John the Baptist, Preacher of Grace

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Sermon for the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Isaiah 40:1-5  +  Acts 13:13-26  +  Luke 1:57-80

On this Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, there are no manger scenes to be found; no lights adorning streets and houses; no trees with presents under them to remind us of the Nativity of the John.  In the same way, when John was born, there were no herald angels singing, no wise men bringing gifts from afar, no guiding star to lead anyone to his house.

And that’s the way it should be.  John the Baptist was not the Christ, as he himself freely confessed.  John was the forerunner sent by God to run ahead of Jesus and announce to the Jews that the Christ was right behind him.  And once Christ appeared, several months after John appeared, John told his disciples, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” So it’s good and right that the Nativity of Christ gets a lot more attention.

But it’s also good and right to pause today on June 24th, six months before that greater Nativity celebration, and give thanks to God for John the Baptist.  Six months before December 24th, because at the same time that the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she, a virgin, would conceive and give birth to the Son of the Most High God, Gabriel also announced to Mary that her elderly relative, Elizabeth, the wife of the priest named Zechariah, was already six months pregnant.  So John was born six months before Jesus.

You may remember how that all happened, how Gabriel appeared to Zechariah while he was ministering in the Temple and announced to him that he and his wife, Elizabeth, even though they had been unable to have children and were now old, were going to have a son who would be the prophet of the Most High God and would prepare the way for the Messiah, the Christ.  But Zechariah didn’t believe the angel, and so the angel told him that he would be unable to speak until the promised child was born.

That’s where our Gospel picks up the story. The promised child was born, and then eight days later, it was time for him to be circumcised and given his name.  The friends and relatives wanted to call the child Zechariah, after his father, but Elizabeth and Zechariah obeyed, instead, the angel’s words and gave him the name “John,” “Yo-hanan,” “The Lord—Yahweh—has been gracious.”

The people present for the celebration were amazed and asked, “What then will this child be?” But they already had their answer.  His name is “John,” the one who proclaims the grace of the Lord, John the Baptist, Preacher of Grace.

Well, didn’t all the prophets preach grace, and the apostles, too?  Of course they did.  Grace is one of those attributes of God that make up the definition of who He is, a God whose love doesn’t depend at all on a person’s worthiness or goodness, but that goes out to all, because that’s who God is.  As he said to Moses, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” 

John, when he grew up, certainly did preach about that other truth about God, too, that he will by no means clear the guilty, that he visits the iniquity—the sin—of the fathers on the children.  John never minced words.  He pulled the whole people of Israel together under sin and showed them their guilt and warned them about the coming wrath of God.  “Repent!” was John’s message in the wilderness, repent, for even if you are a good and decent person compared to your neighbor, you are guilty before God, and God will by no means clear the guilty, but visits their iniquity upon them.

But what did Zechariah sing in his Spirit-inspired song?  “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.”  God’s wrath is being visited against all the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.  But God has also visited and redeemed his people and provided the shelter from his wrath in the house of his servant David. Now, John the Baptist was not from the house of David, but from the house of Levi—a priest.  Zechariah was not singing about his own son, but about the 3-month-old baby who was at that very moment growing in the virgin Mary’s womb, the virgin Mary of the house of David who was almost certainly standing right there in front of Zechariah on that day.  Scripture tells us that after Gabriel told Mary she would conceive a son, she went to stay with Elizabeth and Zechariah for about three months. That’s right when John would have been born.

So just as John’s father pointed to Jesus on the day his son was born, so his son would point to Jesus in his future ministry and preach how the grace of God had visited the Jews in the person of Jesus Christ. All of God’s goodness and promises were wrapped up in that one Person, to the point that there is no grace of God—God is not gracious anywhere else. Only in his Son Jesus.

And so Zechariah’s song continued, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant. This is what John would preach—that in Christ there is salvation from our enemies—salvation from sin, salvation from death, salvation from the devil.  That in Christ God has shown mercy and continues to show mercy. That this mercy was promised long ago to the people of Israel, the holy covenant he made with them. Not the covenant of the law, but the other covenant, the new covenant of grace and the forgiveness of sins.

Jesus was the bringer of that new covenant, that new testament in his blood.  God continually and fully and freely forgives all the sins of the one who is part of this new covenant. And you enter this new covenant through faith in Christ, because by his blood Jesus has paid for the sins of the world.  And so God invites all people to repent and find forgiveness of their sins in Jesus.

But God doesn’t do that inviting silently or secretly. He doesn’t do that inviting with whispers in your ear or with trumpets sounding from heaven. He calls people to faith in Jesus through the spoken word.  That’s the task to which John was appointed from birth, to be a preacher of grace, the first New Testament prophet who would point, not to the Christ coming sometime in the future, but to the Christ who is here at the door. That’s what Zechariah sang, And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins.

But again, God doesn’t just throw his grace, life and forgiveness up in the air, to be scattered on the wind for us to go chasing after, trying to find it, trying to catch it.  God locates his grace, his life, his forgiveness in the spoken word, and in water that’s connected with that word.  John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  Where does God forgive sins?  Where has God chosen to be gracious to people who don’t deserve it?  Not out there in the desert somewhere.  But here, in Holy Baptism! Here, where Jesus is, in Word and Sacrament.

What John started 2000 years ago is what every preacher of grace has been doing since—showing secure sinners their sins, and pointing penitent sinners to Jesus as the location of God’s grace, and bringing Jesus to sinners, with all his grace, with all his forgiveness, in the spoken word and in Holy Baptism, and now, also in this Holy Supper of the forgiveness of sins, the Meal of the New Covenant.

Now pastors are the preachers of grace God sends to His people, to walk in the footsteps of John the Baptist and point people to Christ.  John is the chief role model for every preacher, so it’s for good reason we bring him into our Divine Service each and every week. There’s the Baptist, pointing us again to our Baptism in the Invocation, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” John’s there in the Gloria where his own words are quoted, “Lord God, Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us!”  He’s there directing us to Jesus’ body and blood on the altar as we sing his words again in the Agnus Dei, “O Christ, Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us!”  Eleison!  “Have mercy!”  Or another translation would be, “Be gracious to you!”  There’s John, the preacher of grace, one last time, every week, in the Benediction, “The Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you.”

The Lord has been gracious to you in sending His Son to redeem you and in sending John to be the forerunner of Jesus, who prepared the Jews to receive Him and still runs before Him to you in the Words of Holy Scripture.  The Lord has been gracious to you in sending preachers of grace to administer His grace to you continually from the day of your baptism to the day of your death.  Hear the Word of God from the preachers of grace whom He sends.  Like John the Baptist, we are nothing.  Christ is everything.  Don’t put your faith in us.  Put your faith in Christ.  Don’t expect us to pander to you, to schmooze you, to entertain you or to make you feel warm and fuzzy inside.  If you find a preacher like that, run away as fast as you can. Instead, look to us to point you away from ourselves to Jesus…

…like John the Baptist did, whose birth was not heralded by angel choirs or wise men or guiding stars.  Instead, everything about his birth—everything about his life—pointed away from himself toward Christ, who is the Sunrise who shall visit us from on high, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. Amen.

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