Text: Isaiah 40:1-5 (Luke 1:57-80)
Date: Nativity of St. John the Baptist + 6/24/12
Since today happens to be a special festival of the church year our lectionary insert turns our attention from the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost to The Nativity of St. John the Baptist. Again the church year attempts to imitate the exact amount of time in the historical record as John the Baptist was born six months before Jesus. So today is exactly six months before Christmas! Of course, as you may have noticed, not exactly! For this is the 24th of June and Christmas is the 25th of December. The best explanation of this I found lies in the supposedly Roman way of counting the calendar which proceeds backward from the “Kalends” or “first day” of the succeeding month. It was chosen to celebrate Christmas on Octavo Kalendas Januarii, or “the eighth day before the Kalends or first day of January.” Well then, St. John’s Nativity was put on the eighth day before the Kalends of July. The difference, of course, is, whereas there are thirty-one days in December there are only thirty days in June. So counting back eight days from July first brings us to today, June 24th! (So what? So I just found that interesting, that’s all).
Mothers will likely remember—and fathers, too, if they were allowed to be in the delivery room—remember that first cry made with the first gasp of air of the newborn child. This is the nativity or birth of the bouncing baby boy born to the old priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, the result (primarily) of God’s announcement to him by an angel of the Lord. Being advanced in years the old priest questioned (as many of us can understand), even doubted it was possible for them to have a child. So, St. Luke tells us, he was punished by the Lord by pressing his mute button. It wasn’t until the birth and naming of the child that Zechariah’s tongue would be loosed and, filled with the Holy Spirit, he would prophesy in the words we heard this morning, the Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.”
It is an amazing canticle for it not only praises God for His faithfulness to His promises and deliverance of His people but it also predicted that this child would be called “the prophet of the Most High,” and that he would be the one to go before the Lord to prepare his ways. That preparation would be by means of proclaiming salvation through the forgiveness of sins. Luke’s final words, “And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.”
After some thirty years since his birth what began with the involuntary whimpers of an infant became the fiery preaching of a prophet calling people to repent of their sins. The promise of God’s forgiveness and deliverance was communicated through the ritual application of water signifying the spiritual cleansing of the forgiveness of sins.
John was no mere oddity or self-appointed prophet. For he identified himself with the prophecy of Isaiah, namely, “the voice that cries: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” So that is where he went with his few disciples, in the Judean desert area just north of the Dead Sea. As we learned in our current Bible study on the Gospel of John the Qumran sect was active in the same region and period as the Baptist. They too related their identity with the Isaiah 40 wilderness.
For all the fire and threat of his preaching about sin, however, according to Isaiah this was to be the way of communicating the Gospel, the good news, God’s message of comfort for his people. The double, repeated word, “Comfort, comfort” reveals God’s deepest compassion that moves Him to come to the aid and salvation of His people. He does not confront them here with the threat of the Law as when He refers to them elsewhere as “this people,” for instance, “do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy” (Is 8:12) or, “this people draws near with their mouth and honors me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me” (Is 29:13). No. John’s call to repentance is to reveal God’s faithfulness to a people of His own calling, making and blessing: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.”
In the same way you and all people today need to acknowledge that God has made you and all creatures; that He has given you your body and soul, eyes, ears, and all your members, your reason and all your senses, and still takes care of them (Catechism, Art I). Even more than our creation, as St. Paul reminds us, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1 Cor 6:19-20). Because of the fallen ness and separation of sin we all tend to think that we own ourselves or at least are merely the product or accident of human reproduction. But as God said of the prophet Jeremiah, so it is true of every person, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jer 1:5). Think of the hundreds of millions of abortions, murders of the unborn since 1973 in the United States, individuals created and known by God! And so the acknowledgment of God’s creation, ownership and design must be, first, by means of the repentance of our sin, our blindness, darkness and separation from the Truth.
God promised the forgiveness of all sin in the words of the prophet declaring the warfare or hard service as guilty sinners is ended, iniquity pardoned. As the Holy Spirit said through Zechariah, his son would “go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God” (Luke 1:76-78). For repentance, acknowledgement and turning away from sin is just the first part. The Voice of the prophet calls to prepare the way for the Savior by faith in His promises.
Notice, please, that we are not the ones commanded to “lift every valley and level our uneven ground,” to get ourselves straightened out, so to speak. The Baptist did not stand on the Jordan River shore singing, “climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow till you find your dream.” No. Isaiah said that for those who truly prepare the way by repentance and faith, God Himself has already done the preparing of your heart. For faith is always “the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8-9). The “glory of the Lord” that is revealed is the very real presence of God who came to us in the person of Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus is God’s majesty, splendor, brightness, the “light to all in darkness and the shadow of death,” the guide into the way of peace. At His second coming to judge the world, all flesh, every eye together will see Him. For now every eye may see Him but by hearing the Word that proclaims Jesus Christ. Every mouth may receive Him sacramentally in the Holy Supper, and “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:11).
Today we celebrate the birthday of John. And in so doing we celebrate the announcement of salvation that is by faith alone in the Lamb of God, Jesus of Nazareth, Savior and Lord. Happy Birthday, John! Happy Heavenly Birthday all who hear and believe through him (John 1:7!).