Today marks the Feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist. We have made it a solemn feast, the highest category of feast days in the Church’s year, suggesting that this day and its focus is of utmost importance to us. The Gospel of Luke, from which we read this evening, spends more time describing the annunciation and birth of John the Baptist than it does describing the annunciation and birth of Jesus himself: John gets 24 verses; Jesus gets 21. So what’s so important about John? Why does he warrant this kind of attention? And what do we have to learn from him and his story?
The information we have about John’s life and ministry comes almost exclusively from the gospels, and therefore is expressed in the language of faith. The language of faith recognizes that it is God who is at work in the life and witness of John. God is the one who chooses John and sets him apart even before he is born; who anoints him with power to proclaim the message of repentance; who gives him strength and courage to stand up to corrupt leaders; and who gives him the wisdom and humility to recognize his subordinate role in relationship to Jesus, the promised Messiah. Faith sees and proclaims that God is working out God’s purposes, not only for Israel but for the whole of humankind, in and through this extraordinary prophet.
Luke recognizes the hand of God in the mysterious and miraculous circumstances of John’s early life. He notes that John is the child of divine promise, given to parents who are beyond the age of child-bearing, in the same way that Isaac was miraculously given to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. He points out that this birth is announced by an angel of God in the innermost sanctuary of the Temple during a service of solemn worship. The angel informs Zechariah, the priest who was to be the child’s father, that the child is to be given a name that breaks with accepted tradition. “You will name him John,” insists the angel; which means “God’s gracious gift.” This child is the gracious gift of God, not only to his aged parents, but to all of God’s people. Like Samuel, he is to be set apart and dedicated to God from the moment of his birth. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and will prepare the way of the Lord by inspiring people to turn away from their sins and to prepare their hearts for the coming of the promised Messiah. When Zechariah emerges from the inner sanctuary, he is unable to speak – further evidence that he has been in the presence of God’s messenger.
Luke takes care to note all of this, because the miraculous and mysterious circumstances of John’s birth are evidence for him of God’s activity and intervention. God is at work here, carefully and deliberately working out God’s purpose and plan for salvation.
The mystery continues at the child’s birth, when Zechariah’s tongue is inexplicably loosed and he is able to repeat with his own voice what he has previously written, that the child will indeed by called John. Zechariah then bursts forth in praise to God, and the neighbors wonder aloud, “What then will this child become?” because the hand of the Lord is so clearly upon him.
It is the language of faith that sees and expresses these things. And it is the language of faith that we will draw upon in a few moments as we gather around the altar of God to bear witness to what God has done and to what God is doing in our lives, and in the whole of creation. It is faith that recognizes God at work in the created order, in the calling of Israel to be God’s people, in their deliverance from their bondage in Egypt, and in their journey into the Promised Land. It is faith that recognizes God at work in the giving of the Law and in the words of the prophets and above all, in the Word made flesh in Jesus, God’s Son. It is faith that sees God’s hand at work throughout human history, guarding and guiding and going before us into the future.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,” Zechariah proclaims in his song, “for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us… He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness all our days.” This is the bold proclamation of faith, which sees God’s mercy dawning from on high and breaking upon us, giving “light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, [and guiding] our feet into the way of peace.”
It is this faith that we proclaim and to which we witness when we gather as we do this evening: the faith that God has been and is at work in human history, and in our own lives. It was Zechariah’s faith, and Luke’s faith, and Jesus’ faith – and it is our faith as well – that God is working out God’s purposes in time and space, rescuing us and healing us and saving us from all that would separate us from God’s love.
There is reason enough to declare this day a solemn feast, because it reminds us of God’s faithfulness, of God’s gracious gifts to us in the past and God’s sure promise to us for the future.
But the story of John the Baptist has more to say to us. John is, before all and above all, a witness to Jesus, the Christ, and he has much to teach us about what it will mean for us to be witnesses of Christ in our own day.
John is a powerful and attractive figure, despite his unusual manner and dress. He attracts a large following, even before Jesus comes to him to be baptized. He is a charismatic figure who draws attention from the most powerful people in the land, both religious and secular. And yet he makes a profound and meaningful choice. He steps out of the limelight to accept a lesser role. He is there, not to make a name for himself, but to witness to another. His own success and popularity are unimportant to him; he wants no fame or fortune. His purpose is to testify to one who is greater than himself.
He is a witness who is clear about who he is and who he is not. “I am not the Christ,” he says plainly, putting to rest any speculation on the part of the crowds that he himself is the long-awaited Messiah. “I am a voice,” he says, “a voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’”
I am a voice, nothing more. A voice is fleeting. After it has spoken, it fades away. That is John’s view of himself. I am merely a fading voice that cries in the wilderness. My purpose is to prepare the way for the One who is coming. My voice is simply a summons to get ready.
We too are called to be voices, temporary voices which God will use to prepare the way in our generation. We are the voice for this time and for this place. Our role is temporary, but it is essential. Without the voice, people will not hear.
To be a witness requires that we know what we are, and what we are not. We are not Jesus. We are simply voices, calling out to get people ready, to prepare them to meet him when he comes. Our purpose is not to draw attention to ourselves, but to him. We are to point people to Jesus.
This solemn feast reminds us of our role, to be witnesses to Jesus in our own day, to be voices that wake those who are sleeping and summon them to be ready to receive the One who has come and is coming and will come again.
Today we remember blessed John the Baptist, who reminds us what an extraordinary calling this is.
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