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

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon and Sweet Home, OR

Nativity of St. John the Baptist + June 24, 2018

Text: Luke 1:57-80

“How is the Bible relevant to me today?”  This is the question of the day.  How does it speak to my experience and what practical advice can I glean from it?  That attitude predominates most of what you’ll find in Christian bookstores.  Authors try to make Scripture relevant to people’s lives.

 

In the Gospel reading, we see quite the opposite approach.  Instead of seeing their lives at the center of the universe, Zechariah and Elizabeth understand their lives as described by God’s Word, not just according to their own private experience.

 

Indeed they were the second elderly couple to conceive and bear a son of promise, but Zechariah’s song, called the Benedictus, gives deeper insight than a biblical “me too!”  The Spirit-breathed interpretation of what was happening tells the whole story, not just about John’s birth, but about God’s whole plan of salvation from the beginning of the world.  So Zechariah is filled with the Holy Spirit and sings:

 

68“Blessed is the Lord God of Israel,

For He has visited and redeemed His people,

69And has raised up a horn of salvation for us

In the house of His servant David,

70As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets,

Who have been since the world began,

 

This birth fits right in with God’s plans from of old.  A forerunner to the Messiah must be born, as the Lord had told us in Malachi and Isaiah 40 (which we heard today).  John was that man in the spirit and power of Elijah which God had appointed. (Mal. 4:5-6)  He was to be the voice of one crying in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. (Isa. 40:3)  It wasn’t to inflate John or his parents and make them feel more special about their child; it was the glorious wisdom of God bringing His plans to fruition.

 

I’ve been into digital photography for a number of years.  Over that time, the images have gotten larger and more detailed.  That becomes a problem when you bring it over to the computer and it opens at 100% zoom.  That picture you took of the whole family might only show your sister’s chin.  What you have to do in order to see the whole picture is zoom out, and choose the option “Fit to screen.”

 

This is like what Zechariah’s prophecy, the Benedictus, does in relation to John’s birth.  John’s birth is one event in the whole history of the world, God guiding all of it.  It’s zoomed in on one moment, but this prophecy invites us to fit the whole picture of salvation history into a single frame.

 

So, the prophecy continues:

 

71That we should be saved from our enemies

And from the hand of all who hate us,

72To perform the mercy promised to our fathers

And to remember His holy covenant,

73The oath which He swore to our father Abraham:

74To grant us that we,

Being delivered from the hand of our enemies,

Might serve Him without fear,

75In holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life.

 

From the beginning of the world, tracing the promise of a Savior through Abraham, here is the content of that promise: To be saved from our enemies (namely the devil and his demonic host), for they truly do hate all people who belong to God through faith.  A pastor and I were discussing why it isn’t a good idea to baptize someone without their being connected to a congregation. It’s because Baptism paints a big target on their back, at which the Devil is looking to throw all his fiery darts.

 

The Benedictus goes on to the promise of God showing mercy to the generations of His people who came before, a holy covenant promised on oath to Abraham: “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you…in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.”[1]  This was in connection with the offering of Abraham’s son which found its true fulfillment in God offering His Son, His only Son to bring all who believe the blessings of: Deliverance from the hand of our enemies; serving God without fear of sin and judgment; and being made holy to live before Him in righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

 

But then there’s this amazing switch in the Benedictus:

76“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest;

For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways,

77To give knowledge of salvation to His people

By the remission of their sins,

78Through the tender mercy of our God,

With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us;

79To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,

To guide our feet into the way of peace.”

 

Did you catch that?  It gets personal!  All of this big picture of salvation history, spanning generations and lands, and now it’s come home: You, child.  The life of Zechariah and his family falls right into this big picture of the history of God and His people, sacred history.  Sacred history is their history.

 

In that way, it’s no different for us in the Church.  Of course I’m not saying that your child is going to repeat the ministry of John the Baptist, but what we can rejoice in is that all of the tender mercies we hear about in Scripture are ours too.  The Dayspring from on high has visited and redeemed us from the darkness of sin and the shadow of death.  Rather than wandering in arid wastes, He has guided our feet into the way of peace in Jesus Christ.[2]  This isn’t a story about other people; it’s about us—our forerunners in the faith, our brothers and sisters today, the church to come, and the eternal peace which God has accomplished for His people with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.

 

It’s this narrative of God’s work in history that we rehearse and meditate on every time we come to worship.  It’s our touchstone to what God is doing in the world and even in our own life.  In Confession and Absolution, we receive again the good news of Easter: Your sin nailed Jesus to the cross, and the Lord has taken away your sin.  In the readings, we the story of God’s people including us, we hear instruction given to the churches but also to us, and we hear His gracious promises spoken at that time but reaffirmed today.  In the Creed (and the Te Deum) we confess with all the faithful people of God who He is, what He has done, the peace He has for us today, and the hope He has for us in the resurrection and eternity.  In the Lord’s Supper, we both remember what He has done and also receive that grace and strength in the moment on our tongues.  All of worship is a rehearsal anew of God’s people who have been brought into God’s history.

 

This is what I pray you hear when you read Scripture.  God isn’t just giving you an instruction manual, a rule book, or a self-help guide.  God forbid that the Bible is ever seen as a self-help guide!  “The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear Him, in those who hope in His steadfast love.” (Ps. 147:11)  No, the pages of Scripture describe to us God who created us, us who rebelled and inherited an evil heart, and God who continually is at work seeking those who are in darkness and bear the burden of death.

 

This vision of seeing ourselves in the whole of Scripture does two things: It tempers our fears and it breaks our pride.  It tempers our fears which naturally are zoomed into our daily struggles and what our eyes see.  I’m a wretched man who can’t seem to do any better.  The Church is in shambles and people compare her to a sinking ship.  The world is getting more powerful and chaotic and nobody seems to be able to stop it.

 

2Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” (Psalm 90:2)

 

This God who made heaven and earth, who orders the universe and upholds all things by the word of His power, is the one who reveals Himself in the pages of Scripture.  He makes Himself known as your God, your Redeemer, the one who holds the entire future in His hands.  He will neither leave you nor forsake you.  What can man do to you when the Lord is at your side? [3]  As for the world, as Psalm 2 declares, He who sits in the heavens laughs at those who set themselves as His enemies and seek to break apart His bonds.

 

This whole-Scripture view also breaks our pride.  There’s a tendency in every generation to think we are smarter than those who came before us.  It’s manifest in the idea that we’re more evolved than those Cretans who came before us.  Israel made a golden calf and called it their God who brought them out of Israel?  What idiots!  But as soon as someone in our day suggests congregations combine and sell their properties, our devotion to these created, beautiful, and costly things called buildings comes out.  We, too, are idolaters.

 

This is St. Paul’s point when he writes to the Corinthians.  First, he reminds them that “these things [in Scripture] took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did,” but then he concludes by saying, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. 13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.”  Meaning: watch out buster, you are just as susceptible to idolatry, sensuality, faithlessness, and any other sin as any others who came before us or will come after us.  Jesus came to seek and to save sinners!  Therefore Paul comforts us in our temptations: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:6-13)  Repent and the Lord will have mercy and save you, just like He did all those who came before you.

 

Go from this place reminded, or perhaps hearing it anew, the great things which God has done for you.  It isn’t all on you, and you are not all alone.  You are part of a great cloud of witnesses, of prophets, apostles, martyrs, and all God’s people who together acknowledge Him to be the Lord who has visited and redeemed His people.  Surely a great host, but He has counted us among them.  Amen.

[1] Genesis 22:16-18

[2] Psalm 107:1-22

[3] Hebrews 13:6

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