MAY THE WORDS OF MY MOUTH
AND THE MEDITATIONS OF MY HEART
BE ACCEPTABLE IN THY SIGHT,
O LORD, MY ROCK AND MY REDEEMER. AMEN.
John the Baptist has been as popular figure for artists through the centuries. Perhaps it is his strange dress – a camel’s hair shirt, unkempt hair, long and uncut because like Samson and Samuel he had taken a Nazarite vow. Perhaps it was John the Baptist’s unusual lifestyle – eating nothing but wild things, grasshoppers, wild honey, drinking only water. For whatever reason, John is a common figure in the history of western art. He is usually shown with a scroll that read, “Behold the lamb of God.” He is often shown pointing to Christ. In the east, Byzantine art, the scroll is usually inscribed, “Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand.” Repent and behold. Behold and repent.
John is the bridge between the two testaments. He is the last of the Old Testament prophets. After fourteen generations, 420 years, the spirit of prophecy was active again in John the Baptist. He dressed like an Old Testament prophet and preached a prophetic message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
But John is more important even than being the greatest of the prophets. He is mentioned more than one hundred times in the New Testament, more than any figure other than Jesus himself, Peter and Paul. Each of the Gospel writers begins his message with John the Baptist. Why?” Besides being the last of the prophets, John ushers in the age of salvation. John the Baptist is called the daystar, the herald, the voice of one crying in the wilderness who would make straight the paths to prepare the way of the Lord. John the Baptist is a sign of the fulfillment of God’s Law, the end of the Old Covenant and the dawning of the age of salvation. He is the herald of the New Covenant.
I was speaking a while ago with a woman who was severely crippled by cerebral palsy. In our visit she said to me, “Pastor, why do we hear so much about duty and loyalty in the Christian religion? Why don’t we hear more about the joy of being a Christian? In spite of her disability, she knew the joy of following the Lord.
Now joy is part of our Gospel message – the joy we have because of God’s grace and mercy in sending us Jesus Christ. It is part of the message of John the Baptist thought we do not usually recognize it. His birth is a cause of great joy for two believing saints, Elizabeth and Zechariah. They were childless and in advancing years. The story of John’s birth is a miracle. Zechariah was a priest chosen to offer a special sacrifice of incense in the Temple. The crowd had gathered in the Temple courts waiting for Zechariah to offer the incense and then come out, as the custom was, to bless the people. Zechariah went to God’s altar and an angel of the Lord, Gabriel, met him.
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah,
for your prayer is heardand your wife Elizabeth will bear a son,and you shall call his name John.”
Zechariah did not believe the angel’s word and asked, “How shall I know this? I am an old man.” Gabriel replied, “You shall be unable to speak until the day these things are brought to pass.” Zechariah went out of the Temple and was mute. He was unable to pronounced the expected blessing.
The angel said the birth of John the Baptist would be good news. The anticipation of his birth brought joy to his parents. When he was born the relations and neighbors came to rejoice with this family whose son was not named Zechariah Jr. after his father but John, Yochanan, Yahweh’s gift, God’s gift. God had graciously gifted Israel with this child so that the good news of God’s salvation might be proclaimed. The time of waiting for Israel was now over, the time of fulfillment was near, the Messiah and Savior would soon be born. God was now fulfilling the promises made over long centuries, promises made through the prophets, to the forbears, back even to Abraham as our text says. God was faithful even when the people were not. God’s promises are sure, no matter how long it takes.
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We live in a world where promises are made but seldom kept, where it appears so often that God is remote and unconcerned about us. We live in a time of darkness and sin and fear. But we can have joy in the message of Zechariah, of John the Baptist, of Christ. Christ is our Savior. In him we have forgiveness of sins and life and salvation. God will fulfill the promises made to us and give us every good thing, just as God fulfilled the promises made to his people long ago through the birth of the Christ Child. As St. Paul writes,
“I do not consider the sufferings of this present time
worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed…
We know that the whole creation
has been groaning in travail together until now,
and not only the creation but we ourselves.”
We can rejoice with Paul and Zechariah and Elizabeth that the time of God’s salvation is now. God’s word of promise is sure!
But as Christians we do not need to be happy all the time. Too often, it seems, we deny our real emotions and just put on a happy face. We can have the full range of human emotions and still be joyful. Certainly the story of John the Baptist should remind us that faithful believers will have difficulties. From his birth, people came to Zechariah and Elizabeth to talk them out of giving the name John. Both father and mother said it was God’s will that this boy be named John. Right away, it is obvious that one cannot please all the people all the time. Then we know that the authorities did not like John’s ministry. They were suspicious of this oddly dressed prophet who was out in the wilderness calling people to repentance and baptism. John was a threat to the rulers and priests.
Finally he was killed. We remember the scene from the Bible, placed in an opera by Richard Strauss and a short story by Oscar Wilde where the wicked Salome danced with John’s head on a platter before her debauched uncle, King Herod. John was imprisoned and put to death for his message. So many people loved the darkness rather than the light. They behead the messenger of joy, as they would come to crucify the Lord and Savior.
Repent and behold. John still points his finger to Christ. Our joy comes through faith in the Savior. John the Baptist has come that we might know God’s love and God’s will which is faith in Christ. As John Calvin put it in his catechism :
What is the chief end of human beings?
To know God.
What is happiness?
When Zechariah was finally able to speak again, he was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied singing the great song of the Benedictus. It is our text – this great canticle of blessing to the God who promises good things and fulfills His promises:
Blessed be the Lord, God of Israel,
for He has visited and redeemed His people.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of His servant David…
Throughout Zechariah uses past tenses of verbs to signify that God’s promises are so sure that one can speak of them as being fulfilled even before they have been. Salvation is sure in Jesus Christ. He is the daystar come from on high to shine on US. We dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. We need Him to guide our feet into the path of peace.
In his book Plain Christianity, J.B. Phillips tells the story of an exciting evening at a youth center in London. There had been dancing, speeches and cheer and singing, “For he’s a jolly good fellow.” At the end of the evening, Phillips suggested that the group have some worship. One young person spoke up bluntly, “You know we haven’t any idea what you really mean by worship.” “Haven’t you?” he responded, “Well, it’s like three cheers for God.”
In our worship we say three cheers for the God of our salvation. We sing, “Glory to God in the highest” with the angels and “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel” with Zechariah. We have great joy in our Christian faith in spite of everything that may happen to us because we have come to know Jesus. Behold Jesus. He is the Lamb of God who takes away our sin and the sin of the world. Behold Jesus. Repent and turn to him. Repent. Behold and repent, believe and rejoice. Amen.
––Copyright 2003, James Kegel. Used by permission.