Christmas in July...Almost
I wanted to title this sermon "Christmas in July" and key into how retailers try to raise the Christmas spirit in the summer to sell more merchandise. The problem is we're not yet in July, and this festival isn't about the birth of Christ but the birth of John the Baptist. Although this is one of the earliest festivals in the Church, celebrated since the 300's, it's likely none of us have celebrated it before.
So why did the Church ever start celebrating the Nativity of St. John the Baptist? It is not usual to mark the birth of a saint. When we celebrate the festivals of St. Paul, St. Peter, St. Matthew, St. Luke, etc, the Church celebrates on the day of the person's death, not their birthday into this life, but their birthday into everlasting life. There are only two festivals on the Church calendar commemorating the birth of someone. The birth of John the Baptist on June 24, and the birth of our Lord on December 25.
John the Baptist is unique. No one else except Jesus has their birthday on the Church calendar. Some think this is because all the dates in the Church Year are dated from it. Let me explain. We know when John's father served at Jerusalem because the priesthood had assigned orders of service. It was at the end of September. We know he served 2 weeks at the temple, and when he went home, Elisabeth became pregnant. All of this Scripture tells us. It also tells us Mary went to visit Elisabeth in Elizabeth's 6 month. That would be the end of March. So the Church knowing when John was born, June 24, knows that Mary came to visit right after she became pregnant, so the Church celebrates Gabriel announcing that Mary's pregnant on March 25 and Jesus' birth 9 months later on December 25.
This all ties in with how Easter is dated too, but I'll spare you more boring details. The important thing to note is that this celebration of John's birth refutes those who say the Church just took over the holy days of Sun worshipers which are basically the days the season change. Spring begins March 21, summer June 21, fall September 23, and winter December 22. No, the Church Year isn't based on the Sun's movements in the sky. It's based on the Son of God's movements in history; it's based on Him coming to man to begin the New Testament era by telling Zechariah that he and his wife would be given a son. Besides, if the holy dates of the Church were based on the Sun's movement, notice how we always miss them. John's born on June 24 not 21. Gabriel come to Mary on March 25 not the 21. Christmas is on the 25 not the 21. The announcement to Zechariah about having John is on September 24 not 23.
There IS an interesting parallel between the movement of the Sun and John's birth. St. Augustine first noticed this in a sermon for this festival. He quotes John 3:30 where John the Baptist says, "Jesus must increase and I must decrease," and notes that after the feast of John's birth the days become shorter while after the feast of Jesus' birth the days actually become longer. And this pretty much illustrates why we celebrate this day at all. Not so John would increase in importance in our eyes, but so Jesus would. The days of saints in general are celebrated in the Church to point us to Jesus.
How does John point to Jesus? The most obvious thing you could say about John the Baptist is that he marched to the beat of a different drummer. This is a funny thing to say considering the familiar musical scale comes from a 7th century Latin hymn in honor of John the Baptist. Someone noticed 500 years after it was written that the first syllable in each line of the hymn made up a sequence of the first six degrees of the musical scale. He named each degree by the corresponding Latin syllable. That's where we get the familiar Do, Re Mi, etc.
John's life, however, was nothing like the orderly musical scale. He was born to parents late in life. He was given a name by the angel which made him stick out in his own family. He spent most of his life in the desert. He lived on what could be found there, locusts and wild honey. He dressed in camel's hair and a leather belt. Everyone who looked at him saw someone who was different. He was born different, grew different, and lived different. He marched to a different drummer, and that drummer was Christ.
John's whole life was in relation to Christ. He was joined to Christ while still in His mothers womb, no more than 6 months old, being filled with the Holy Spirit by a Word spoken by the Mother of our Lord. He lived 30 years in the desert until as the Scriptures tells us the Word of the Lord came to him and drove him to preach and teach publicly of the coming Christ. Finally, John died in prison for preaching the Word of the Lord. John's whole life was based on the Word. It gave him new life. It went out from his life, and finally it took his life.
John pointed to people and boldly said what God's Word says, "You are miserable sinners who any minute now will be chopped down and thrown into the fire." John pointed people crushed by their sins to Jesus saying what God's Word says about Him, "Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world." There is the answer to your sins. It's not found in you trying harder; it's not found in your making excuses. The answer to your sins is found in Jesus Christ carrying your sins away from you, taking them to the cross, and being crucified there for your sins. John pointed people to Jesus as their saving Lamb and to Baptism as the means of having their sins forgiven them. Baptism was the means by which the forgiveness the Lamb won came to sinners.
Jesus was the drummer that John marched and died to. What are we to learn from this man who was united to Christ from womb to tomb? I think we can learn 2 very practical things. One, that God works in peoples lives according to the Theology of the Cross. In other words, through the pain and suffering, the heartache and the heartbreak, is how God works His good purposes in our lives. It is not by a string of triumphs that God delivers his children into heaven but by means of a string of defeats.
Look again at John's birthday. See Zechariah, his old father, holding him in his arms talking to him. He is doing what many fathers do with their infant children talking to John as if he can understand every word. He first tells John that God has come and redeemed His people. He tells John about Jesus coming birth calling Him "a horn of salvation in the house of David." He tells John that Jesus will enable us to be holy and righteous before God. Then Zechariah proceeds to speak directly about John, "And you, my child..," he says. This is a tender moment.
Hear what Zechariah says to John. He says grand, glorious things to this infant son of his much like a father today might tell his son he will be President or play professional sports. The difference is that Zechariah speaks filled with the Holy Spirit and He is prophesying. Zechariah is not speaking wishfully but authoritatively. He tells John that He will be called a prophet of the Most High. He will prepare the way for none other than Jehovah. He will give to people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.
What wonderful things to say of your son! What comforting things for the Holy Spirit to predict! But how radically different things turned out for John. Rather than being called a prophet of the Most High the generation that John was sent to called him demonic. And he prepared the way all right for Jehovah. John was first rejected; then Jesus was. John was first put in prison; then Jesus was. John was first killed; then Jesus was. And although the Holy Spirit said through Zechariah's mouth that he would give people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sins, what is John remembered for? Preaching forgiveness? No, preaching harsh Law.
Did the Words of God's prophesy fail? They could not have. John was a prophet of the Most High. He did prepare the way of Jehovah. He did save people by preaching forgiveness. But none of this was evident. It all looked like the direct opposite. Even so when you're sick and dying, when you're in the harsh and hurtful things of life, you're not going to look or feel like the new creation you are through Holy Baptism. You're not going to feel or look like the forgiven sinner you are through Holy Absolution. You're going to look and feel lost, abandoned, damned even. When disease or death come marching into your home, you're not going to look or feel like someone who has just been a house guest of the Lord having come from His Holy Table where you didn't just eat with Him, but Him. You're going to look and feel sick and dead when you are sick and dying.
This is the Theology of the Cross. The children of God don't look like what they really are. They look crucified and cast out not beloved and accepted. They look under the wrath of God not under His grace and blessing. They look like John the Baptist did who had spent his entire life in service of the Word only to get his head chopped off to please a dancing girl.
When his disciples came and carried away his headless body, what do you think they thought? They thought what you do at the graves of Christians. It shouldn't end this way. It should end with trumpets and triumph, with the heavens splitting open and receiving your loved one so all the world would know they really were beloved by God in Christ. One day they will know. One day God will work gloriously, but not today. Today He hides what He does and even His own people under the cross. He hid His cousin John; He hid Himself too under the cross. He hides you there also. Just as John was told by Jesus not to stumble at the cross, so John tells us by his life. Don't judge your life by what you see; judge by what the Holy Spirit says.
I said there were 2 things we could learn from John. The first was that God works in our lives according to the Theology of the Cross. The second is that God works in our lives not directly but through weak means. 400 years before John was born God said to Malachi literally, "I will send my angel who will prepare the way before Me." How did God send that angel? Through the bodies of two old folks. John is commissioned to prepare the way of Christ. How did he do that? With signs and wonders? Nope by boring sermons and simple baptism.
The nativity of St. John the Baptist can teach us that God works through simple means in our lives. He teaches and forgives us not by heavenly angels but by human pastors. They're armed not with miracles, not with obvious power that even a pagan would have to acknowledge, but with Water that is able to forgives sins because it's connected to God's Word, with Words that forgive sins because they are God's Words, with Bread and Wine that by God's Word are really the Body and Blood of Christ. God does the miraculous thing of saving people from hell by means of ordinary things. He did it in John's day. He does it in ours too.
Was I right? None of us before have celebrated the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. Perhaps we will get use to it sort of like people have gotten use to Christmas in July sales. Sure John isn't Jesus and this isn't July, but almost. The same grace and joy of Christmas is here for us albeit still under the cross in weak looking things. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Nativity of St. John the Baptist (6-24-01), Luke 1:57-60