“St. John the Baptist: Born to Forerun” (Luke 1:57-80)
Merry Saintjohnthebaptistmas! “What?” you say, “What did he say?” I said, Merry Saintjohnthebaptistmas! You heard me right. If we celebrate Christmas, the birth of Christ, on December 25, then six months before that, which is today, we should celebrate the birth of his predecessor, his forerunner, St. John the Baptist. So, Merry Saintjohnthebaptistmas!
Six months out from Christmas. But Christmas is December 25, and today is only June 24, not the 25th. How come we’re celebrating on this day? Well, it’s just a little quirk in the calendar. In the old Roman way of dating things, they would go by how many days an event occurred prior to the first day of the next month. And if you count backwards from July 1, since June has only 30 days, instead of 31, that is how you end up on June 24, and that is why the church celebrates the Nativity of St. John the Baptist on this date. But the point is, it’s six months before Christmas, John was born six months before Jesus, so there you go.
Yes, today is the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. And so our readings today all have to do with the life and ministry of John. And while we do hear about John at other times during the year–especially during the season of Advent, when there are readings about his ministry at the Jordan–the distinctive thing about the readings for the Nativity of St. John is that we hear a text specifically about his birth. That’s the Holy Gospel for today, from Luke 1.
In this Gospel reading, we hear about the birth of John and his circumcision and naming on the eighth day. And then there is a beautiful prophecy that John’s father, Zechariah, speaks on this occasion, a prophecy concerning the great things that this birth is heralding and the role that his son, John, would have in them.
This child, John, would go before the Lord to prepare his way. That was his mission in life. Both his name and this prophecy signal this calling on John’s life. Right from the outset, right from his birth, John’s career path was laid out for him. And that was to be the forerunner of the Lord, to go before him to prepare his way. Thus we can say that St. John the Baptist was “Born to Forerun.”
Both his name and this prophecy tell us that. So let’s look at both. Both of these things pertain to you, believe it or not. Well, believe it, because it’s true. What John was born to do–born to forerun, to be the forerunner of the Lord–this brings a great message of comfort and salvation to people like you and me. And it calls forth great praise to God from us, in thanks for sending John and, even more so, for sending the Savior whom John announced.
First, we’ll consider John’s name and the significance of that. We read in our text that a son has been born to Elizabeth and Zechariah. A week later, on the eighth day–that was when a Jewish baby boy would be circumcised and brought into the covenant people of God. It was also the day when that baby would receive its name. And so friends and neighbors would come over to the house for this joyous occasion. That is where we find ourselves in the text. This would be the public announcing of the child’s name. What will his name be, the guests are wondering, this little baby boy?
“And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, but his mother answered, ‘No; he shall be called John.’ And they said to her, ‘None of your relatives is called by this name.’ And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And they all wondered.”
Now you may be wondering: What’s the big deal about naming the kid John? Doesn’t seem like such a special thing to me. So he wasn’t named after his dad. And so he wasn’t named after anyone in the family. Big deal. John is a common enough name, and it was even back then. Nothing weird about it. And the other thing: What’s this business about the boy’s father having to write the name down on a writing tablet? Can’t he speak?
Well, no, he couldn’t. Zechariah could not speak at that time. And this goes back to how the name John was decided upon right from the get-go, nine months earlier. You see, Zechariah was a priest serving at the temple. An angel, Gabriel, appeared to him, announcing that Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were going to have a child. Zechariah couldn’t believe it, because both he and his wife were old, and Elizabeth had not been able to have children. Nevertheless, Gabriel tells Zechariah, “You are going to have a child, and you shall call his name John. That’s a direct order from the Lord. This child, John, will have a special mission from the Lord.” But Zechariah can’t believe this amazing news, and the angel tells him that therefore he will be struck dumb, unable to speak, until this takes place. So that is why, for the last nine months, Zechariah has had to use hand signals and a writing tablet to communicate.
But apparently during this time he had communicated the angel’s message to his wife, Elizabeth. For she tells the folks, “He shall be called John.” And then the dad, Zechariah, settles the matter by writing, “His name is John.” At that point Zechariah’s mouth is opened, he is able to speak once again, and he begins to bless God, in praise and thanksgiving.
Now why “John”? Why did the angel direct Zechariah to give him just that particular name? Names have meanings, and especially in the Bible, often the meaning of a person’s name tell will us something about what God is doing through that person. For instance, the name “Jesus” means “The Lord saves,” for through Jesus, the Lord will save his people from their sins. Likewise with the name “John.” “John,” or in the Hebrew, “Johannan,” means “The Lord is gracious.”
“The Lord is gracious.” That is what John’s whole life and ministry would be about–how the Lord God is being gracious toward us. God’s free grace, his giving nature and the gifts he bestows, giving us the forgiveness of sins, giving us his own Son so that we would not perish but have eternal life–these gifts we sinners do not deserve, yet God gives us, because he is gracious. He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. You and I do not deserve the good things we receive–and will receive–from God. We have earned only God’s wrath and displeasure. But the Lord is gracious to us. Yes, “The Lord is gracious” sums up John’s life and work, and that is why his name fits him to a t.
John’s father, Zechariah, knows this. His son’s miraculous birth, the announcing of it beforehand by an angel–Zechariah knows that something special is going on. The Spirit reveals to him that, beginning with this birth, God is about to bring about a very big deal indeed, the fulfillment of all the ancient promises. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Zechariah then utters this beautiful, poetic prophecy that we call the Benedictus. It’s called that because the first word of it in the Latin translation is “Benedictus,” that is, “Blessed.”
The Benedictus prophecy can be divided into two parts. In the first section, Zechariah blesses God for how he is fulfilling his ancient promises. In the second part, Zechariah poetically addresses his newborn son, telling him what his role in life will be. The first part begins: “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.”
The God of Israel is “visiting” and “redeeming” his people. He is coming to their aid and bringing them out of bondage, like he did when Israel was in bondage in Egypt. Then Zechariah adds that the Lord is raising up “a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.” That is clear messianic language. The Lord had promised that the Messiah, the Christ, the great king to come, would come from the line of David. Now the Messiah is coming, finally! That will happen very soon–six months later, actually–with the birth of Christ Jesus. He will be the “horn of salvation” for us. “Horn,” in the biblical vocabulary, signifies strength and might and power, like a ram using his horn to exercise power. In other words, a mighty powerful king is about to arise, the Messiah himself. That John the forerunner now has been born tells us that the Christ himself is near.
The Benedictus prophecy continues: “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.”
Here Zechariah recalls another ancient promise that now is being fulfilled, namely, the Lord’s covenant with Abraham. The Lord had told Abraham that he would bless him and make him a great nation, that he would bless those who bless Abraham and curse those who curse him, and that in him, in Abraham’s seed, all the families of the earth would be blessed. Now that is coming to pass. God will deliver us from our enemies, from sin, death, and the devil. God will enable us to be his holy, righteous people. Abraham’s seed is about to be born, in the person of Jesus.
That is how John fits in. His job in life will be to prepare the way for Jesus. So Zechariah looks at his newborn son and tells him what that will mean: “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.”
John was born to forerun, to “go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” John would call sinners to repentance. He preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He said, “The one coming after me is greater than I, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” The light had dawned on those sitting in darkness, and John came to bear witness concerning the light. John pointed his disciples to Jesus and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John’s whole life was to point people to Jesus.
As in birth, so also in death, John the Baptist was the forerunner of the Lord. For just as John suffered and was put to death unjustly for the cause of righteousness, so in an even greater way Jesus himself would suffer and die. For in the death of Christ comes the very forgiveness that John was able to proclaim. Jesus bore our sins in his body on the cross, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring us to God. The Son of God in the flesh shed his holy blood for you and me, and thus he is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” just as John declared. Christ is the horn of our salvation, the Davidic King, conquering our enemies for us. Jesus is the seed of Abraham, in whom we are blessed, blessed eternally. John’s name says “The Lord is gracious,” and Jesus’ name, “The Lord saves,” shows us how.
Born to forerun. That is why we celebrate the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. The forerunner points us to one who comes after him, and that is Jesus. Even at John’s birth, his name, John, and the prophecy spoken about him, the Benedictus, are pointing us to Christ.
“John,” “The Lord is gracious.” The Lord is gracious to you, my friend. He gives you gifts you don’t deserve. “Jesus,” “The Lord saves.” The Lord saves you from your sins, saves you from death, and saves you unto everlasting life. So listen to John. Trust in Jesus. And have a merry Saintjohnthebaptistmas!