Nativity of St. John Baptist, June 24, 2018
“And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; to give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us.”
NAVY SEALS and Green Berets; hedge-hopping pilots and river raft guides; rock climbers and deep sea explorers; astronauts and arctic scientists; fire jumpers and SWAT team commanders are all people whose cause and whose callings in life frighten and thrill us. But they are mere hints at the courageous nature of a miracle baby named John. Born to aged parents in a captive land, this little boy was built for danger, and he loved it.
The Gospel writer St. Luke is generous to offer us the whole backstory of a man who was famous in his own time, yet little understood. An old priest named Zacharias was long married to his wife, Elizabeth, the descendent of Aaron and a cousin of Mary of Nazareth. Her heartache was never having conceived a child. Like Rachel and Hannah of old, who were also unable to get pregnant, Elizabeth had cried her sorrow out to God. In those ancient and extraordinary cases, exceptional children were born to the women once barren. To Rachel was born Joseph who saved his family from famine. To Hannah was born Samuel, last Judge of Israel who anointed its first kings. To Elizabeth nothing had happened. Not yet.
Zacharias was having his turn among the many priests—it may have been once a lifetime—a chance to go into the Holy Temple’s inner room and burn incense on the altar and offer prayers in close proximity to the Holy of Holies. While inside there, he saw a bright and powerful angel, Gabriel, who stood to the right of the altar and said, “Zacharias, your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Luke 1:13-17
That last phrase was also the final sentence in what we call the Old Testament, a parting promise of God through Malachi of a child who would herald the return of God’s glory to Israel. The message of Elijah returns from heaven in a new prophet to declare the great and awesome day of the Lord. Every Jew had prayed for that day, and would even set a place at their tables annually, an empty seat for Elijah, on the chance that their humble dwelling be chosen by God for his visitation. Elijah would usher in the Messiah. Zacharias had surely prayed this many times himself. But that was his culture. The bright angel was speaking as though it would really happen… to him.
He doubted. “How can I believe this? My wife and I are too old.” It was an objection. The angel chose to treat it as a request. “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and was sent to speak to you and bring you these glad tidings. But behold, you will be mute and not able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time.” v 19-20 So Zacharias was struck dumb, literally, from that moment, and was unable to speak until the day, eight days after his son’s birth, at the circumcision, when he echoed his wife’s words and said, “His name is John.”
The angel disappeared, but Zacharias knelt there a long time after, astonished at both the vision and the message. Folks outside were worried because he spent so long in there. They may have yanked on the rope tied to his ankle because a priest dying in the presence of God must be retrieved without danger to others who were unqualified to enter. He finally staggered out, but when questioned, he couldn’t speak a word.
As the angel had said, this aged couple did conceive and Elizabeth went into confinement until she was six months along, rejoicing that her reproach was taken off of her. At that time, her cousin from Nazareth came south for a visit, having heard of her miracle. The young teenage maiden called a greeting to Elizabeth and a strange thing happened. Her baby began jumping for joy inside her. She sensed the reason, and was amazed. God’s Spirit filled her, and she cried prophetically, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.” Luke 1:42-45 Mary had just become pregnant with Jesus, though no one but she knew of it. She didn’t show. The little prophet inside the older saint, already six months along, felt his own calling, the reason he was created, for which he would be born, very close. And he was the first creature to proclaim Him Lord. Even from the womb, John was bravely fulfilling his destiny.
That destiny was heard 750 years earlier in the writings of Isaiah. See how God plans ahead? “The voice of him that cries in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD has spoken it.” Isaiah 40 When questioned later why he baptized and called for repentance in Israel, John would quote this passage. He was not the person of Elijah. He was not the Prophet spoken of by Moses. He was not Messiah. He was the Voice in the wild. Dressed in skins and living on wild food, John looked the part of the wilderness prophet. And the people loved him and flocked to hear him.
He was not politically correct. He did not check with church growth experts on how to attract membership. He didn’t curry favor with the elite and the powerful. His friends were unsavory sinners, who had come to the river to begin their lives again. It was his joy to reform Israel into a people humble before God, who were ready for the Lord to send Messiah. John knew his one task was to prepare the way for another. This preparation was a difficult and dangerous road, and while John received the accolades of thousands who loved his dynamic preaching—which was mainly about sins and changing their lives around to please God—the halls of the rich, the religious and political rulers, rang with outrage that this little figure by the river should speak of them in distaining words and judgments. The people were beginning to echo his denouncements. And finally, Herod Antipas was confronted with his gross violation of the marriage rule: for he’d married his brother’s wife. Nobody in all of Israel, not the high priest or the lowest rabbi, had breathed a word against it, fearing that this son of Herod the Great might do as his father and have them executed. But John told it like it is: Navy Seal, skydiver, astronaut prophet that he was.
If you were called to such a mission, you would still have the choice whether to do it or not. We feel we’re not made of such stuff, probably, for only once in a thousand years is there a real man born who can go out in the spirit of the Baptist. It would be like leaving your home and family, and all your worldly possessions, to head out to the Sacramento River, let’s say Scotty’s Landing, and set up a preaching station on the sandy shores.
Then you cry: “Chico! Oroville! Orland! Hamilton City! Durham! Repent! Stop your selfish, materialistic ways, gathering things you can’t use, eating fattening foods and drinking alcohol into a stupor. God is calling, and you are resisting the Most High. Your churches are built only for your comfort. Your altars are defiled by sinful priests. Your love of God has grown cold. When will you hear His voice and follow Him again? The Lord is coming, and will soon appear. When He comes, He brings judgment. Are you prepared to stand before the Righteous One? Can you withstand the heat of His furnace, the power of His cleansing? Or will you be thrown out with the dross, the trash of this lost world? Chico! Your glory is long departed. Come to the river and confess your sins before it is too late!”
Why doesn’t somebody do that today? The easy answer is that God isn’t calling a John Baptist to that role at this time. A clever answer is that he already came and Christ after him, so we don’t need him again. A deceitful answer is that we are redeemed and are thus without sin or blame, unlike the people of Judea. Another answer may be that no one in this city has the guts. We are the abortion capital of the north state, so we accommodate sexual promiscuity to the point of killing our grandchildren. We are the drinking capital of California — a Sierra Nevada t-shirt is standard dress for Chico. We are known for parties, wild orgies, YouTube’d online. The great university is fully devoted to humanistic teaching, without God in any viable explanation for things. Our churches are shrinking. Kids are raising themselves because we haven’t the time to spend on them or to mentor them. Electronic gadgets and TVs get almost all our spare time and resources. Cars get the rest. We think the economy is still bad. We haven’t been to the Third World to see bad economies.
Is it time for another John? Will Christ return?
He will return. The first time, Jesus came humbly, quietly, born in a barn, announced by shepherds, fasting in the desert, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, submitting to the judgment of man and execution on a Roman cross. But this time He comes on a white charger, with saints and angels as His vanguard; Gabriel shining among them, fulfilling the command of the Father. A trumpet will sound. From horizon to horizon the glory and power of God will show every living soul that Time’s Up. Do we need another John to warn us? Will we go back down to the river and hear our sins played out for us, so that we finally cry and confess and vow to change and begin living as God intended?
We might lay it off on John. We’re not called to his walk. Such a unique person seldom comes on the scene. I’m not called to live that way. It would be audacious of me to assume such a position. I’m too humble for that. Ok. Let John take the heat. He lost his head, quite literally, for saying too much and the king silenced him. But see this: John did all his work before the cross. He never saw the fulfillment of Messiah’s work, and yet he rang out clear as a bell over his nation. We have the New Testament, and 2,000 years of saints praying to God for us to tell the story again. To reach a lost generation, once more. To lead our children in the way they were meant to follow. To lead lives worthy of His Name.
It takes courage, like an arctic scientist or a fire jumper maybe. But hey, you have the Holy Spirit living in you. You have advantages John never dreamed of. You are called to live a life shining like a bright flame in this darkest hour. You, my friend, as John was, are called to be the Prophet of the Highest, with the Word of God at your disposal to “turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Are you brave enough to give your life to a quest like that?