The Nativity of John the Baptist
Holy Scripture records that every member of Zechariah’s family was filled with the Holy Spirit – John while in his mother’s womb, Elizabeth when she beheld the mother of our Lord, and last of all, Zechariah, the once unbelieving, but now penitent, priest. After writing, “His name is John,” in accordance with the angel’s words, Zechariah’s mouth and tongue were opened. He was filled with the Holy Spirit and he prophesied, saying: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people” (Lk 1:68).
Christians in every generation of the church have been very familiar with the words of Zechariah’s hymn. We call it the Benedictus. We sing it in Matins. But perhaps we don’t always consider the miracle of these words. Think of this: the last time Zechariah had opened his mouth, out came words of doubt and unbelief, and the angel had to shut his mouth. Nine months later God opens that same mouth and it immediately begins to compose scripture – words which have been read and sung by believers from that time until now. That is a miracle! That is the work of the Holy Spirit. Only he can create that kind of faith in an unbelieving heart.
We’re so familiar with Zechariah’s words that we might miss their significance: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people.” Notice that Zechariah speaks in the past tense: The Lord has visited; he has redeemed. And we might say, “Zechariah, I think you mean, ‘The Lord will visit. He will redeem.’ After all, Mary is only three months pregnant. She’s barely showing. Yes, the time of salvation is drawing near, but it’s still in the future. The Crucifixion, the actual moment in time when God redeems his people, is still more than thirty years distant, and Zechariah won’t live to see it. But under inspiration, Zechariah says, “The Lord has redeemed his people.”
This is the language of faith – faith that hears the promises of God and counts them as already kept. When God first promised that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head, his word was as good as done. We read in Revelation that the Lamb was already slain before the foundation of the earth (Rev 13:8), and Adam and Eve, the first Christians, believed God’s promise. Likewise, Abraham believed that all nations would be blessed through the promised Seed, and God counted his faith as righteousness. All the Old Testament saints, from Adam and Eve to Zechariah and Elizabeth believed God’s promise and were declared righteous in their day by the blood of Christ. And you too – your name was written in the Lamb’s Book of Life before the foundation of the world. As one of the old great Lutherans says, your name was written before time with the ink of Christ’s blood yet to be shed in time. This doesn’t make perfect sense to reason, but by faith we believe it.
By faith we who are painfully aware of the sinful nature dwelling within us confess, “I am dead to sin and alive to Christ.” By faith we believe that the church, with all her politics and ugliness is the pure and spotless bride of Christ. By faith we stand at the grave of a loved one and confess that Christ has conquered death. This is what it means to be a Christian. We confess, with Zechariah, that we have been delivered from the hand of our enemies – even though sin, sickness, and death are still at work around us. We walk and live in this world by faith.
To live by faith doesn’t mean that we are playing a game of spiritual make-believe. We believe and confess what is absolutely real and true – Christ crucified on an actual cross in a very real place and time. His blood – real, wet, sticky, human blood – was poured out upon our cursed ground to pay the price of redemption for very real sinners, for Adam and Eve, for Abraham, David, Zechariah, and for you. There is nothing fictional about the Atonement. Sin can only be cleansed by blood. Contrary to what some pseudo-Lutheran theologians say, God could not simply forgive sin apart from the death of Christ. Blood had to shed. Sacrifice had to be made.
But to believe that Jesus died on a cross is not yet within the realm of faith. Atheists can believe this. The demons certainly know that Jesus died. They were there. Faith enters in when you believe and confess that Christ died on his cross bearing your sin. He died as a ransom for his people, which means, he died for you. This is saving faith. This is the faith of Zechariah who prophesied concerning the coming Atonement as though it had already taken place. This is the faith of Simeon, who, like Zechariah, did not live to see the Crucifixion yet said, “Now I can depart in peace because I have seen the Salvation of our God.” We stand with Zechariah and Simeon and with all the Old Testament saints – they looking forward, and we looking back, to the moment in time when our Lord took the sins of the world upon himself.
It doesn’t matter that you weren’t there when they crucified the Lord. We don’t go to the cross to find forgiveness. Instead, Christ comes to us. We who have felt the water of Holy Baptism, who have tasted the Body and Blood of our Lord, can say with Zechariah, “Truly God has visited us. He has ransomed us, his people.” The message which John the Baptist preached before the coming of Christ has now been preached also to you. By the gracious working of the Holy Spirit you have been brought to repentance and faith. You, who once were not a people, have been joined to the number of God’s elect, and now you share in the faith of all believers. May the Holy Spirit strengthen and keep you in this faith unto life everlasting. Amen.