We just finished the festival half of the church year. We celebrated the Father sending Jesus to be born of the blessed virgin Mary, the death and resurrection of Jesus for our sins, the ascension of Jesus, and the sending of the Holy Spirit. Now the focus turns to the faith and life of the Christian – growing and maturing in the faith. The paraments are green during this season. Except today, they are white, and we hear of the birth of John the Baptist.
It’s a little strange, kicking off the non-festival portion of the year with a feast day. One that looks already to the next set of festivals – John was born six months before Jesus, so this is already the first step in the next church year. Normally, this comes after a few weeks of Trinity Sundays – week four or five instead of week one. It marks the division between the first few weeks of Trinity, when the focus is on the work of the Spirit in the life of the Christian, and the second few Sundays when the focus shifts subtly to the work of the Christian in the world. It works out really well most years, because you are about how the spirit works in the church, and then, you hear John the Baptist, who was such a stern preacher of the law. His preaching is summarized as “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It reminds us that, as we grow and mature in the faith we do it only because the spirit works in us. Our life in the world is no product of our work, but of God working in us.
With Easter so late, we are hardly out of the Easter season, and we hear again how very much we need Jesus. While today we commemorate and remember the birth of John the Baptist, John is the one who points out Jesus to us.
Here we are, the longest day of the year barely behind us, and we are looking already to the birth of John, and by extension the birth of Jesus. As has been pointed out in years past, this is good news to the kids, because it means we are now closer to this year’s Christmas celebration than last years. To put it in seasonal terms, the longest day is behind us, the days only get shorter from hear.
It is interesting how the year itself, with its changing seasons, tells the story of redemption. We are reminded in the fall that the world will one day end, and the church year readings are of judgment. The spring is a time of new birth and new life, and we hear of the resurrection of our Lord – the new life that is ours through him. The light of the world appears just as things are at their darkest, but now, becoming gradually more light. And today, we have the birth of John, just at the point that things are at their brightest and best, but becoming more dark from here on out. It sort of echoes John’s words to his own disciples, “he must increase, but I must decrease.” From here on out, the light decreases, until we get to the birth of Jesus. After that, the light increases again. Even though right now, summer has just finally come, the hot days are finally here, and it seems like summer stretches endlessly before us, we know that all too soon, the light will go, the heat will go, the green leaves and the flowers will go, and we will once again be in the darkness and cold of winter. Decrease. And yet, at the darkest time of year, we know that the cold will not last forever, that, even as the icy winter tightens it’s grip on us, we are only months away from the warm of spring, from the new life. At that moment, we hear of the one who comes to save us, we hear of the one who is to increase. And increase he does. He increases from a manger to the right hand of God the father, where he now sits in glory, and from whence he will come to judge the living and the dead.
Today we hear of John the Baptist birth. But John the Baptist birth is about as much about John the Baptist as John’s life was about John the Baptist.
Remember what happens when the Pharisees come to him, he freely confesses, “I am not the Christ.” John wasn’t sent to be about himself. He came to point to another.
Just when we think things are going really well, John shakes us up and reminds us that we need the savior. Not just a savior from this or that problem, but specifically the savior from sin.
If you are swimming at the beach or at the pool, and you are floating and swimming and having a good time, you don’t need a savior. The lifeguard can continue sitting on his perch. You are fine. You only need a lifeguard – a savior, if you need saving. If you are drowning, then you need a lifeguard to jump in and save you.
If John comes to us and announces our need for a savior, we must need saving from something. And John makes clear, we need a savior from sin. Repent! Says John. Turn away from your sin, from your self-righteous conviction that you can somehow make God happy by your own conduct. You can’t. You are a sinner, and you stand condemned in your sin. If John’s demeanor doesn’t get you, standing there in camel’s hair with his locust breath; then perhaps his words will get through, as he calls the fine upstanding people of our community whitewashed tombs and poisonous snakes.
But John doesn’t do this just to annoy, or create a sensation and draw crowds. John preaches the message of repentance because we are sinners in need of repentance. John preaches about the one who is to come as our savior because we need a savior, and he is coming. Hardly earth-shaking news for the people of Jesus day. Everyone knew the messiah was to come. Everyone knew that the prophets had been talking about him, and pointing to him for centuries. John doesn’t do that. John doesn’t just talk about him, he does something unheard of, he talks to him. He doesn’t point to him, he points at him.
Because the savior is here.
John is first to point at Jesus and say, “Here is the Savior.” Luther puts it this way,
Other prophets have also foretold how Christ would come and how He would free the world from sins. But neither Isaiah nor Jeremiah would have been able to say: This is the one whom you must accept. John is the only one whose voice was the first to announce Christ and whose fingers pointed to the person where the forgiveness of sins is actually to be found. No human being had ever had or seen fingers like those of John, with which he pointed to the Lamb of God. Therefore, when we are oppressed by sin, or terrified by the Devil or by Death, what we need to do is to look at the mouth and fingers of the preacher, who will give us the correct teaching and show us how to come to the forgiveness of our sins and how to make our peace with God. This is the joy that the whole world, not just Elizabeth and Zechariah, should have in John.
John points out Jesus. Not a bad thing to do. Especially as we come to that time of year when the festivals have stopped, the church activities are at their low point, people are traveling on vacation, or doing outdoor things that take us away from home and try to keep us away from the church. The temptation to slack off is great. And here comes John, behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Here is the one in whom you must put your faith. Here is the one to save you from your sin. Repent and turn away from your sin. Turn to God, and hear the salvation he gives in Jesus.
This is what John does for us. He shows us Jesus. Just as preachers do to this day, just as Christ has given his Holy church to do for you – to show you , to give you Jesus. To bring you the salvation that he won for you, to bring you the forgiveness of sins that is yours as a gift. To bring you out of darkness, and into his wonderful light.
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.”
May God grant us faith to believe these words, and grace to live them.