In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
By now you have noticed the white banners hanging in the apse and the white parament hanging on the altar, instead of the green we expect at this time of year. The white banners are mainly for Easter; but, that’s our Christmas parament. It sure doesn’t feel like Christmas outside, does it? Yet in the life of the Church, today is one of those “fragments” of the Christmas Season found in other times of the church year. This past March 25th happened to be Palm Sunday. Every March 25th is also the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord, the day nine months before Christmas Day, the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord. The Annunciation is when the angel Gabriel went to the Virgin Mary and told her that she would conceive and give birth to a son and call His name Jesus, and He would be the Son of the Most High. The angel also tells Mary, as a sign, to assure her and comfort her, “And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God” (Lk 1:36–37).
So three months later, when Elizabeth would be in her ninth month, we come to the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, the birth of the Forerunner of Jesus the Messiah, the promised Savior. It was the same angel, Gabriel, who had appeared to Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah while he was serving before the Lord in the temple, and told the aged priest that his wife would conceive and bear a son and his name would be John, and he would prepare the children of Israel for the coming of the Lord. In the words of Prof. Rolf Jacobson, “When Zechariah was a bit skeptical about this promise—he and Elizabeth, like Abraham and Sarah and so many before them, were kind of old to have kids—Gabriel lost it a little bit, pointed the angelic clicker at Zechariah, and hit the ‘mute’ button.” The people wondered at Zechariah’s delay in coming out, then he came out and couldn’t speak, so they realized he’d seen a vision—and then Elizabeth kept herself hidden for five months (Lk 1:22, 24)—so the mystery only grew deeper still.
“And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child” (Lk 1:59), at which time he was also to be named. Instead of naming the boy after his father or another relative, Elizabeth insisted, as the angel had foretold, “No, he shall be called John” (v. 60), in Hebrew Yochanan, a name meaning “YHWH, the Lord, is gracious.” When Zechariah wrote the same, “His name is John,” “immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God” (v. 64). What he spoke was no mere “Oh, thank You, Lord!” He “was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied,” saying, intoning, singing, a new psalm as it were, a hymn of praise, the canticle we know as the Benedictus, the first word in the Latin version, “Blessed be.” The Church has continued to sing this song for over two thousand years, and in these words of the Spirit we have been rehearsing the salvation history, the promises, of God for His people. It speaks of the meaning of Elizabeth’s name: Elisheva in Hebrew means “my God is an oath.”
As long as you remember what Zechariah’s name means, you’ll remember what his song means, too. Zekharyah. Zekhar means “remembers.” Yah is a short form of the Divine Name, YHWH, the Lord. Zekhar-Yah: YHWH remembers. That’s what Zechariah’s name means: YHWH remembers. And about that he sings. These are the first words that Zechariah had uttered after nine months of complete silence. What would you do with so much time not being able to talk? For a priest like Zechariah, acquainted with the Old Testament, it would be a good time to meditate on those Scriptures. He could review the angel Gabriel’s words, reflecting on the promise given through the prophet Malachi, YHWH’s promise that He would send just such a messenger: “Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me … Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Mal 3:1; 4:5–6). Once Zechariah was able again to speak, the Holy Spirit moved him to sing of another prophecy of Malachi, when YHWH said, “But for you who fear My name, the Sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in His wings” (4:2). In the Benedictus, Zechariah declares that John “will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercies of our God, whereby the Sunrise shall visit us from on high (what a strange picture!), to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (vv. 76–79). Jesus says, “I AM the Light of the world. Whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12).
In sending John to be the Forerunner, to “prepare the way of the Lord,” “to turn the hearts of many of the children of Israel” (Lk 1:16), the Lord fulfilled a promise, a great promise indeed. YHWH promised this messenger before His own visitation to His people, and YHWH remembers. Yet this was not The Promise, The Promise which “He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old” (v. 70). As John the Apostle and Evangelist wrote: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the Light, that all might believe through him. He was not the Light, but came to bear witness about the Light” (Jn 1:6–8). And so indeed John did bear witness to the Light. What was his testimony? As the people were coming out to be baptized by him, confessing their sins, [before he saw Jesus] he confessed, “I am not He. But behold, *He who is mightier than I* is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie” (Acts 13:25; *Lk 3:16). Once he saw Jesus, he testified, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). It is parallel to what John the Apostle saw in a vision in Revelation. He is told, “Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah!” He turns and sees “the Lamb who was slain from before the foundation of the world” (Rev 5:5–6; 13:8).
YHWH remembers His promise to Adam and Eve, that He would send “the Seed of the woman” to crush the Serpent’s head—and as a sign of that promise, He made them garments of skin; the Lord clothed them with a sacrifice, covered their sin with innocent blood. YHWH remembers His promise to Abraham, that Abraham, though old, would be the father of many nations. Abraham’s seed would be as numerous as the grains of sand on the seashore, as countless as the stars in the heavens. And One, the Seed of Abraham, would be the Savior of the world—and that Seed would be the Sacrifice for sin, and He would be YHWH Himself, somehow offering Himself, giving His life and His blood to cover the sin of the world, to conquer death, and to give us new life. YHWH remembers His promise to David, that his son, David’s Seed, would sit on the throne of Israel forever. The Son of David would be the Eternal King over God’s people, and in this Son [who is the Son of David and yet David’s Lord] YHWH would reclaim His throne and His rightful Kingship—yet we know that He did so in a most startling way—but a way which David, being a prophet, also foretold, in the 22nd Psalm: “My God, My God, what have You forsaken Me? … Yet You are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel … a company of evildoers encircles Me; they have pierced My hands and My feet … You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen! … All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to YHWH, and all the families of the nations shall worship before You. For kingship belongs to YHWH, and He rules over the nations. … They shall come and proclaim His righteousness to a people yet unborn, that He has done it.”
The pattern of John’s birth, life, work, suffering, and death was a type, a parallel, of the pattern of Jesus’ birth, life, work, suffering, death, and resurrection. [John’s is great, but Jesus’ is greater.] You have been baptized into that pattern, that birth, life, work, suffering, and death-and-resurrection. YHWH remembers His promise to you. This song wasn’t just for John, or his parents, or for Israel of old. This song, this promise, the remembrance of YHWH, is for you. You have enemies and those who hate you; you might think of a nasty neighbor, or a difficult boss or coworker. We may think of other nations that are enemies of our nation (and even some allies). For the children of Israel, there were plenty of enemy nations—but also enemies within, those who worshipped and served idols rather than YHWH, the true God. The real danger which Israel faced from those other nations was being led astray into that false worship and away from the God who always remembers His promises. The real enemies of God’s people, your enemies, are still sin, death, and the devil. Could you see that coming? Good! It means you’ve been paying attention! YHWH made His promise to you to deliver you from the hand of your enemies at the Cross, in the suffering and death of Jesus, and in His rising from the tomb, and in Holy Baptism. At the font, through water and the Word the holy blood of Jesus was poured upon you, covering your sin with His righteousness. Apart from Christ, the shadow of death would haunt us, ever reminding us of its inevitability. At the font, Christ, the Light of the world, the Sunrise from on high, the Sun of righteousness, shines upon you, dispelling death’s darkness and fear, so that it is nothing more than a passing shadow to you. He is the Sun from on high who died, went into the depths of the earth, and rose, to heal you of the leprosy of sin and to raise you to walk in newness of life, to walk in His light.
At the font, YHWH, the eternal, ever-living, Triune God, marked you with His name, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, claiming you as His own. The devil has no more power over you, no more claim on you. YHWH forgets all your sin, and He remembers that you are His. This also means that, as great as John the Baptist was, you are greater still, in the eyes of your heavenly Father. For Jesus says, “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (Lk 7:28). According to the flesh, you were born of a woman. At the font, you are newborn from above, from on high, born “of water and the Spirit” (Jn 3:5). Today may not be December 25th, Christmas Day; nevertheless, as we sing at Christmas, Christ is “born in us today.” He shines in and through you. Don’t succumb to fear, darkness, sin, or the devil’s deadly thoughts and way. Dispel the world’s darkness and fear with the Light of Christ and the Word of Truth! Be what He has made you, the light of the world, filled with the Spirit, by your good works in Christ glorifying your Father in heaven.
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.