It All Starts With John
The church I grew up in only had one Advent reading pertaining to John the Baptist. This was how it was from Luther's time till 1978. When I got to seminary in '79, John was all over the readings for Advent. I didn't get why. Maybe you don't either. Advent has so much to do about John because it all starts with him.
The Old Testament ended with him and the New begins with him. In Malachi 3, God says He will send His messenger before the face of the Messiah. In the last two lines of the Old Testament the Lord promises to send His prophet before the day of Yahweh to turn the hearts of fathers and children towards each other. After saying this, God goes dark' for 400 years. The Word of the Lord wasn't rare in those days. It didn't come at all at least it's not recorded for us. Then like a bolt out of the blue we read in Luke 3:2, "The Word of God came to John in the wilderness."
But there is a backstory here. Before Gabriel comes to Mary to announce she will bear the Christ, God sends him to old Zechariah to announce that he and his equally aged-wife will bear John. Only Luke tells you about the annunciation of both John and Jesus and the nativity, or birth, of both. Our text is the last part of John's father's reaction to his nativity. It's called the Benedictus from its first word in Latin Benedictus. The first part speaks of Jesus, and the second is a father's tender address to his son. "And you, my child, will be called the prophet of the Most High because you will go before Yahweh to prepare the way for Him."
The song of salvation through the forgiveness of your sins starts with Zechariah singing of John at his nativity and through the church the song goes on. This is strange. Only the birth days of Jesus and John are celebrated by the church (Reed, 559). In most other cases, it's the death day of a saint that is commemorated. The feast started in the Western church very early. Augustine refers to it in the 4th century (Ibid., 559-60). Strange, but stranger still is that John is a loner who never does a miracle and dies an ignominious death having his head lopped off at the request of a dancing girl and served up on silver platter.
The song of Zechariah about John and Jesus goes on through the church through her calendar. We can date the nativity of John the Baptist because we know from Luke 1 that Zechariah was performing his priestly duties at Jerusalem at the 2 week time of year assigned to his order of the priesthood. We know, Elizabeth conceives soon after Zechariah returns home. Nine months from the dates we know his order served brings us to June 24. This date also establishes Gabriel announcing to Mary on March 25 that she will bear the Christ. That's because Gabriel tells Mary that Elizabeth is then in the sixth month of her pregnancy. Then counting 9 months from the annunciation gives December 25 for Jesus' birth (Origins of the Liturgical Year, 95).
I give you these details so that you can freely disregard those scorners of Christ who tell you Christianity stole her dates from the pagan holidays marking the spring equinox and the summer and winter solstice. If the church was trying to do that, she missed by 3 to 5 days. The spring equinox is March 20; the Annunciation is March 25. The summer solstice is June 20-21; the Nativity of John is June 24. The winter solstice is December 21-22 the Birth of Christ December 25.
The song of salvation that begins with John is sung through the church specifically. but in a way through the world's music too. There is a poem about John the Baptist that dates to the 8th century. It's debated now who wrote it, but it was sung in the 10th century to the notes that make up the first six degrees of the musical scale. It was noted that the initial syllable of each phrase rose just one degree higher that the preceding. This series of fundamental notes give us the familiar, do-re-me-fa-so-la. They took these names after the syllable they were sung to in the that poem. Our modern scale added ti and do at the end. The t and i were originally s and i for Sancte Ioannes or Saint John in English (www. Salvemaria regina.infoSalveMariaRegina/SMR-160/John%2 0the%20 Baptist.htm). So, when you sing any song, I hope you think of John the B.
But you might not; because while the song he started is magnificent, it is also melancholy. Don't you get that that from our text? "And you my child" Zechariah begins, and yes he goes on to speak of salvation through forgiving of sins and the tender mercy of our God, but it comes to those "living in darkness and in the shadow of death." And then the Holy Spirit breaks contact with John for 30 years. He says only that the child grew and became strong in Spirit and he lived in the desert for all those 30 years. Do you get it? John has the aura of the banjo player in Deliverance, of Jodie Foster's hermit woman Nell, of Robert Redford's mountain man Jeremiah Johnson.
He is called by God to be the Last Old Testament Prophet. Look up titles of books and movies with the word last' and you tell me they're not mostly melancholy. Jesus Himself says that no one could name one Old Testament prophet that was not rejected, stoned, or killed, from Abel murdered just outside of Eden to another Zechariah stoned to death inside the temple. Being identified as a prophet was the equivalent of being the guy wearing the red shirt in the original Star Trek series. He always was killed, and John would be too. As I said, at the whim of a dancing girl his head would be served up on a silver platter. This was after being in a dungeon for about 2 years for preaching the truth to King Herod that he was committing adultery by marrying his brother's wife. But the dungeon wasn't the worst of it; the doubting was. Next to jealousy, after guilt, doubt is the most destructive thing a person can experience. And the imprisoned John began to doubt Jesus was the One he was preparing the way for.
In other words, he began to doubt that Jesus was Yahweh, that Jesus was Lord. You've been here, haven't you? It starts with a niggling feeling and then the open contempt for all things Christian you see everywhere makes you feel stupid, and then some very wise sounding, writing, speaking person fertilizes your uncertainty till it comes to full bloom and you're on the cliff of doubt' and only a step from slip sliding away into unbelief.
That didn't happen to John and it won't happen to you. Because Jesus is Yahweh. Jesus, Son of Mary is also God the Son. Jesus is the Lord who walked with Adam in Eden, meant with Moses and Elijah on Sinai, and whom Isaiah and Abraham saw. Although in sin Adam hid from Yahweh, Yahweh came and found him and promised He would redeem Him from sin. When Moses doubted why Yahweh saddled him with the Israelites, Yahweh didn't abandon him either. After He called him home to heaven, Yahweh personally buried Moses' body. Elijah's doubts led him to the conclusion that he was no better than his sinful forefathers. But not in wind, fire, or earthquake does Yahweh come to deal with his doubts but in a gentle voice assuring him that he's still His prophet. When Isaiah sees Yahweh he doesn't doubt but is drop-dead certain that his sin and guilt will damn him then and there, but then and there Yahweh says, "Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for." And when Abraham is consumed with the doubt that he was too old to have the Promised Seed. Yahweh preaches the Gospel to him changing gnawing doubt to glowing laughter.
When we think of John, we think hellfire and brimstone preaching, austere camel's hair dressing. and the disgusting eating of locusts. But his purpose, contrary to all appearances but in accordance with what he did, baptize people for the forgiveness of their sins, and with what he said, "Behold there is the Lamb of God carrying away the sins of the world", was to give the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of people's sins. He could do that because He knew that Yahweh who was perfect, holy, spotless, had come in human flesh and blood to keep every law God had ever given to man, and to offer up His body and blood as a sacrifice to appease God's wrath against our sins, our doubts, our unbelief, our lusts, our greeds, our self-centeredness, and our forgetfulness of all things God.
Where would we be if John was to give the knowledge of salvation to us through our being perfect people, or our trying our hardest, or our giving a certain amount of money, or for our doing this much Bible study? Where would we be if the only way we could know, I mean know we were saved, was if we never lost our temper, never had a lustful thought, never had a doubt, a misbelief, or a great shame? The proclamation of the forgiveness of sins starts with the first sinners in Eden and it's all through the Old Testament, but for us New Testament people, us people of the Last Days, it's starts with John or maybe even with John's dad, Zechariah, singing about him at his birth. That must be why the artist chose to depict him for the festival of John's nativity as you see on your bulletin cover.
It all starts with John, and this is all but lost among even many Christians. At one time, I'm thinking the 1930-50s, John the Baptist was common knowledge. I base this on the fact that when President, Reagan was asked, What was the funniest thing that ever happened to him? He said it was when he in Hollywood. He was with a comedian at a Hollywood restaurant and a distinguishing feature of his act was he spoke with a stutter. There was often a dwarf at this place and he was rather obnoxious and obsequious at the same time. He came up to Reagan's dinner table and laid his head on it. The comedian said, "Did some-some-someone order John, John, John the Baptist" (Piggy Sneed, 152)?
To laugh at that you had to know the who and what of John the Baptist and if you know that you'll know the who and what of Jesus, and that it all started with John and doesn't at all end with his head on a platter. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Nativity of St. John the Baptist (20180624); Luke 1: 76-80