so many people spend every waking hour trying to fulfill. Sexual fantasy, psychotic escape through drugs or alcohol, the thrill of material gain, the sadistic pleasure of hurting and dominating others, for the person caught up in such sins, the conscience is very nearly dead, and must be awakened by the condemnation of God’s threatening wrath. The wages of sin is death, and not some peaceful escape to nothingness, but rather death leading into a real place of real punishment, gnawing pain from a fire that does not go out. Brood of vipers, cries out John, who warned you to flee the wrath to come?
Ironically, these famous words from the Baptist were directed at those who appeared the most moral, the most religious. This should frighten us most of all, that the hardest hearts, the most deeply seared consciences can belong to those who actively portray themselves as good, Godly people. There is a great irony here, for those most obviously disobeying God’s Law are oftentimes ready to admit their guilt, like the tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners who were always clamoring after Jesus. Meanwhile the outwardly religious close their ears and harden their hearts, pretending that God can’t see how they act when no one from Church is around, how they behave in their own home, what wicked thoughts and desires they cherish in their hearts.
How do we know these things are true? Well, we know from our own lives, from our hearts, from our memories, and from our thoughts right now, don’t we? We all know people who are hardened against God’s Word, people who seek after the thrills and pleasures of the flesh, who beat down and ignore their consciences till almost nothing’s left. And we all know people who put on a show of religiosity, but who privately are full of pride and bitterness. We all know such people, for such people are we. This is a fearsome thing, that even after we have been claimed by and called to follow the One whom John proclaimed, still we don’t live righteously, as the Baptized should.
So yes, we know from our lives. But not quite fully. No, God’s Word declares that our sinfulness is so deep, we cannot even understand it, that while our conscience can become more aware of sin, still there are yet deeper sins of which we do not know. God’s Word declares that we sinful through and through, even when we are doing our very best not to be sinful.
And so, in order to give comfort, true, eternal comfort, the true knowledge of salvation, first John and every preacher must proclaim the condemnation of the Law. So John’s task was often difficult, for the sinner in each of us hates to be condemned. John’s calling was difficult, and dangerous, eventually costing him his head. But John did it for joy, from a confident hope, proclaiming the bitter Law because John knew the Gospel was even sweeter. Because God, finding no one who could fulfill His will for mankind, and even less finding someone who could shoulder the burden of mankind’s debt for sin, came Himself. Six months after John the Baptist, the LORD God Himself was born into His Creation, the eternal Son sent by the Father, to redeem the world with His own life, death and resurrection. Look, said John, look you sinners, behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Watch Him, and see your salvation, dying and rising again.
You and I will never get past our need to hear God’s Law, not until the LORD calls us to Himself. And we don’t just need God’s Law as a guidebook for living, as if we have got this Christianity thing under control. No, we will always need God’s Law to point out our own sinfulness, that we be reminded daily to flee to Jesus, bringing Him our sins, for this is what He truly wants from us. And that we never doubt we can run to Jesus, we would do well to remember Zechariah’s song. We might even memorize this sermon song about the blessed LORD who saves His people, who gives knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sins. Yes, even more we need to hear and proclaim God’s Way, of how He forgives the iniquity of His people, by covering all our sin in the blood of Jesus, withdrawing His wrath, turning from His anger and showering us with blessings, declaring our warfare to be ended and our iniquity pardoned.
The sunrise from on high has risen upon us, because Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, and is with His Church unto the end of the age. Jesus is God’s gift to you, double back for all your sins. So preached Zechariah. So preached John. So declares God. Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, and blessed are you, Amen.