The Nativity of St. John the Baptist
June 24, 2018
Text: Luke 1:57-80
The Nativity of St. John the Baptist is a dry run for Christmas. John is the forerunner of the Christ, our Lord Jesus. He prepares the way of the Lord. Not just in preaching, but in his birth, his Baptism, and in his martyr’s death. John’s birth parallels our Lord’s in so many ways. Both births were prophesied from of old, from ancient times. In our Old Testament, Isaiah tells us of the voice who will cry in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord by calling for repentance and comforting with forgiveness (Is. 40:1-5). He’s talking about St. John. The same prophet tells us that the virgin will conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His Name “Immanuel,” which means, “God with us” (Is. 7:14). He tells us this Son will grow up to be the promised Suffering Servant who will bear our griefs and carry our sorrows, be wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities, yet in making this offering unto death for our sins, He will see His offspring, His days shall be prolonged, and the will of the LORD will prosper in His hands. That is to say, He will rise from the dead. This beautiful prophecy of our Lord Jesus Christ is found in Isaiah 53.
The births of the two are both miraculous. John is born of an old woman well past her prime, Elizabeth, bringing to mind the miraculous conceptions and births of the Old Testament, particularly that of Sarah who gives birth to Isaac in her old age. All the miraculous births in the Bible point us to the greatest of miraculous births, our Lord Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary.
Both of the boys receive their names from the angel, and one points to the other. The son of Zechariah and Elizabeth is to be named John (Luke 1:13), much to the surprise of the crowds (vv. 59-63), and his name points to his vocation as forerunner. John means “Gift of YHWH,” and that is what he is: a gift to this barren couple in their old age, a gift to the world in his preaching and pointing to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). The Son of Mary, the Son of God, is to be named Jesus, which means “YHWH saves,” for that is what He has come to do, to save His people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). Both boys receive their name at 8 days old, in the shedding of their blood by circumcision, John first, the forerunner, Jesus the fulfillment. It is the first shedding of our Savior’s precious blood for our redemption. He is saving His people from their sins. He is doing His Name, Jesus, YHWH saves.
And there are so many other parallels. John always comes first, preparing the way. Jesus always comes as fulfillment. John decreases. Jesus increases. So it must be. It is the plan of God from all eternity. John baptizes with water, but Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire. John’s baptism is prophetic. Jesus’ Baptism is fulfillment. You are baptized by Jesus, Baptism in all its fullness, in the Name of our Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, delivering all that John’s baptism prophesied and foreshadowed.
And of course, John’s forerunning would not be complete apart from his martyr’s death. John is imprisoned in a dungeon and spills his blood for preaching the truth to Herod and Herodias: It is not lawful for a man to have his brother’s wife. Adultery and divorce are detestable to God. Even then, preaching biblical truth about marriage and sex brought down the wrath of the government. John’s head is delivered on a silver platter as a reward for Salome’s lewd dance. How is that for foreshadowing? John dies for the sins of the Herod family. In his case, his death doesn’t make atonement, but it is the direct result of sin, and it is the righteous one dying for the sins of the unrighteous. It all points us to Jesus, arrested for preaching the truth that He is the Son of God and the Savior of the world, put to death for the sins of the people… all people, and that means you. The Righteous One dies for all the unrighteous ones. But His death does atone for sin. His death undoes death. And this time, He goes first. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. He’ll raise St. John, head and all. He’ll raise you, and give eternal life to you and all believers in Jesus Christ.
John is the forerunner, and so at his birth, his father Zechariah sings a Christmas carol. The Benedictus, we call it, which means “Blessed be,” and we still sing it today in the morning office, Matins. Zechariah, remember, was struck dumb when he failed to believe the angel’s prophecy of John’s birth (Luke 1:20). But the moment he wrote, “His name is John” (v. 63; ESV), his tongue was loosed, and his first words were this hymn of praise. And they’re all about Jesus! They’re all about what Jesus does. Remember, praise is not just some endless string of exclamations about how great God is, like He needs some kind of affirmation for His self-esteem. Praise is telling what it is that’s so great about God, what He’s done for us and for our salvation. And Zechariah does not disappoint. God has visited and redeemed His people, Zechariah sings (v. 68). He has come, in the flesh, to be among us and be one of us, and to give His life into death for us, that our death be turned into life! God has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David (v. 69). The King is being born, the Son of David who is greater than David, David’s Lord and ours. It’s what He spoke by the mouth of the holy prophets. It is salvation from our enemies (vv. 70-71). It is the end of sin, death, and the devil. It is the mercy of God promised to Abraham and all our fathers, to remember His holy covenant, the covenant forged in blood, not just the blood of bulls and goats, but the blood of this Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (vv. 72-73). All of this so that we be reconciled to God and serve Him all our days, without fear of punishment, without fear of rejection or condemnation, in holiness and righteousness forever (74-75). Then, and only then, he gets to John. But it’s still all about Jesus. “And you, child,” John, my son, you “will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways” (v. 76). John is the forerunner. And He will prepare the way of Jesus Christ by preaching. He will preach the knowledge of salvation. He will preach the forgiveness of sins. He will preach the tender mercy of God. God is not against us. He is for us. He sends His Son. And this news, this Gospel, is light for those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death. It guides our feet into the way of peace (vv. 76-79).
“Comfort, comfort my people,” God says through the prophet Isaiah, as He promises the birth of John (Is. 40:1). John is born, and does just that. He comforts God’s people by preaching. And in the preaching, all things are leveled and straightened. Every valley is lifted up. The poor have good news preached to them. Sinners are forgiven. The dying are brought to life. And every mountain and hill is made low. The haughty are leveled. Pride goes before a fall. Pharisees and good Christian folk are told that tax collectors and sinners march into the Kingdom of God before them. Repent. Repent of your sins. Repent of your self-righteousness. For the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it (vv. 4-5). It will be a terror to those outside the faith and forgiveness of Christ. It will be the eternal joy of those who are in Him. This is the whole sum and substance of John’s life and preaching and baptism and death.
Everything about St. John the Baptist is, finally, all about Jesus. And now we know how to read the Bible and how to hear preaching. The Bible talks in some places about St. John, and in other places about any number of other people and things. But all of it, in every place, is about Jesus. When a preacher preaches, his topic may be about any number of the teachings of the Scriptures, the particularities of Christian faith and life, this or that episode in biblical history, and it may relate to any number of things going on in your life and in the world today. But all of it, in every place, is about Jesus. It is about Jesus Christ for you. Or at least it should be. This is how you can evaluate a sermon. Is it about you and how you can live a better life by following steps x, y, and z? That is not a Christian sermon. That preacher is being unfaithful. Or is the sermon about Jesus Christ and what He has done to save you from your sins, reconcile you to the Father, and give you eternal life? That is what every sermon should be about. Sure, there will be Law. Do this. Don’t do that. Repent of your sins. But the Law accuses you so that you know just how much you need Jesus. The Law serves the Gospel. The Law robs you of any righteousness of your own. It imprisons you under sin, and ultimately, it kills you. The Law is good. But you are not. And that is why the Law has its way with you. The Gospel gives you Jesus, who releases you from your bondage and raises you to new and eternal life. A sermon that leaves you in the Law, leaves you dead and damned. A sermon that preaches the Gospel gives you Jesus, who gives you His life and salvation.
It’s not quite Christmas in July, but this morning and every June 24th we get a little forerunner of Christmas in the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. How appropriate. John goes before. But even as he goes before, he fades from the scene so that our eyes focus on Jesus. John decreases. Jesus increases. It’s all about Jesus. Jesus crucified. Jesus risen from the dead. Jesus for you. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.