Nativity of St. John the Baptiser
Dear friends in Christ. Today is six months before Christmas and on this day the Church remembers the birth of St. John the Baptiser, the one sent by God to prepare the way for the Savior, Christ Jesus. According to Scripture [Lk. 1.36], John was six months older than Jesus. With the birth of John, the forerunner of Jesus, the first rays of the NT light began to break through the darkness—the Messiah was coming; the sinful world would be reconciled to the holy God; the NT Church would be established!
John is an important figure in Scripture. His coming was already prophesied centuries before by OT prophets. Isaiah [40.3] says of him: The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God”; the Lord spoke through the prophet Malachi [3.1], the last OT prophet to speak before the 400 years of silence before John came on the scene: Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me. When the angel Gabriel announced John’s birth to his father, Zacharias, he said of him [Luke 1.15]: He will be great in the sight of the Lord…He will go before [the Savior] in the spirit and power of Elijah…to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. Even our Lord Himself says later of John [Mt. 11.9], But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet.
As with all the Church’s celebrations and observances of the various saints, they are really celebrations of Christ! Here, with John’s birth being celebrated today, the Church is once again, as it were, thrown back into the Advent and Christmas season when we remember and celebrate the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus, His taking on human flesh and blood. Here, right in the middle of the year—when we are the furthest from both last Christmas and this upcoming Christmas, we are reminded of that central act in the history of our salvation—God becoming man to be our Savior. As we examine our text this morning we will see that as the forerunner of Jesus, the one sent to prepare His way, even John’s birth prepares the way for Jesus.
- John’s miraculous birth foreshadows our Lord’s own, even greater miraculous birth. Our text: Now Elizabeth's full time came for her to be delivered, and she brought forth a son. 58When her neighbors and relatives heard how the Lord had shown great mercy to her, they were rejoicing with her. What made John’s conception and birth so miraculous was that both his father was elderly but also that his mother, Elisabeth, was elderly and well past child-bearing years. And on top of that, for all those years they had been childless. It wasn’t as if John was merely a “surprise”. All hope for any children was long past. That’s the way the Lord works—He so often makes it clear that the gift and blessing He is giving us is not the result of our working and scheming but solely His grace at work for us.
The events surrounding John’s miraculous conception were like this: Zacharias was John’s father; he was a priest and it was his turn to offer up the sacrifice of incense in the temple. As he was doing so, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and said, Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elisabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John; and after Gabriel explains John’s work of preparing the way for the Messiah by preaching repentance, Zacharias doubts and says: "How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years." 19 And the angel answered and said to him, "I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and was sent to speak to you and bring you these glad tidings. 20 But behold, you will be mute and not able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time". Zacharias showed he did not believe because he asks for some sort of a sign; this unbelief was punished by God before all people by causing Zacharias to be speechless.
How gloriously we are prepared to hear the even greater miracle of Jesus’ virgin conception and birth. John was conceived in the normal manner—but it was a miracle of God’s gracious working. Because God was mightily at work here, creating and giving life when by all human reckoning, there was no hope, we look forward today to the miracle at the other end of the spectrum—not the miracle on the aged but on the youth: the virgin birth of our Lord. Our great comfort that we receive today as we celebrate John’s birth is that if God can work a miracle here—granting elderly parents a child, so can He work the even greater miracle of the virgin birth. John’s conception and birth prepares us to hear that great part of the story of our salvation of Jesus’ birth own miraculous birth.
Just as it was for Zacharias, John’s father, so also was it unbelievable for their neighbors and family—these elderly people, with normally no hope for a child, would be parents. Zacharias states the obvious when Gabriel announces John’s conception and work to him: How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years. But the course of events showed that God was faithful to His word and promise—John was born. Precisely because it was so unbelievable, people rejoiced when John was born. When her neighbors and relatives heard how the Lord had shown great mercy to her, they were rejoicing with her. How much greater, then, is our rejoicing when we hear of the virgin birth of Jesus, that the true God became also true man? Yes, the Lord showed great mercy to childless Elisabeth by allowing her to become a mother in her old age; but He showed an even greater mercy by sending John, her son, to prepare the way for Jesus. And this God of mercy showed the greatest mercy to the whole sinful human race in sending His Son, born of a virgin, to be our Savior. As we today hear of Elisabeth’s neighbors and relatives rejoicing with her, how much greater is our rejoicing when we again remember the words of the angel at Jesus’ birth [Lk. 2.10]: Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born for you this day…a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
In our modern age, part of which rejects anything that cannot be “scientifically” proven, that goes against reason; and part of which bases everything on “feeling” and “how it makes you feel”, the “truth-is-relative” crowd; we, on the contrary, by God’s grace, hold fast to the divine truth revealed in holy Scripture. We do not say with Zacharias: How shall I know this? But instead we say with Mary, when she was told she would be the mother of the Savior [Lk. 1.38]: Behold, the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.
The birth of John, then, prepares the way for Jesus by driving home the point that God’s mercy is evident in His works. When her neighbors and relatives heard how the Lord had shown great mercy to her, they were rejoicing with her: God magnifies His mercy when He lets it shine out in remarkable deeds. John’s conception and birth are an example, being the first glimmer of the light of God’s grace in keeping His promise and sending a Savior whose coming is imminent. Of course, God’s greatest act of grace was in the sending of His Son, whose way John prepared.
But also today God’s mercy is evident as He gives us and preserves in our midst His holy word and Sacraments. Through these He is giving us His grace—the forgiveness of sin, life, salvation, peace, joy, etc. that Jesus brought about for us by His life, suffering and death. Today, when you hear His holy Word and receive the Sacraments God is showing you and giving you His great mercy.
- Our text continues: So it was, on the eighth day, that they came to circumcise the child; and they were attempting to call him by the name of his father, Zacharias. 60His mother answered and said, "No, indeed; on the contrary, he shall be called John." 61But they said to her, "There is no one among your relatives who is called by this name." 62 So they started to make signs to his father--what he would have him called. 63 And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, as follows, "His name is John." So they all marveled.
We also see another way that John’s birth prepares the way for Jesus’ birth: both John’s work and Jesus’ work were unique. John’s name tells us of His work. John means “God is gracious.” It is the perfect name to describe his work. John would testify and guarantee that God in His grace was now looking upon His people. That’s because John’s work was to announce the day of the NT, the time of grace to God’s people, because he was to point to the Messiah. To show that this was God’s gracious working, that John was God’s special instrument in His service to prepare His way, John was not to be named after his father, Zacharias, but by the name God had chosen to give him and announced through Gabriel to Zacharias: John. Somehow, while unable to speak, Zacharias had communicated to Elisabeth what had happened and what the angel had said and what their son’s name was to be—probably by writing it. Elisabeth believed and accepted it in faith and resisted all pressure to name her son after Zecharias or any relative: His mother answered and said, "No, indeed; on the contrary, he shall be called John". John was not to follow after even the greatest and best of his relatives.
But why did God choose the name “John” for him? It certainly all has to do with John’s unique work. John’s father and relatives would have been priests of the OT order of the temple and sacrifices. But now the Messiah, Christ Jesus, one greater than Solomon and the temple [Mt. 12.6, 42], is here; and John would begin the proclamation of His NT kingdom of grace. Jesus would build the greater spiritual temple of His body, the Church and, as His forerunner, John would be the first one to usher people into the NT Church, to build up that spiritual temple by pointing people to Christ and His grace and work. His was an office higher and better than any OT priest: He could literally point with His finger to Jesus and say [Jn 1.29]: There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John would in no way be like his ancestors; His work was different. Thus his name would be different from theirs.
As John would be different from any that had come before him, so would Jesus be absolutely different from any that came before or would come after Him. Jesus would be both true God and true man; Jesus would not be born with any stain of sin, without sin inherited from Adam and He Himself would not sin. In fact, He, the sinless One would take our sins upon Himself and suffer and die for them on the cross and by this reconcile the whole sinful human race to the holy God. Jesus would be absolutely unique as He would be the one and only Savior of the world.
Our text also gives a glorious illustration of the meaning of John’s name, “God is gracious” the work that John would one day do. And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, as follows, "His name is John." So they all marveled. 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he began to speak, praising God. When Zacharias wrote: His name is John, that was the outward work to all showing that his doubt had turned to faith and his skepticism had been replaced by adoration. God did not leave him in his unbelief. Instead, through the word He spoke through the angel and by His gracious work confirmed, God worked faith in Zacharias’ heart. God is gracious—He has pity on His believers when they fall and helps them conquer evil with good and unbelief with faith. God is gracious—He sent His Son Jesus to be our Savior and He sent John with His preaching of repentance to prepare the way for Him. In the same way, through the preaching of His Law God prepares us to receive the forgiveness of our sins.
Then fear came on all who dwelt around them; and all these sayings were being discussed throughout all the hill country of Judea. 66 And all those who heard them kept them in their hearts, saying, "What kind of child will this be?" And the hand of the Lord was with him. John prepared the way for Jesus—just as the OT prophets had prophesied. His miraculous birth pointed forward to Jesus’ even more miraculous birth and His unique work prepared the way for Jesus’ unique work. As we remember John’s birth today, it is a celebration of God’s grace to us sinners. INJ Amen.