Sermon for the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, June 24, 2018

“The Baroque painting depicting the present patron saint of the church, St. John the Baptist, is in the sanctuary of the Church of the Cherkess. His painter is unknown.” Wikimedia Foundation.

Originally preached at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Herndon, Virginia.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

A blessed Johnsmas to you all!

Today is the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist in the Lutheran church’s calendar of saints, on which we remember the birth of John as it was described in the Gospel of Luke and meditate on John’s example for us.  To be honest, I’ve never really liked calling him “John the Baptist,” even though it is a direct translation of his Greek title, Ioannes ho Baptistês, “John the One Who Baptizes.”  Perhaps it’s because of the modern associations that we have with the word “Baptist,” as if the Biblical John were a member of the Southern Baptist Convention and held to their particular theology or some such.  And anyway, if we’re going to be honest, if this is what we were actually doing, we’d want to call him “John the Lutheran!”

No, the real reason why I think I’ve never truly liked using the name “John the Baptist” to address John isn’t rooted in petty denominational distinctions, but rather because it doesn’t fully encompass or speak to who John is and what he does.  Certainly, John does baptize, but John is, more properly, the messenger of God.  He is the messenger just like the angel of the Lord is God’s messenger, proclaiming the coming of Christ.  This is why some Eastern Orthodox icons display John with angel’s wings–John is like an angel.  He is the herald who proclaims the Day of the Lord, the great day “burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble” and when “the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings” (Malachi 4:1-2).  John was called to herald this day, which no one can withstand.

Because John is the herald of the Most High, he is a prophet.  More precisely, he’s the last prophet. The prophet to end all prophets.  His arrival was foretold by the prophet Isaiah seven hundred years before his birth.  Hear what Isaiah says of him in Isaiah 40:

Illuminated page from the Waldburg Prayerbook, WLB Stuttgart, Cod. brev. 12, fol. 33v, 1486.

     A voice cries:
     “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
     make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
     Every valley shall be lifted up,
     and every mountain and hill be made low;
     the uneven ground shall become level,
     and the rough places a plain.
     And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
     and all flesh shall see it together,
     for the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 40:3-5)

John’s coming was also foretold by the prophet Malachi some time in the 430s BC.  In fact, the prophecy of John’s arrival in Malachi constitutes the last words in the entire Old Testament.  In addition to the prophecy we heard in Malachi 3, he calls John “Elijah” in Malachi 4, saying:

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” (Malachi 4:5-6)

It is these prophecies concerning John that his father, Zechariah, alludes to in his song in Luke 1 after he gives John his name.  We know this song as the Biblical canticle, the “Benedictus,” of which we sang a versified version by Stephen Starke for our hymn of the day.  In the hymn, Zechariah says,

“You, child, will go on before the Lord
As prophet, His way preparing;
To speak on behalf of God Most High,
His counsel of truth declaring:
Rich mercy and grace for all whereby
Iniquity is forgiven.”

St. John the Baptist, Cretan, 17th Century

So John is the angel and prophet of the Lord, heralding His coming.  He is like the vanguard of the Lord’s army, riding ahead to prepare those in the way for His arrival, foretelling the destruction that the Lord will bring, but also the reconciliation that the Lord will bring with Him when He comes.  All that is crooked will be made straight, all wrongs will be righted, all sins forgiven for those who are repentant. So while John’s baptizing to wash penitent sinners is part of his calling, his main calling is to, as Isaiah prophesied, prepare the way of the Lord.  Thus, as some Christian traditions call him, John is the forerunner of Jesus, the one who “comes after” him “the sandals of whose feet [he is] not worthy to untie.”  St. John the Forerunner, who prepares the way for Jesus. It has a nice ring to it.

But why is John the Forerunner?  Why was he needed?  Why do we remember this prophet who came out of the hinterlands, wearing a camel’s hair garment like Elijah and eating locusts?  In the first century when John began his ministry in the country outside Jerusalem, many people had forgotten that the Messiah was coming, or at least that he would be the Messiah that Isaiah and others promised.  In some cases, people forgot the promise and fell away from faith, worshiping false gods or embracing philosophies that denied that God would come to save His people. Famous among these apostates was the first-century prefect of Egypt, Tiberius Julius Alexander, who was born into a prominent Jewish family in Alexandria but abandoned his faith in favor of Roman paganism, even taking part in the siege of Jerusalem in AD 70 as a Roman general.  Those of you who are fans of philosophy will know Tiberius Julius Alexander as the nephew of Philo of Alexandria, who tells us much about early Christianity.

In other cases, where people did not fall away from faith in God, it was common to expect a different kind of Messiah than that which God promised through Isaiah and Malachi.  Often, people forgot that the Messiah would be God Himself and instead hoped for a human Messiah, a warrior king who would subjugate the world and bring peace, through strength, to Israel.  There were many contenders for this title. Past kings, like the Persian conqueror, Cyrus, had been chosen by God to execute His justice, so people waiting for the Messiah looked for him among the kings of their day, or in future kings.

For example, a book of prophecies called The Sibylline Oracles–which is a collection of oracles made by female Jewish soothsayers over a several-hundred year period spanning the centuries before and after Christ–records a prophecy of a coming king who will destroy all kings.  The problem is that this king is a mortal man, possibly Greek, or an Egyptian. The Oracles record other mighty kings who will destroy God’s enemies and knock down the proud.  They are the sorts of kings that people living under political oppression would hope for, the kind of strongmen who mete out temporal justice through conquest and killing, who liberate the downtrodden and restore order with violence.  This is a kind of Messiah, the type of person God might use to mete out His wrath upon sinners, but the Messiah expected in the Sibylline Oracles is not the Messiah.  He is not God incarnate, coming to take back His creation from the power of Satan.  The strongman Messiah might, as one Presidential candidate put it a few years ago when talking about the function of the military, kill people and break things, but he cannot kill death and he cannot break the hold of sin.

And this was the problem: those who forgot the promise of the Messiah or decided not to trust in it ended up putting their trust in other things–other gods, themselves–and were left to their sins, which they could not escape from on their own.  Likewise, those who remembered the promise but applied it to the wrong people set themselves up to be misled and to potentially lose heart when their misplaced hopes faltered or their chosen Messiah failed to deliver on his promises, all the while unaware that they, too, were sinners in need of forgiveness, not looking toward God and His promise for their salvation.  And those who held fast to the promise, who still remembered, needed encouragement to stay the course when surrounded by the naysayers and those who were confused or had thrown their lot in with the wrong Messiah. It was for such a time as this that John was sent, to preach repentance to the people, to remind them of the coming day of the Lord, to incite them to turn to the God who is their savior, and to be cleansed for the forgiveness of their sins.  John pointed those who struggled in sin, pain, and fear to Christ, the one who came after him. In Him they could place all their trust. He was the true Messiah.  He would end their suffering and oppression.  He would save them from their sins. John served to remind and direct them to their savior, and to show them who the Messiah really was and is.

“John the Baptist” from the Isenheim Altarpiece, ca. 1515, by Matthias Grünewald (d. 1528), Unterlinden Museum.

As is often the case, people don’t really change, and we are also subject to the same doubts and confusion that the Jews of John’s day were.  While John’s mission was to preach the first coming of Christ to save His people from their sins, we now live with the promise of Christ’s second coming–He came and did what John said He would do!–and we have been waiting nearly 2000 years for His return.  It’s easy to lose sight of such a promise after 2000 years, and the world provides plenty of distractions. You’ve heard the criticisms of naysayers before. “It’s been 2000 years–Jesus isn’t coming back!” (How can they be so sure?) “Why do you cling to the religion of Bronze Age goat herders?”  (This is a real comment I read in an online discussion once.) “There is no God–if He was real, we’d have known by now! He’d have told us!” ([holds up Bible] He did!) Or even sillier, this claim propagated by a British computer programmer: “Jesus was a Roman conspiracy to subjugate Judaea! Why believe in Him?”

And some people have fallen for these criticisms and lost faith in Christ entirely, looking to themselves for guidance or indulging in activities that their former Christian faith knows to be sins, but doing them anyway either out of spite or out of the nihilistic belief that nothing really matters, so why not indulge your passions?  As the neopagan practitioners of Wicca say, “An’ ye harm none, do as ye will,” or as the Slovenian author Vladimir Bartol put it in his novel, Alamut, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”  (You younger folks who have played Assassins’ Creed should recognize this quote.)  Or as goes the great mantra of the age articulated by Tom Haverford in Parks and Recreation: “treat yo self.”

And when the promise of Christ is no longer central–when society deems God to be dead and acts as of He doesn’t exist–people choose to ignore their sins and live as if they don’t matter (and they do matter–this Wiccans are wrong!) or they find them to be all the more terrible, because the self becomes the savior.  Without the hope of Christ and His forgiveness, where is the hope for making things right? Sin and its effects grow darker and more frightening.  Violence seems unstoppable, and attempts to end it either through humanitarian appeals or through legislation have no effect. Addictions seem insurmountable–how can the hold of drugs and pornography on society be broken when society runs to these things and glorifies them?  Damaged relationships seem beyond repair, hateful words are spoken that cannot be taken back, and reconciliation seems impossible–why make up? The poor and homeless are still poor and homeless, and human life is treated as discardable, whether unborn or aged. Avarice goes unchecked.  When the sinful world distracts us and we no longer look to the promise of Christ–when we act as “functional” atheists, as if God doesn’t really matter in our lives–then despair overtakes us, and we are lost to our sins and our own vain attempts to save ourselves which are doomed to failure.  What is the remedy ?

This is why we remember John, because he pointed the people of his day to Christ with his message of repentance, and he still has the same message for us, too.  John’s proclamation, his warning to flee the wrath to come, breaks through the distractions of the world and sets our sights back on Jesus and what He has done for you and me, and on what He is going to do. Regardless of what lies the world may whisper in our ears, John reminds us that Christ is our Messiah, too.  Remember how in our epistle reading today, Paul spoke about how John had come to preach the good news of Christ to the Jews? Well, his message is for us now, too. Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. He has defeated sin, death, and hell–and He’s coming back! None of the sin and injustice that plagues our world will be left when He returns.  Just as John prophesied, when Christ finishes the work of reclaiming His kingdom,

Every valley shall be lifted up,
     and every mountain and hill be made low;
     the uneven ground shall become level,
     and the rough places a plain.
     And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
     and all flesh shall see it together,
     for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

In his ministry, John tells us of the wrath to come, but he reminds us, too, that there is joy in Jesus coming.  After all, he knew firsthand who Jesus is.  When John was imprisoned by Herod Antipas for speaking out against Herod’s adultery with his brother’s wife, the world tried to distract John from his mission.  Languishing in his cell, he sent messengers to Jesus, asking Him if He truly was the Messiah that he was heralding, or if he ought to wait for someone else. Jesus sent a reply, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Lk 7:22–23.).  These are the things the Messiah does. Jesus was and is the promised Messiah sent to redeem the world, and John knew this. In his ministry, John pointed to Jesus as the Messiah who saves the world, and he died believing it the promise he preached. Therefore, when we remember him, let us not only remember him as prophet preaching in the wilderness, eating grasshoppers and convicting the Pharisees as a “brood of vipers,” which we also can be sometimes.  Let us remember, too, that he is still pointing us to Christ, our Messiah. Let us gladly believe this and trust in what he proclaims!

“St. John the Baptist in Prison Receives Christ’s Answer,” Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-1678)

May the peace which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s