Friday, June 29, 2012

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist (Luke 1:57-80)

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon on this, the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the first chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, he was a miracle child, born to a barren woman well past the age of child-bearing. He had a special name, given to him by God through his parents. When his relatives objected, Zechariah wrote, “His name is John,” and his mouth was opened, his tongue was loosed. A miraculous birth and a strange name, if nothing else, get people talking: “And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, ‘What then will this child be?’” What, indeed, is John all about? We know about his fiery message and his strange appearance, but what is less clear is whether he is necessary, especially to us today. Is he simply some footnote to the history of Jesus, a strange sideshow that we watch before the main event? Many Christians probably wouldn’t notice if he wasn’t even in the Gospels. Is John really worth taking a whole Sunday to commemorate, to have the altar guild switch the paraments to white only to change them back again? What’s so special about John? Do we even need him?

The free have no need of John; those who don’t wear chains, who have no taskmasters, have little use for him. But if you are enslaved, you need John. If you are in bondage to your sin, chained and shackled to it, you need John. If you have a sin that you cannot shake, that you cannot escape, that follows you closely each and every day, you need John. All sin enslaves, all sin puts us into bondage. Some sins are enslaving by their very nature, such as drugs, alcohol, or lust, but all sin is addictive, all sin enslaves. All sin requires complete allegiance. If your sin is a slave-driver, constantly demanding more, constantly placing itself above all else, you need John. If you cannot escape on your own, no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you struggle, no matter how many programs you go through, you need John.

You need John because he proclaims the redemption of Almighty God. Zechariah sang about the birth of his son: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people.” John has come to declare that God has visited His people; He has come down in the person of Jesus Christ to free you from bondage. He has come down to redeem you, to pay the required price to set you free, to pay the price that you couldn’t pay. Zechariah may not have known what that price would be, but John did. He extended his finger toward Jesus and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Jesus would be the price of redemption, the price of freedom, for He is the Lamb without blemish or spot who would be offered up as the sacrifice for sin. Redemption’s price was the blood and death of the innocent Son of God. You need John because He points you to the One who sets you free: Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.

If you live a carefree life, you have no need of John; those who are unopposed in all that they do, who aren’t harried or persecuted by anyone or anything, have little use for him. But if you have enemies, you need John. If you have felt Satan’s hot breath on your neck, tempting you to sin, tempting you to despair, tempting you to give up, you need John. Satan means to destroy you; he wants you in hell with him, and he is persistent. He knows all of your weak spots, he knows how to attack them. He knows how to wield his allies, sin and death, with devastating effect. If you struggle with cancer, heart disease, stroke, or a whole host of other maladies, you need John. Despite all our advances in medical technology, despite all the diseases we have cured, we cannot defeat death. If your body is mortal, if you will die one day, you need John.

You need John because he proclaims the victory over all your enemies. Zechariah sang: “[God] 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.” John proclaims the One who has come to defeat our enemies, the Messiah from the house of David, the one prophesied throughout the Old Testament, Jesus Christ. Jesus has come to defeat our enemies, to crush Satan’s head by dying in your place on the cross, to rob death of its power by conquering the grave on Easter morning. Now, when Satan tempts you, when death threatens you, you know that they are defeated enemies, conquered by your Savior. You need John because he points you to the one who has defeated sin, death and the devil on your behalf, your crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ.

If your world is full of light, you have no need of John; those who walk in roses each and every day, who never have troubles, calamities, or sufferings, have little use for him. But if you walk in darkness, you need John. If you look around you and see a world filled with sin and sorrow, you need John. The darkness is overwhelming in a world that is self-centered, that despises God and His Word, a world that has little regard for human life. The darkness creeps around you when you struggle with your own sin or the effects of the sins of others. The darkness encroaches upon your life when you suffer. If you have seen the destructive power of nature, if you have watched your family torn apart, if you have suffered in any way, you need John. Ever since the fall into sin, sorrow and suffering defines our lives in this world. If darkness is all you see, you need John.

You need John because He proclaims the coming of the Light. Zechariah sung that his son would declare “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.” When Jesus was born, the sun rose on this darkened earth. He came to give light to those sitting in darkness, to the ones dwelling in the shadow of death. His light drives the darkness away, for His light is the light of salvation. You have a God who loves you, who cares for you, despite all that happens to you in this world of sin. You know that because of the cross of Christ! Light shines forth from the cross especially in the midst of the darkness. The cross defines God’s relationship with you, not the suffering you are now experiencing. You need John because he points you to the Light of the world, the sunrise that drives away all darkness.

If you are confident and sure of yourself, you have no need of John; those who have everything figured out, who never doubt, have little use for him. But if you face any trouble in this life and don’t know where to turn, you need John. If you cannot handle your problems on your own, you need John. There are plenty of sources for advice in our world, all promising to take care of your problems, to guide you in the right direction. But the trouble is, they are all human, too. They are tainted with the same sin that afflicts you. And none of them can deal with that sin, the ultimate source of every one of your problems. As much as they can help, they cannot get at the very root of your maladies. If no human means can deliver you from whatever afflicts you, you need John.
You need John, for His finger is constantly pointed from himself to another, the One who has delivered you from all afflictions. Zechariah sums up his son’s mission in this way: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their sins.” John came to prepare, to make ready the way of the Lord. His task was revelation, he was to reveal God’s condemnation of sin and the salvation that was to come. You need John, for he reveals Jesus as the One who has dealt with your sin through His death and resurrection. He points you to Jesus and His forgiveness, given abundantly here in this place through Absolution, pulpit, font, and altar. John points you to Jesus in every situation you find yourself in as you walk through this life. John’s answer to each and every problem that faces you in this world? Look to Jesus. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

We commemorate John on this day because He points us to Jesus, never to himself. He never claimed to be the Messiah, only a messenger making ready the way of the Lord. We celebrate Saint John the Baptist on June 24th because Luke tells us he was born six months before Jesus, whose birth we of course celebrate on December 24th. There are six months until we celebrate the coming of light into this darkened world. Six months until we see God’s plan of salvation, foreshadowed by John’s birth and prophesied by Zechariah, put into action. In the old calendar used in the time of the early Church, the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist fell on the longest day of the year, while Christmas Eve was the shortest. So after the Nativity of John, the days grew shorter, while after the Nativity of Jesus, the days grew longer. As John himself said, “He must increase, I must decrease.”

Therefore, today, and every day that we commemorate one of God’s saints, we do not look at them, but to where their finger points; we look to Christ, the one they put their trust in, the one to whom they would have us look. They decrease so that He can increase. Only Jesus has brought us freedom from bondage, salvation from our enemies, light in the darkness; in short, the answer to all our afflictions, through His death and resurrection on our behalf. Only He is the Lamb of God, offered up for the sin of the world, offered up for you sin, so that you will have a seat at the heavenly table with John and all the saints, forever and ever. In the Name of Jesus, proclaimed by Saint John the Baptist even from his birth, Amen.

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