|The Naming of St. John the Baptist - Fra Angelico, 1434-1435|
Saturday, June 23, 2012
Blessed Be the Lord God of Israel
The text for today is our Gospel, Luke 1:57-80, which has already been read.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The Nativity of St. John the Baptist. It seems a little out of place, doesn’t it? We’re used to hearing about John the Baptist in Advent or in Lent. His message of repentance fits very well with those two penitential times of the church year. But here it is…the early part of Pentecost. So why are we hearing about his birth? Well, do the math. When do we celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord? December 24th and 25th. And how far along in her pregnancy is Elizabeth when the Virgin Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel? Six months. So, back up six months from Christmas and you land on June 24th. That’s why we celebrate the Nativity of St. John the Baptist on this date.
St. Luke, ever the historian, begins his account of John’s birth this way: “In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest name Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years” (Luke 1:5-7).
Only those who have experienced the heartbreak of barrenness can truly appreciate the anguish of Zechariah and Elizabeth. They have prayed earnestly to the Lord that He would grant them a child. However, Elizabeth has reached the point in her life when women normally no longer can conceive children. So when the angel Gabriel announces to Zechariah that he will father a child, this old man is dumbfounded—and he does not believe. As a chastisement from God, Zechariah is unable to speak for the entire nine months of his wife’s pregnancy.
At last, the time comes for the child of Zechariah and Elizabeth to be born. Neighbors and relatives share the mother’s joy. Zechariah hardly seems to be in the picture. But his time is coming. The Old Testament law decreed that sons were to be circumcised on the eighth day. Circumcision took place in the home, and the child was named at the same time.
So on the day of circumcision, the eighth day after birth, the neighbors and relatives again gather. They propose to Elizabeth that she give her child the name of his father. But Elizabeth needs no advice from others as to what name this child should have. The name had already been given by the angel: “You shall call his name John.” No amount of persuasion could change her mind.
Having failed to budge the mother, the well-meaning family friends turn their attention to the long silent father, Zechariah, hoping that he might overrule his wife. To the astonishment of all, Zechariah writes the words on a tablet: “His name is John,” which means “the Lord is gracious,” a fitting name as that would be the sum and substance of his prophetic message when he would come of age.
At once Zechariah’s tongue is freed. Filled with the Holy Spirit, words of praise flow from his mouth. Here is conversion—doubt turned to faith, skepticism replaced with adoration. No wonder the people of the hill country of Judea talk of hardly anything else. “What then will this child be?” they ask.
It is a question the new father answers in a 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, as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old, 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, the oath that He swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.
“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, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise 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.”
This is an important canticle of praise, worthy of a closer look. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,” Zechariah begins. Why is the Lord God of Israel worthy of such praise? He remembers His holy covenant, His oath, His promise of salvation for His people. He has promised it from the very beginning. Before He even described the consequences of the Fall to Adam and Eve, the Lord God made them a promise. He promised that a Savior would come from the Seed of the woman to crush the head of Satan (Genesis 3:15). From then on, He would keep sending prophets to call His people to repentance and to declare His promise.
The Lord God renewed His promise with Abraham. When animals were sacrificed and blood was shed at His command, the Lord came to be present with Abraham, passing through the midst of the sacrifice itself. He promised Abraham a land. Then He promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations, of numerous descendants. And most importantly, the Lord God of Israel promised that one of Abraham’s descendants would be the Savior of the world, and that through Him all nations would be blessed.
Throughout the centuries, the Lord repeated His promise through His prophets. Nathan declared that a son of David would rule from David’s throne forever (2 Samuel 7:13). Isaiah prophesied this Savior would be born of a virgin and be called Immanuel (7:14). And Micah added He would be born in Bethlehem (5:7). The Old Testament Zechariah declared the Savior would ride into Jerusalem on a colt, the foal of a donkey (9:9-10). While David vividly described His crucifixion (Psalm 22) and prophesied His resurrection (Psalm 16:10).
Each time one of these prophets spoke the Word, the Lord God provided more information about the coming Savior. And in each of these prophecies, there was encouragement: Do not despair. The Savior is coming.
The blessed Lord God of Israel remembers and keeps His promises. That’s what Zechariah sings. The Lord God remembers His promise and John’s birth is further confirmation. He will be the prophet who bridges the Old Testament and the New Testament. He will prepare the way of the Most High, and the Most High will save His people from their enemies. He will set them free to serve the Lord without fear and sin—all the days of their lives.
How will this deliverance take place? Zechariah tells us as he speaks of his son’s message. John will “give knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their sins.” John will tell them of their sin, and John will tell them that the Lord is at work to take their sins away—to deliver them to holiness and righteousness forever. In other others, John will call them to repentance and faith in the Lord God of Israel, Jesus Christ.
How is the Lord at work? By visiting them. By coming to them. The Lord God of Israel—the Son of God, the Dayspring from on high—comes to give light to those who sit in the shadow of death.
How? By His sacrifice. The Most High will be made the lowest. Born to humble Virgin Mary and laid in a manger is pretty low. But He will be made even lower by His holy suffering, death, and shedding of blood in order to reconcile us to His heavenly Father. He will be falsely accused and condemned, spit upon, struck in the face with fists, hit, whipped, crowned with thorns, and treated wretchedly, like a worm not a man. Despised and rejected by men, a Man of Sorrows, and acquainted with grief, He will be counted as a sinner and hung up between two evildoers as a curse. There on the cross He will be reduced to the object of God’s judgment for all sin there, so that His people might be delivered.
This will all take place, says Zechariah. Why? Because the blessed Lord God of Israel has promised. And He always keeps His promises.
In fact, the promise has not ceased. The blessed Lord God of Israel comes and redeems you, too. Zechariah’s song is not some little ditty that applied only to his household. We don’t just hear it for the sake of some quaint history. In fact, his song, called the Benedictus (the Latin word for “blessed”), is part of our Matins or Morning Prayer liturgy down to this day. You are in this song.
As a priest, Zechariah devoted his life to serving the Lord by representing the people in the temple. Led by the Holy Spirit, Zechariah prophesies of a new era when all believers as priests will worship their Savior, a day when there will be no need for a temple made by human hands, but when all of God’s people will be temples of the Holy Spirit.
He’s talking about you! You, dear Christians, are God’s people. You are children of Abraham—not by bloodline perhaps, but by faith. St. Paul declares that those—and only those—who are of faith in Christ are sons of Abraham (Galatians 3:7). As God remembered His promises to Abraham and his descendants, so He remembers His promises to you.
For another thing, you have enemies. Oh, not so much that co-worker who you can’t stand, or the hostile neighbor who doesn’t like your kids walking across his lawn. Not even those who would seek to destroy your home or nation—though you certainly should pray that God would keep you safe from them. These are enemies, certainly. But your real enemies are a far more threatening trio: sin, death, and the devil. It is sin that seeks to keep you in darkness, tempting you to follow any desire that will take you away from the light of Christ. It’s death that’s always shadowing you, catching the corner of your mind, hoping to haunt you with its inevitability. The devil is already defeated; but sore loser that he is, he seeks to take as many with him as he can to the depths of hell for eternity.
Oh, yes! You have enemies… and you’re no match for them. But blessed be the Lord God of Israel. He visits and redeems you, His people. He saves you from the hand of your enemies. He remembers His promises. He renews His oath and covenant with you—personally, individually.
Hear His oath which He promised to you: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. “I baptize you,” not “them out there somewhere.” The blessed Lord God has made His promise to you. There, at the font, He works forgiveness of sins and washes yours away. He makes you His own dear child and heir of His kingdom. He delivers you from death and the devil, and promises salvation to you who believe—as His Word and promises declare. He has given His Son to die so that you might be forgiven. He delights to cleanse you by the waters of Holy Baptism.
And the blessed Lord God remembers His oath and reminds you each week. Through the lips of the pastor—His called and ordained servant—He declares to you: “I forgive you of all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In other words, He declares, “I made you Mine in Holy Baptism. By this Holy Absolution, I declare to you that I remember My promise: I have given My Son for you, and I have made you Mine. You are forgiven.”
As He was present to make His covenant with Abraham, so the Lord is present to proclaim it to you. “Take and eat—this is My body… Take and drink; this cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins.” Did you hear it? Given and shed for you. Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; He remembers His promise, and He remembers you.
And here’s the thing. Remember those enemies you have; the ones that you’re no match for? He is. He’s already defeated them at the cross. Apart from Christ, you dwelled in the darkness of sin. But Christ has called you out of darkness and into His marvelous light. “I am the Light of the world,” He promises. “Whoever follows Me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). You can’t defeat sin, but Jesus defeats your sin. All it takes is three simple words. That’s right—three simple words: “I forgive you.” That does it. Sin can’t kill you, because Jesus takes your sin away.
Apart from Christ, you lived in the shadow of death. It shadowed your every move, whispering, “Go ahead. Do whatever. Run as long as you like, but I’ll catch you in the end.” True enough—apart from Christ. But Christ the Lord has defeated death: His resurrection proves to you that the grave has no hold over Him. And since you have been baptized into His death and resurrection, death has no lasting hold over you, either.
And this blessed Lord God remembers you. He proclaims that He comes to give you life. Death is reduced from an enemy that won’t be denied to a shadow; and it can hurt you no more than a brief shadow. Oh, it may leave you cold and fearful for a moment. That’s to be expected. You were created to live forever, so it’s no wonder that death and dying can shake you up. But remember the Lord’s promise: He will raise you up, with a body incorruptible, unto life everlasting. You have eternal life, because the Lord remembers you.
Therefore, so much for the devil as well. You’re no match for him; it’s true. But the Lord has stripped him of his weapons of sin and death, and all the devil has left are empty threats, empty promises, empty lies.
In place of those empty lies, the blessed Lord God declares this fullness of truth: “I have come and redeemed you. I have saved you from the hands of your enemies. I have shown you mercy. Go, in the way of peace. You are forgiven for all of your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.
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