Nativity of St. John the Baptist


Once there was a priest named Zechariah.

He was an Israelite, serving in the temple in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish worship.
His wife was named Elizabeth, and she was also from a family of priests.
They were an important and respected couple in Jerusalem, except for one thing.
They did not have a child, and they were elderly.

On a certain day Zechariah was chosen for a once-in-a-lifetime duty –
to go into the sanctuary of the temple and light incense before the Holy of Holies. As he was completing this duty, and angel of the Lord appeared to him. Zechariah was paralyzed with fear. “Don’t be afraid,” the angel told him. “I have come to give you an answer to your prayers. Your wife, Elizabeth, is going to have a baby. He will be a son, and his name will be John. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even in his mother’s womb, and he will be a great prophet. He will turn many men and women back to faith in God, and he will prepare the people for God’s coming.” Zechariah responded, “How can I believe you, when we are too old to have a child?” And the angel said, “I am Gabriel, a messenger of God, sent to give you good news. Because you have not believed me, you will not be able to speak again until all that I have told you has been fulfilled.” Soon after Zechariah returned home, Elizabeth conceived. She spent five months in seclusion, savoring the much-longed-for pregnancy. In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Gabriel appeared again, this time to a young girl in the village of Nazareth. Her name was Mary, and she was Elizabeth’s cousin. She was engaged to Joseph, who was of the house of David. Gabriel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! God is with you.” Mary was amazed, and didn’t know what to think. Gabriel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary. I have come with news for you: you will have a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be the Son of the Most High, and he will inherit the throne of David. He will reign over the people of Israel forever, and his kingdom will have no end.” Mary asked, “How can this be, since I am still a virgin?” And the angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of God will come to you and give you a son. He will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God.” Your cousin Elizabeth, who has been barren, has also conceived a son; for nothing is impossible for God. And Mary said, “I am God’s servant. Let it happen just as you have said.” These two stories, so similar in content and yet so different, are the first stories in the gospel of Luke. They introduce an important theme Luke returns to throughout his gospel – the theme of reversal of stereotypes and expectations. Zechariah is a priest at the temple in Jerusalem – a respected position. He is honored in the eyes of the people, and receives a greater honor when he is chosen to light the incense in the sanctuary of God. But when faced with an angel of God – even in the very sanctuary, the Holy of Holies which was believed to hold God’s presence more than anywhere else  - he is frightened and skeptical The promised baby is an answer to long years of prayer – prayers the couple had probably given up on as they got older and no baby came. It is the one area of shame in their exemplary lives. But when given the news, Zechariah cannot believe it. He is chastised by the angel, and given a penalty which will last until his child is born. Mary, on the other hand, is a young woman in a small town. She is a person of no particular distinction, except that she is engaged to be married to a descendant of David..  An angel comes to her, apparently as she is going about her business in an ordinary day. When the angel gives her amazing news – impossible, unbelievable news, in fact – she immediately believes. Her surprise does not diminish her willingness to commit herself to do whatever God asks of her, though it will bring hardship and shame for both her and her fiancé, Joseph. Her readiness to believe and serve  is immediately apparent. The young girl, uneducated, with no particular status in the community, responds more easily and willingly than the religious professional. The story continues with Mary rushing to visit her older cousin, Elizabeth, to share her good news and her cousin’s good fortune. When the women meet, the unborn John jumps with joy in his mother’s womb – confirmation that he is, indeed, filled with the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth shares the moment with Mary, and emphasizes Mary’s faithfulness: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Blessed is she who believed that there would be fulfillment of what was spoken to her. In  the joy of their meeting, Mary offers a song of praise: “God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant, and has blessed me with the most amazing gift. God’s mercy flows in wave after wave on those who are in awe before him.” Mary stays with her cousin for three months, and then returns to her home. And finally, we come to the part of the story assigned for our lesson this morning: the birth of John the Baptist. Elizabeth gives birth to a son, and everyone rejoices at her good fortune. On the eighth day, as all good Jewish parents do, Elizabeth and Zechariah carry out the religious ritual of circumcision. Everyone expects the baby to be named after his father, as is the custom, but Elizabeth disagrees, telling everyone that his name is John. Remember, Zechariah has been unable to speak though all the months of his wife’s pregnancy. Still, the people turn to him in confusion – what does she mean, his name will be John? Zechariah writes on a tablet, “His name is John.” With those words, the promise of the angel is fulfilled, and Zechariah is once again able to speak. His first words are a song of praise to God, generally called the Benedictus His song reminds the people of the promises God made through the prophets, that God would send a savior to the people to deliver them from oppression. And he confirms his son’s role as the prophet who will prepare the way for the savior – the prophet Malachi foretold: “See, I am sending a messenger to prepare the way before me.” Zechariah’s song ends with a promise of peace and redemption: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” For Luke, the story of Jesus and all who surround him – Mary and Joseph, John, Zechariah and Elizabeth, the disciples and the Pharisees, the Jewish crowds and the Roman soldiers – is a story of promise and fulfillment, a story of belief and unbelief. God promised the people of Israel a savior, and Jesus is that savior. The person of Jesus – his birth, his ministry, his death, and his resurrection – fulfill the promises God had made through the prophets for centuries. Those who believe become part of the promise, part of the fulfillment. Luke told the story of Jesus, Son of God, who came to offer forgiveness of sin, healing and new life, and eternal salvation to all God’s people. In our baptism and our participation in the community of believers, we too experience the fulfillment of God’s promises of forgiveness and redemption. As we baptize little Zoe Anastasia this morning, we baptize her into this story – the story of God’s promises to God’s people and their fulfillment in Jesus Christ.  – The words of the story reach through the centuries, speaking to us as they spoke to Luke’s original audience: Do not be afraid. You, too, are a part of God’s story of promise and fulfillment. God has promised you forgiveness – and you are forgiven. God has promised you freedom – and you are a free Child of God. God has promised you salvation, now and forever, and you have been saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen Lutheran Church of the Servant, Santa Fe

Painting: The Rest on the Flight into Egypt with St. John the Baptist, Fra Bartolommeo, about 1509

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