6/24/2018 John the Baptist The text is Luke 1:57-80.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
If today’s lessons sound a lot like Advent readings, it’s not surprising. Taking a cue from Gabriel’s announcement to Mary about Elizabeth that “this is the sixth month for her who is said to be barren,” the church celebrates the birth of John the Baptist six months before Christmas. But at this halfway point in the year, a time when lawnmowers are primes for work, not snow blowers, and people are sipping cold drinks by the lake or swimming in the ocean tide, I’m not about to announce the number of shopping days we have left until Christmas. For today is not a celebration of Jesus’ birth. Today is a celebration of the gift that God gave us in a change-agent named John, the message that God gave him to proclaim, and God’s fulfillment of his promise.
Now, John’s father was a priest named Zechariah. He and his wife Elizabeth were both “getting on in years”. They were good, respectable people whose only regret in life was that God had not answered their prayers of having a child. But this barren time for these good people was about to change as the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah saying, “Don’t be afraid, your prayers have been answered. You’re going to have a son.”
When the baby was born, Zechariah and Elizabeth took him to be circumcised on the eighth day as was Jewish custom. They were surrounded by their friends and relatives because it was also the custom at this time the baby would be named. Everyone assumed the child would be named after his father Zachariah, which means “God will remember”. That was the tradition. But Elizabeth who was now speaking for both of them said, “No, his name will be John.” The crowd then looked at the old man and asked, “What do you have to say about this?” Anyone who has ever named a child knows that you put a lot of thought into this. It isn’t an easy thing to do, and you don’t really appreciate the help you get from others. So Zechariah took a tablet and wrote down, “His name is John, which means “God shows favor” or “God gives grace”.” And with this, the days of Zechariah, in which God remembers, give way to the era in which God gives grace. John, by his very name, is an agent of change.
Now no one likes change, whether it is benevolent or not – as it takes us out of the known and comfortable and moves us into the unfamiliar. That’s why it’s stressful to move up in the ranks in a business and take on new responsibilities. That’s why going away to college can bring on the blues. That’s why even simple changes in little things can bring resistance and anger. We want to grow, to develop, to abound, but at the same time, we want everything to remain the same. And that is impossible. For if everything remains the same, we can only stagnate and die as the world marches on without us. Only one thing remains the same and that is the word of God.
The people to whom John the Baptist was sent were as resistant as we are to change. But God was about to do a new thing in the fulfillment of his promise to save the people. God did not choose John to proclaim the message that the world was great, that the people were perfect and God was pleased. The message proclaimed by John the Baptist was that God was about to do something that would change the world forever.
The axe was laid to the root of the trees. But the people were not ready for this change so John did everything he could to cajole and persuade those who would listen to flee from the wrath to come by turning away from injustice and wrongdoing. People themselves needed to change. They needed to change their direction and focus in life, and their purpose for living. “Strip away pretense,” he said, “and take a good look at yourself. Change while there is still time. Let justice roll down from the heavens like waters, righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Now these are uncomfortable, uncompromising words. They point to a change which cannot be stopped as kingdom of God is at hand. But they also point to change that is needed in the heart and mind and soul of all people in order to be prepared to receive the new thing that God is about to do in Jesus Christ. Like an alarm clock shattering the morning silence, with this God-given message, John delivers a wake-up call – a wake up call which foreshadows a change which is to come through God’s grace.
God isn’t going to let things continue as they have always been. The kingdom of truth and justice is coming, God’s messiah is at the threshold, and the day is dawning when the world will at last be put right. The crooked timber of humanity is on its way to being straightened out. God’s advent will set the world free, free us from the chains that bind us by applying the surgery that heals. So there is hope in abundance, even in John’s call to repentance: for repentance is driven by the hope that life can be transformed, that we can be that God created us to be.
Jesus summons us to welcome him by turning away from the old in order to embrace the new. It is difficult. It is costly. But hope drives us to it, our hope in the God of Israel and the God of John the Baptist who is compassionate and merciful. For there is nothing to fear in this change. There is only peace and salvation which come freely from the hands of God. This is the message of John. It is a proclamation coming from the heart of our compassionate God and the hope for all generations to come.
So at this halfway point in the year, we give thanks to God for his gift of John the Baptist, who willingly stood firm in faith in the face of resistance and shared the message of God’s salvation in the one who came after him, Jesus Christ, the redeemer of the world. May we listen to John’s words, remember his message of hope and fulfillment, and embrace the changes in our own life, our church, and our world which help us grow in grace each day. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.