“The Nativity of St. John the Baptist: Born to Forerun” (Luke 1:57-80)

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist
Sunday, June 24, 2018

“The Nativity of St. John the Baptist: Born to Forerun” (Luke 1:57-80)

Last week I opened the sermon by saying that we are in the “long green meadow” of the church year, that is, the non-festival half of the church year, when the liturgical color is green. But then, here we are today, and the color of the paraments is white! What gives? Well, today is a little exception to that rule, because today, June 24, is one of the more important of the minor festivals, and it happens to fall on a Sunday this year. Today is the day the church celebrates the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. In other words, June 24 is the day for remembering the birth of John the Baptist.

Why June 24? Well, naturally, it’s because it’s six months before Christmas, and John the Baptist was six months older than Jesus. But you say: “Oh, wait, Pastor, if that’s the case, shouldn’t we be celebrating on June the 25th? After all, Christmas is on December 25.” Yes, but due to the way the Romans counted on the calendar, we celebrate John’s birthday on June 24. The Romans counted backward how many days from the start of the next month, and since June has only 30 days, we celebrate the Nativity of St. John the Baptist on June 24.

OK, but why white? Why are the paraments white today? Because white is the color of the Christ festivals, and the birth of John was telling us that the birth of Christ would soon follow. You see, John’s whole life, even from his birth–even from before his birth–was defined by his relation to Christ. John the Baptist was the forerunner of Christ, in his message and his ministry, in his miraculous birth and his martyr’s death. John was literally “Born to Forerun.”

Luke tells the story in the first two chapters of his gospel. The story is told on a two-track model, first telling something about the birth of John, then something about the birth of Jesus. So we get in Luke 1 first the annunciation of the birth of John and then the annunciation of the birth of Jesus. First the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah and tells him that he and Elizabeth are going to have a son, and they should name him John. Then six months later Gabriel appears to the virgin Mary and tells her she is going to have a son, and she should name him Jesus.

Today then we focus on the birth of John, but we always have in mind that his life and his destiny are defined in relation to Jesus. John is born to forerun.

Even his name is significant in that respect. The angel Gabriel had told Zechariah specifically that they are to name the boy John. Now Zechariah and Elizabeth did not have anyone in their family named John, so it was strange that Zechariah would insist on that name for the boy. But John it was, and John it would be. The angel had said so. For this was a name picked out by God. In Hebrew, it’s “Johannan,” which means “The Lord is gracious.” And thus it was a fitting name for this child. John would be the herald of the Lord’s grace, his free favor, coming in the person of the boy born six months later, namely, Jesus. Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ, and John the Baptist would be the one bearing witness to the coming Christ.

People were asking, “What then will this child be?” And Zechariah, filled with the Holy Spirit tells us. But again, this child’s destiny is tied to the child who would be born six months later. The birth of the forerunner signals that the greater one is on his way. And that’s what Zechariah is excited about. He sings: “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.” Who is this “horn of salvation” that the Lord is raising up? It is not John. It is the one who would come after him, Jesus. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one coming from the house of David, the great king of old. Jesus will be the mighty Savior sent from heaven. He will save God’s people from their enemies. This is the mercy that the Lord had promised to the patriarchs, that he would remember his covenant and send such a Savior. Notice, so far Zechariah has not said a word about his son John. It’s all about Jesus, the one who would come later.

But now Zechariah turns to his newborn son John and has some words to say about what his life will be about: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” This little baby boy is going to be a great prophet, a great preacher of God’s word. And so John would grow up to be. The word of the Lord came to John, just as it had come to the prophets of the Old Testament. And John preached the word, boldly and fearlessly, calling the nation to repentance. “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand,” John would preach. “Confess your sins, be baptized, bear fruits fit for repentance. For the mighty one is on his way, and he will clear his threshing floor, separating the wheat from the chaff. The ax is already laid at the root of the tree, and every tree not bearing fruit will be cut down and cast into the fire.” John proclaimed the fiery judgment coming on all those trusting in their own righteousness. “Turn from your sins and live!”

John’s message comes to us today. “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” Do you recognize your sinfulness? Can you recognize particular sins that are symptoms of your deeper disease? How have you broken God’s commandments? What other gods have you been listening to rather than the word of the Lord? Probably yourself, because self is the biggest idol, the number one false god in the world. We all want to be our own god, listening to our own desires rather than to God’s will. And that is sin, and it merits God’s wrath and judgment. So John’s job will be to call us on that. He won’t let us get away with it, sweeping our sin under the rug. We can’t hide from God.

But there will be more to John’s ministry than just the preaching of the Law. John will grow up to be a beautiful preacher of the Gospel, the Good News. Zechariah prophesies it: “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.” The forgiveness of their sins–there it is! The purpose of pointing out people’s sins is so that they will repent, give up on themselves, and turn to the Lord for forgiveness! God is not out to condemn you. God is out to save you, to forgive you and to save you for eternity! This is God’s purpose and his proper work. And John was called to this ministry. Isaiah foretold it: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Tell her that her iniquity is pardoned.” And John the Baptist would be that voice crying in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord.

Listen, people: God is sending that same message to you today! No, John is not here. But God has sent somebody here, a preacher, to proclaim this same good news to you. Dear brothers and sisters, your iniquity is pardoned! Your sins are forgiven! God has said so. God has made it so. Believe it and receive it!

“Because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high.” Jesus Christ is that bright morning-star shining upon us. The Son of God came down from heaven and broke into our sin-darkened world. Jesus Christ, true God and true man, came and fulfilled God’s Law in our place. He is our righteousness. And because of God’s tender mercy, this same Jesus even died on the cross as your substitute, bearing the full weight of our sins on his most innocent shoulders. Christ shed his holy blood for you. He is the perfect sacrifice, atoning for all your sins. “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” So John would point to Christ as the great sin-bearer.

“To give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” That’s Christ for us. He is the light of the world, the light shining in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. The world sure is trying to overcome it, to keep the light from shining on their evil deeds, of which they are so proud. But the darkness has been defeated and will not succeed. Jesus is building his church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

“To give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” Do you need light for your path? Jesus will supply it. Stay diligent in God’s word, be regular in Word and Sacrament, and you will see the light. Jesus will give you light, even in the shadow of death. Jesus rose from the dead on that Sunday morning long ago. He knows the way through death, out and up from it. Christ will be your leader. He is your good shepherd. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Brothers and sisters, you have been joined to Jesus in Holy Baptism, and he will lead the way for you through that deadly valley and out onto the other side, the eternal kingdom of light and life.

“To guide our feet into the way of peace.” Ahh, peace! There will be peace in the valley. God is at peace with you, dear friend! Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. The conflict is ended. The separation is no more. Christ has reconciled us back to the Father.

So this is what John was born to do, to proclaim Jesus, to be the forerunner of this great Savior, Jesus Christ. Notice, I haven’t said too much about John today. I’ve spoken more about Jesus. And that would be perfectly OK with John. “He must increase; I must decrease,” John the Baptist would say. That was the path set out for John at his birth. For he was born to forerun.

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Published in: on June 23, 2018 at 8:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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