The Way of Joy

Text: Luke 1:57-80
Date: Nativity of John the Baptist
+ 6/24/07

     This day we are reminded that there remain exactly six months until Christmas Eve. We are reminded not, of course, in order that we might begin Christmas shopping quite yet. We’ve only recently gotten out the barbecue grill, swim suits and fishing poles. No, this reminder is yet another one of those times when the Church imitates the actual passage of time of a Biblical event; here the commemoration of the Nativity, the birth, circumcision and naming of the forerunner of Jesus Christ, John the Baptist. He is remembered with special devotion as, at once, the last prophet of the Old Testament and the first evangelist of the New. He is the promised Elijah-figure, as the prophet Malachi said it some 400 years earlier, who is sent “before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes,” who “will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (Mal. 4:5-6; Mt. 11:13-14). In one way this day is even more important than Christmas for, whereas only two of the New Testament Gospels, Matthew and Luke, begin with the Christmas story, all four of them begin with the arrival of John the Baptist! He is mentioned 100 times in the New Testament, more than any other person except Jesus, Peter, and Paul.

     The account of his miraculous birth in Luke’s Gospel precedes and parallels the miraculous birth of Jesus. It was by a very special favor of God that the angel Gabriel was sent to announce to Zechariah that he and his wife Elizabeth were to have a son, even in their old age. As with Jesus, the angel commanded that this child would have a God-given name, John, which means, “The Lord is gracious.” “He will be a joy and delight to you,” said the angel, “and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord…and filled with the Holy Spirit…and he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah…to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Lk. 1:14-17). The note of joy and rejoicing surrounds the story of John the Baptist because of the great good news he was called and sent to announce.

     It is of this birth and this good news that his father, Zechariah prophesied in his canticle. It is called the Benedictus from the first word in Latin translated, “Blessed.” “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people.” Don’t miss the interesting, Spirit-inspired detail of these words, namely, that it is all spoken in the past tense, as if John’s ministry and our redemption and salvation is already an accomplished fact, so certain is the plan and are the purposes of God.

     “God has redeemed his people.” To “redeem” means to buy back from slavery by paying the required purchase price. The coming Savior would save all mankind from our slavery to sin and death, not with silver or gold, but with the precious blood of His own perfect sacrifice. This is according to God’s holy covenant, “the oath that he swore to our father Abraham” beginning already in the 12th chapter of Genesis. John prepared the way for this great gift by preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

     Notice also that these words are spoken on the eighth day after little John’s birth when he was brought to the temple for the required sacramental rite of circumcision. God instituted this sign to be done on the eighth day because the eighth day is the eternal day, the day of eternal life. It is why most traditional baptismal fonts are designed with eight sides, signifying the new birth of eternal life by water and the Spirit. And it is why the Christian Church, to this day, meets for the Divine Service on Sunday, the eighth day, or eternal day of the week. The bloody covenant of circumcision was applied to each individual male of God’s people. This covenant of blood signified a right relationship between God and his people. It was the covenant of promise that was brought to fulfillment and completion in the new covenant of the blood of the Messiah. His holy blood the price, shed on the cross, and our food or “transfusion” of eternal life as we receive it in the sacrament of the altar.

     Only now, in the second half of Zechariah’s song, do his words switch to the future tense as he speaks specifically of the infant child, John. He will be called “the prophet of the Most High,” the “greatest” prophet of God as Jesus would call him later. For his mission and purpose was to “go before the Lord to prepare his way.” “The way” is a prominent theme in Luke’s Gospel and his book of Acts. It is the way of catechesis, the instruction and road of the Christian life. As salvation comes from outside of ourselves, as a gift, it must be heard, received and learned in the Word of God. It is the new way, the narrow way, and we are continually in need of hearing, receiving and learning it. John will prepare Jesus’ way to Jerusalem. But whereas old Israel did not faithfully follow the ways of the Lord, Jesus would do so living the perfect, godly life and, by his journey and its bloody end, will accomplish redemption.

     And what is the heart of that way and of this redemption? What is the main, central thing when it comes to salvation in Christ? Zechariah says it so clearly: “to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins.” The divine forgiveness of sins is the key and yet is considered by so many so ultimately unimportant! Why is that? It can only be because people are not aware of what sin is, what it does to us or what it means for their eternal destiny.

     Sin is not just a minor flaw. And it is not part of what it means to be a real human being. That’s what people mean, you know, when they try to excuse their faults by saying, “I’m only human.” True enough, “all have sinned.” It is the common lot of all born into this world since Adam and Eve. But sin is not what it means to be human as God originally created and intended us to be. It is transgression against God’s good and gracious Law. It is separation from God, from one another, and from life itself. It is to consider and view everything no longer with God at the center, but from the point of view of whether anything is to my advantage or disadvantage. It is to put “me, myself and I” at the center of life.

     And the fact is that sin must be punished. The wages of sin is death – not only physical death, but eternal death, eternally separated from God and from all hope in hell. How did John the Baptist say it? “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." "I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" [Luke 3:9, 16-17 (ESV)]. Because of sin, you are only chaff to be burned. Because of the forgiveness of sin you can be made into the precious wheat, the good fruit of God. Only when the truth of God’s judgment against sin is heard—really heard—can true repentance be inspired in the heart so that we ask with the crowds around John, "What then shall we do?" [Luke 3:10 (ESV)]. The answer? Repent! Or as St. Peter said it to the crowds on Pentecost, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself" [Acts 2:38-39 (ESV)]. The forgiveness of sins is the central, most important thing.

     This forgiveness originates in and comes from the heart of God. Apart from His revealed Word of Law and Gospel, His Word of grace, His Word Who is Jesus Christ, God’s true heart and nature remains hidden, a cloaked reality; apart from His revealed Word He remains only either the wrathful Judge of our fears that He is, or the imagined kindly grandfather who only winks at or ignores sin, the figment of the fallen, sinful ignorance. Only by the revelation of His Word does a person come to hear, to know and to believe that the righteous God is also full of “tender mercy” as Zechariah puts it. In this mercy He gives “light to those who sit (cloaked) in darkness and in the shadow of death, (and) to guide our feet into the way of peace.” God’s goal is to bring the real peace to his creation—peace, the end of the punishment of sin, reconciliation in the love of God. The fact is all sin has already been fully punished in Jesus Christ. There is no more payment possible or required. Such is the tender mercy of our God, the one, true God.

          Blessed be the Lord God, for he has visited and redeemed his people. May we grow in this blessing and faith and, like John the Baptist, become strong in spirit.