Today on our calendar we had the option of celebrating this special feast day, the birthday of John the Baptist.
You know John. He was that crazy guy who spent his time in the wilderness until he began to preach repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
His father was Zechariah, and since we just celebrated Father’s Day last Sunday, it is fitting that we celebrate Zechariah today.
In the Gospel according to St. Luke, the first chapter, the birth of John the Baptist was foretold. Zechariah was a priest in the temple, which was a very important calling. He role was to carry out the ritual sacrifices for the Lord so that the people would be forgiven of their sins.
Zechariah had a wife named Elizabeth, but they had no children because, as Luke wrote, she was unable to have any. One day, Zechariah was in the temple burning incense as an offering to the LORD, and an angel appeared next to him at the altar.
Zechariah was very afraid, because the appearance of an angel usually meant God was angry about something; however, this time, the angel had good news. He told Zechariah not to be afraid, but that a miracle would happen. Elizabeth would bear a son, and they would call him John. Zechariah and Elizabeth were old, and never expected a son, so this was quite a shock. Gabriel then told Zechariah;
And you will have joy and gladness,
and many will rejoice at his birth;
for he will be great before the Lord,
and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink,
and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit,
even from his mother’s womb.
And he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God,
and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Eli′jah,
to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,
and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just,
to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
Clearly, John was destined for greatness, and most notably so because he would be the one to baptize Jesus. Zechariah was a little skeptical. He and Elizabeth were old, and did not think it would be possible to have a child. Gabriel told Zechariah that he would be unable to speak until the birth of John because he doubted Gabriel.
Soon Elizabeth conceived, and she was very grateful to the LORD for this blessing. It was right after this that the birth of Jesus was foretold.
When Elizabeth bore her son, the other family members asked her what the boy’s name would be. She told them “John,” but they questioned her, because that name was not in her ancestry, which was a custom at that time. Then Zechariah asked for a tablet, and wrote, “His name is John.” Then he could speak again, and uttered the words we heard this morning.
John means “Yahweh’s gift” or “God is gracious” depending on how you translate it. The name expressed the gratitude to the LORD for giving them a son. Many of their friends and family wondered about John, who he would turn out to be be, because it was a very unusual story.
John’s message to the people was simple. Prepare the way of the Lord. He knew that Jesus was coming, and he warned the people that they should prepare themselves. He would baptize them for the cleansing of sin, and he called them to turn away from sin, and turn toward the LORD.
Baptism itself was nothing new. The Old Testament book of Leviticus has several laws written about the use of water to perform a ritual cleansing to make a person, or even a house, clean. The Pharisees always washed their hands before a meal, which is good advice even today.
The LORD spoke through Ezekiel, saying, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (26:35-36)
In each of these ways, water is used to make someone clean in the eyes of God. And so our ritual of Baptism, given to us by St. John, is used to wash away the stain of original sin, so that we will be made clean in the sight of God.
Zechariah spoke the works that would be written as a hymn to be sung for many generations to come.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people,
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David,”
John was to be the prophet of the most high, God, to prepare the way for Jesus who brings light to the darkness and guides our feet into the way of peace. John showed the people of his day that they needed to prepare themselves for the coming of their Lord and King.
Before Jesus came to us, no one knew the true nature of God. The Jews mostly feared him, and Zechariah was certainly afraid of Gabriel when he appeared. The Greeks believed in many gods who may or may not look at them with favor, but certainly did not care for them in any meaningful way.
But the True God in whom we believe, is revealed to us in his son, Jesus. We know that God is a Father who loves his children desperately. We know that he loves us just the way we are, and that we are perfect in his eyes.
We have learned that there is forgiveness for us when we repent. We have reconciliation with the Father, because he loves us enough to forgive us. We have learned that the Father is not distant and cold, but he is here with us in his kingdom.
We can then walk in peace with God, just as Zechariah prophesied when he said Jesus would guide our feet into the way of peace.
This is the legacy of John and we thank God he was there to proclaim the coming of Jesus to us, and helping us to prepare to welcome him into our hearts. May the Spirit of Christ dwell within us as we seek to do his will in this world and the next. Amen.