Download or listen to the Nativity of St. John the Baptist: “The Holy Covenant” (Luke 1:57-80; Isaiah 40:1-5)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Six months from today, we will begin our celebration of the Nativity of Jesus, on December 24. But today we celebrate another nativity, another birth: John the Baptizer. This is, in fact, the only other nativity that is observed on the Church’s calendar. We do not celebrate the birth of Mary, or Peter, or Paul; only this John. In a couple months, on August 29, we will celebrate John’s other birth into heaven by martyrdom, but today we celebrate his birth into this world. Why? Because John’s birth is so tied into the story of God’s salvation, so tied into Jesus’ birth, that Luke won’t let us forget about it, even if we wanted to. When Zechariah sings his song on the day of John’s naming and circumcision—and you’d sing, too, if you had been mute for nine months—it’s all triumph and victory. You can feel the emotion behind Zechariah’s words, and you fully expect that this means that the “glory of Yahweh will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together,” as Isaiah had promised (Isaiah 40:5). But when John starts his work, when the parallels between his and Jesus’ life start appearing, there is no glory, no triumph, no victory to be seen. There are some strange things: The angel Gabriel comes to Zechariah and tells him he’s going to have a son; the same angel comes to Mary and says she’s going to have a son. Two unlikely births: one to Zechariah and Elizabeth, old and barren; one to Mary, still a virgin. Two questions: How will I know this? And, How can this be, since I have not known a man? Two answers: I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to preach this message to you. You will be mute until the child is born; and, to Mary, with God nothing is impossible, but the Spirit of God will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, and you will conceive and give birth. Two names given before birth; two sons named and circumcised on the eighth day, and so they both enter into the promise God made to Abraham. They both grow and become strong. They both go out into the wilderness: John, until the day that God tells him to go and preach, and then he goes to the Jordan to baptize; and Jesus, who is baptized in the Jordan by John, and then goes into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. They both preach the same sermon: John says, Repent, because the Reign of God is near; Jesus says, Repent, because the Reign of God is here. And the words of both of them are seemingly silenced. John preaches the Word of the Law to Herod, because he has taken his brother’s wife in adultery, and so Herod takes John’s head. Jesus, the Word made flesh, preaches the Gospel that the salvation of God has come upon the earth, and they crucify Him. In every way, John goes before Jesus; what happens to John happens to Jesus. Or, maybe, we should say it the other way: what happens to Jesus happens to John, because John points to Jesus with his whole life. Maybe sometimes unwillingly. Maybe sometimes John would have chosen otherwise; but it doesn’t matter because God chose him. John goes before Jesus to prepare His ways in every way but one: resurrection. There, Jesus, the greater one, must go before John. So Jesus rises on the third day, so that John will rise on the last day. Here, Jesus has prepared the way for John and the way for you: where the Head goes, the Body must follow, and you are the Body of Christ.
So take comfort, people of God. Your warfare is ended. Your warfare with God, and your warfare with each other. Your heavy labor under the burdens of this world, so that some days you don’t even want to get up, don’t want to deal with it, don’t want to talk to that person, or do what you have to do—it’s over. If your warfare, your hard labor, were left to you, it would never end, never be finished. But Jesus, in His eternity, has completed it for you. He has accepted your sin, not because you can pay for it, but because He accepts it as His own, so that there is nothing left to do to make things right with God. All your sin? Double comfort. All your bitterness, history, conflict, unbelief, the times you’ve settled for the darkness against the light, He accepts it as His own, so that He can end it where all things end: in death. Your warfare is ended. Dead people don’t fight, and the world has nothing to do with the dead. He saves us from all our enemies by killing us. Death is the last enemy, but even that one cannot do anything, because resurrection is the end of death, and Jesus has already gone that way ahead of John, and you, and me.
Now, I know, it’s a little hard to believe when all you have is a voice. John was only a voice, crying out in the wilderness; a voice saying, prepare the way for the Lord in the wilderness. And we have nothing more than a voice, nothing more than the word of Jesus’ own promise. But do not worry: God remembers His holy covenant, the one He made with Abraham when He was dead asleep. The promise was that if anyone ever broke the covenant, someone had to die. But when the covenant was broken, it wasn’t Abraham, or David, or you, or me who died, it was God Himself, who took on flesh so that He could die. And Jesus puts the covenant back together in Himself; He joins God and Man again in His own body, and no one can tear apart that covenant anymore, because no one can separate Jesus into God and Man. He is both, forever, for you. Now it is only in Christ that God remembers His holy covenant. You know, it strikes me that the only two places where this word is used in the Gospel of Luke are here—God remembers His holy covenant—and there: This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this of My remembrance. See, this is how God remembers His covenant with you in Christ: by you drinking this blood. If you drink the blood of Christ, who has risen from the dead, you cannot die—even if you die. So you are rescued from all your enemies and from the hands of those who hate you, even your own sinful flesh. Comfort, comfort people of God. Eat and drink. It’s all over.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 6/22/12