The Nativity of St. John the Baptist, June 24, 2018
God’s Gracious Visitation
Text: Luke 1:57–80
We begin with a story. She knew what was going to happen. She had met her son and daughter-in-law in the hall. She had seen the balloons that said, “It’s a boy.” And the gift bag with the sweatshirt, “World’s Greatest Grandpa.” They were all out there in the hall, waiting to go in.
But first, she needed to go into the room and make sure he was awake. The nurses at the desk said that he had had a restless night. She wanted to make sure he was awake, that he was sitting up in bed, that he looked okay . . . before she brought them in.
He was dying. Nothing would change that. He would never get out of this bed or this nursing home. But today, he would hear that Susan was pregnant. That the baby was a boy. That he would be a grandpa. Even though he was surrounded by reminders of death, today he would have a wonderful reminder of God’s gift of life. A little baby boy.
And so, she went into the room and prepared him for what would be a special visit, a special visitation.
But here’s the thing. Sometimes, it is hard to hear good news. As crazy as that sounds, the circumstances of our lives sometimes prevent us from a moment of holy joy. The presence of cancer can close the door to any other news. The painful memory of divorce throws such a shadow over life that some can see no other signs of hope. Unemployment, under-employment, mounting debt, concern for children, care of aging parents, and the anxieties of life can hit us so hard and speak so loudly that any message of joy can be drowned out.
For this reason, it is good to give God thanks when He sends someone, anyone, to prepare us for hearing good news. God knows that we are not always ready to listen, and so He comes to prepare our hearts and minds even before He speaks.
This morning, we celebrate the Nativity of St. John the Baptist by giving God thanks that God sent John, and still sends people, to prepare us for a visit from Jesus, that He sends messengers to prepare us for THE Good News.
John the Baptist is familiar to us for many reasons. For one thing, he is the subject of the Bible readings for a couple of Sundays every December. We talk about him every Advent. He is the one who lived out in the wilderness. He dressed in animal skins (camel). He survived on locusts and wild honey. He baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. He was imprisoned by Herod, and his head ended up as a party favor on a plate. In each of these cases, John strikes us as an odd and attention-getting figure. John could be remembered for many things. Yet, of all the things for which John could be remembered, today the Church calls attention to his birth.
Because here, at John’s birth, we hear how God would like John to be remembered. When John was born, his father, filled with the Holy Spirit, said, “you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways” (v 76). John is to be remembered as the one who was sent before Jesus to prepare people for God’s visit in Jesus.
Now that is not all there is to John’s story. Earlier, John’s conception had caused quite a stir. Elizabeth, old, childless, and well past the age to have a baby, had conceived, and his father, Zechariah, had been struck dumb because he didn’t believe the angel who told him that God could give them a son at their age. John’s birth was no different. Friends and neighbors gathered to praise God for the birth of this child, but suddenly Zechariah’s mouth was opened and, when he spoke, what he said was not what everyone expected, because a) he was talking again and b) He said his son was going to be a prophet for the Most High. Luke records that his friends and neighbors went to their homes throughout Judea, and ended up talking to one another about what it all meant.
Rather than follow those people out into the countryside of Judea, however, Luke asks us to stay and listen to Zechariah. In his words, we hear what this means. Zechariah’s song is divided into two main sections. He offers a grand overview of God’s work of salvation throughout biblical history, and then he points to one particular moment: the birth of John. By doing this, Zechariah joins John’s life to a much larger story.
John is not to be remembered because of his lineage or because of these miracles or even because of his minimalist life—wandering the desert, eating bugs and such. No, John is to be remembered because of his place in a much larger ministry. John is the one God sends to prepare His people for Jesus. John’s words make people aware of their sin. John was sent to preach the Law. When John speaks, those who listen end up entering the River Jordan and come out standing on the other side. Wet with the waters of repentance, they wait. Then, and only then, are they ready to see Jesus.
You do realize if you, or anyone, thinks they are not a sinner, then they think they do not need Jesus. When you come to Jesus as a lost and miserable sinner, only then will you see who He truly is: your Savior. Jesus is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). He died on the cross to forgive your sin and rose from the dead to bring eternal life to you.
No wonder God sent John. The world is so blind to the ways of God, and the ways of God are so gracious and beyond our understanding. God doesn’t want this work of Jesus to be missed. John is just one more instance of God’s great love for His people, of God, doing everything He can to call them from sin so that they might experience His work of salvation.
Today, we give thanks to God for sending John to prepare His people for the work of Jesus.
God’s ministry through John, and folks like him, is hardly over. Today, someone like John still stands there at the edge of wherever Jesus is present, telling people all about God’s visit by Jesus. I do not know if you have thought about this, considered this, but for most of us, God used somebody to prepare us for the visit of God. Now folks like Moses got God directly in the burning bush, but we have folks who did that for us.
Consider the child, brought to Baptism when the baby is only a month old. The parents are messengers, preparing him or her for God’s visit. These parents have chosen sponsors, godparents, who will be there as messengers throughout his life, to prepare him or her for hearing the words of salvation. Around the font, then, we see people who are messengers sent by God to prepare one child for God’s visit. That’s the way it was for me…
Consider the folks who pray for a young man or woman as they are about to be confirmed. Parents, Godparents, relatives, friends have all assisted in seeing those kids get to class, do the memory work, learn how to acolyte, but most importantly, they learn that Jesus is their Savior, that they need Jesus, and they learn how our Church teaches that.
Consider our congregation this day, singing together the Agnus Dei. As we prepare for the Lord’s Supper, John’s words about Jesus are sung. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is here, offering forgiveness. As the congregation sings this hymn, we are reminded of God’s visit in, with and under the bread and wine.
Consider yourselves as you listen to this sermon. I am literally put here by God to tell you His word and to tell you that Jesus died and rose for you. I get to prepare you for Jesus’ visit to your hand and your heart when you come up here for His Holy Supper.
Today we are here to say thanks. When we see these people, when we hear their words, when we open our minds and for a moment comprehend the many ways that God has prepared us for His gracious visitation, Zechariah’s song becomes our own, a faithful way for us still today to offer praise. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people” (v 68). Bottom line, simply, today we thank God that Jesus died and rose for us, and we thank God for all of those in our lives who prepared us for all the times Jesus visited us using His Word, His Sacraments, or the Holy Spirit.
In Jesus’ Name.