Nativity of St. John the Baptist: Luke 1:57-80
It is six months between today, the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, and Christmas Day, the Nativity of our Lord; which leaves you (by my count) 183 shopping days. We live our lives waiting don’t we? (...waiting for the next big thing, waiting through all those green Sundays before the cataract of Advent and Christmas) Deep down we are all Zechariah; we are all Elizabeth, stuck somewhere in the middle of June and waiting for Christmas to come.
For this child, these elderly parents had waited their entire lives—and longer than that. Zechariah and Elizabeth are Israel personified: they had been waiting for this for millennia. And when the son they longed for is born at last, they greet him in the highest of terms.
Zechariah, a priest well acquainted with the great hymns ceaselessly sung in God’s Temple, the Psalms, composes a psalm of his own, the Benedictus: “Blessed be the Lord, the 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.” This ‘horn’ of salvation, this mighty messiah, was promised to the fathers by all the prophets , and he will deliver his people from the hand of their enemies.
This child, named John, will be the herald for this messiah, being himself a sort of arch-prophet, prophet of the Most High. He will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people. He will be the harbinger of a new sunrise who will shine even on those sitting in darkness, and even in the shadow of death, and he will guide the war-torn feet of the people of God into the way of peace.
It is difficult to imagine more lofty language than this to describe a baby boy. Zechariah culls the entire Psalter for visions of things mighty, exalted, holy and righteous. One can scarcely think of anything to add. But I wonder if you noticed what I left out of my little synopsis.
It was just a phrase at the end of verse 77: “in the forgiveness of their sins.” That is how they will be saved from their enemies, how God’s promises will be kept and death itself will be illuminated.
The world into which John was born was one of many needs, many fears. God’s people were groaning under the weight of the occupying Roman Empire. They were themselves divided into various denominations: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, Samaritans, Herodians, etc.
It is to these troubled people that John is born, and to which Zechariah sings his song. And I wonder if they made the mistake I did. They heard this powerful canticle, were washed over by its exalted language, and buoyed by its boisterous hope. But they glossed over verse 77b, “...in the forgiveness of their sins.”
But it is to verse 77b that John’s life is dedicated. When he appears in the wilderness in Luke 3, Luke introduces him, as Zechariah had, with imperial pomp and circumstance. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontus Pilate being governor over Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John in the wilderness.”
After his historical litany of powerful people in famous places, Saint Luke notes profoundly that the word of God came to none of these—but to John in the desert. And when it came to him it incited nothing except this: a proclamation of baptism, of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins.
So, if you will, in the two-thousand eighteenth year of our Lord, during the presidency of Donald J. Trump, Greg Abbott being governor of Texas and Ron Nirenberg being mayor of San Antonio, and Matthew Harrison and Kenneth Hennings being bishops in the Church of God, the word of God came to Joanna Elisabeth, who was brought to a font to be baptized into a life of repentance, and of the forgiveness of her sins.
Today the color of the day is white, because today we celebrate a feast in the Church. But next Sunday is another green Sunday, and the next and the next, and the next. Pentecost season is the season of the ordinary and the forgettable. It is the season of 183 shopping days before Christmas.
But be not fooled. Be not forgetful. Remember the proclamation of John in the wilderness; remember verse 77b. Remember, in the face of emperors and presidents and governors and professors and coaches, where the word of God actually comes.
Remember your baptism. Remember the word of Jesus Christ. Remember to repent, and above all, remember the forgiveness of your sins. It is, God be praised, an ordinary thing among us, this Sunday, and the next, and the next, and the next. We do repent; we do forgive; and the proclamation is not John’s. It is the proclamation of Jesus Christ himself, God in the flesh.
And just like in John’s day, the people are in need. They do actually need, and even want, this one ordinary thing. They want to be accepted by God (or by someone). Deep down, they are dying for verse 77b, for the forgiveness of their sins, because what is ordinary in here, isn’t ordinary out there.
Here we bring our every doubt, every grief, every grievance, and every one of our sins to a place where they are repented of and forgiven—and where, then, God comes, in his flesh and blood, to share his feast with even us. And just because it will happen this Sunday, and the next, and the next, and the next, doesn’t mean it isn’t worth singing about—doesn’t mean it isn’t the next big thing. Because it turns out we don’t have to wait for Christmas after all.