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Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The Birth of John 

Luke 1:57-80
12/19/04 D. Marion Clark

Introduction

Is there a more momentous event than the birth of a child? We hear people say when they have experienced some great achievement or honor, “Next to the birth of my child this is the greatest experience of my life.” For parents the birth of the first child is especially memorable. I am the fourth born in my family, and though I was to become the favorite born(!), still I must accept that it was the first birth that gave my parents their greatest thrill. Nothing can replace the first experience of bringing forth life.

To give birth to a son is what initially had thrilled Zechariah and Elizabeth. Indeed, they were so excited, that Elizabeth went into seclusion, perhaps to handle nervous excitement at having their dream come true. The first passage we looked at ended with Elizabeth saying, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.” Skip nine months to the day of delivery.

Text

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 59And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child.

The neighbors who had looked upon Elizabeth as a woman denied blessing by God, now see her as one to whom God had shown great mercy. To have a baby! How wonderful of God to be so kind. The day to circumcise the child comes. The child receives the sign of the covenant. Evidently, over time it became the custom to officially give the child a name also. The neighbors who had gathered expected the child to be named Zechariah, Jr. but were surprised.

And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, 60but his mother answered, "No; he shall be called John." 61And they said to her, "None of your relatives is called by this name." 62And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. 63And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, "His name is John." And they all wondered.

John? There’s nobody in the family named John. What are they thinking? Surely they are not expecting more children. Zechariah needs to get the name right this time. Well, he does get the name right, and, when the Lord gives his speech back, he says just the right thing: he blesses God.

64And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. 65And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, 66and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, "What then will this child be?" For the hand of the Lord was with him.

The neighbors feel a bit like Zechariah did when the angel Gabriel had appeared before him in the temple. A fear came on them. Something beyond the ordinary is taking place. They must have known something peculiar had happened to Zechariah ever since his return from Jerusalem, since he could not speak. I doubt that he had told them the details of what had happened and the message about his child. Already, the neighbors regarded the child as special, seeing as he was born to parents “advanced in years.” But now comes the insistence of a name that, though it is not an unusual name, nevertheless, does not have an ordinary reason for using it. Then the father is suddenly able to speak. There must be something about this particular child. What is he to be? Zechariah answers that question:
67And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,

Like his wife Elizabeth, he also received the anointing of the Holy Spirit and becomes a prophet about his son. Let’s follow what he has to say. We can break the prophecy into two parts. Do you recall how, in the previous two sermons, I gave the context for the announcements of John’s and Jesus’ births by taking you through the Old Testament passages about Elijah and then about David? That is what Zechariah does in the first part, which covers verses 68-75. He puts John’s role and Jesus’ in the perspective of the covenant that God made with his people Israel.

68"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people69and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David,70as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,71that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us;72to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant,73the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us 74that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,might serve him without fear, 75in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

Blessed be whom? The Lord God of Israel. This is the covenant name of God. Yes, he is God over all the earth, but he has chosen Israel as his “treasured possession among all peoples” (Exodus 19:5).

Why this blessing? Because he “has visited and redeemed his people.” Christ is still yet to be born and do the work of redemption, but by placing these verbs in the past tense, Zechariah is saying that the work is a “done deal.” This focus on redemption is central to the Jewish relationship with God.

One might say that the Jews ought to bless God simply for his character and for being Creator. They do. But it is the covenant relationship that God has made with them that makes them who they are and allows them to even worship and serve God properly. And that covenant relationship came about through redemption. God redeemed them from bondage in Egypt. Since that great event of the exodus, they have looked to God chiefly as their Redeemer, and, indeed, his relationship to them throughout their history is primarily as one who continues to redeem them – i.e. deliver them from their enemies. On a national level, those enemies include the Philistines, the Moabites, the Assyrians, and the Babylonians. But individuals, as well, looked to God to redeem them from personal enemies. Many of the psalms include pleas to God to rescue (redeem) individuals and Israel from enemies, or are thanksgivings for redemption.

And now God is acting to redeem his people again. How? By sending a "horn of salvation," i.e. one who is strong to save. Who is this deliverer? He is a descendent of David. Remember from last Sunday, the Messiah has to come from the house of David, as the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel had foretold.

The "horn of salvation" will deliver Israel from their enemies, as noted in verse 71: that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Zechariah is likely thinking of national enemies such as Rome and surrounding neighbors, but as we will seen soon, the redemption that the Messiah will bring goes beyond political conflict.

The covenant aspect of this redemption is seen in verses 72-75:
72to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant,73the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us 74that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,might serve him without fear, 75in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

What was this oath that God swore to Abraham? God promised to make of him a great nation; further, that all nations would be blessed through him (Genesis 12:1-3). Years later on a clear night, he spoke to Abraham again. "Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them… So shall your offspring be" (15:5). God then enacted a significant – actually an incredible – act. He had Abraham split some animals in half, making a pathway between them. Then, through the symbols of a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, he passed between them. Why is this incredible? Because the almighty sovereign God of the universe bound himself to a man in the manner reserved only for a lesser king to a greater one. It is Abraham who should have been made to enact the ritual, binding himself to God. This act was God swearing an oath to be faithful in keeping his promises to Abraham. In this scene he speaks of the sojourning in Egypt that Israel would undergo and of the deliverance from bondage into the promised land of Canaan that he would achieve for the people.

But there is one more time that God renews his promise to Abraham. He says to him, "I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you" (Genesis 17:7). He then institutes the ritual of circumcision to be a sign of the covenant. That covenant sign is being enacted now with the circumcision of John, as it has been with the birth of millions of Jewish male babies over the centuries. The mercy of God is the mercy shown through the covenant. The service that the people are to render to God in holiness and righteousness is their covenant duty.

This is the context for the births of John and Jesus and the roles they are to play as forerunner and Messiah. Zechariah now speaks to his son, first of his role:
76And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,77to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins,78because of the tender mercy of our God,

John is the prophet foretold who in the spirit of Elijah prepares the way for the Lord, the Messiah. How will he prepare the way? By preaching. He will give knowledge of salvation. That is, he will announce the salvation that is to come. And he will prepare the people to receive the salvation by preaching repentance. He will convict them of sin and their need to repent. And then he will enact the ritual of baptism which becomes for them a covenant sign of forgiveness, i.e. of God's covenant mercy.

Finally, Zechariah speaks of Jesus:
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."

Is this not beautiful imagery? Jesus is the sunrise coming from heaven to give light to those who live in the darkness of this sin-bound world. In this darkness we live under God's just wrath, the shadow of death. And why does he come? To lead us forth out of that darkness into the promised land of peace. This is beautiful imagery, but it is not original. Zechariah knows his Bible and undoubtedly is thinking of the following passage from Isaiah 49:6-13:
"It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel;I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."
7Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers:"Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves;because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you."
8Thus says the LORD:"In a time of favor I have answered you; in a day of salvation I have helped you;I will keep you and give you as a covenant to the people,to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages, 9saying to the prisoners, 'Come out,' to those who are in darkness, 'Appear.'They shall feed along the ways; on all bare heights shall be their pasture; 10they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them,for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them. 11And I will make all my mountains a road, and my highways shall be raised up. 12Behold, these shall come from afar, and behold, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Syene."
13Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing!for the LORD has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted.

This baby being baptized will prepare the way for the Servant of God who will be a light to the nations and who will lead his people out of darkness as a shepherd leads his sheep and gives them green pasture.

Lessons

Certainly this is a cause for the heavens and the earth to sing for joy! For God will yet again bring redemption but a redemption greater than any before. For he sends a Redeemer to deliver his people from their very sins; a Deliverer who will rescue them from the clutches of our greatest enemy, Satan; a Redeemer who leads his people to peace with God. What greater peace can there be than to be at peace with our Maker?
Christmas reminds us that our God is a redeemer, not merely some far off deity for us to grope our way to in the darkness. He intercedes for us; he takes the initiative. He loves us with a steadfast love, by which he refuses to let us go.

Do you know God this way? You might know him as "the man upstairs" or as "Divine Providence" or some other such nebulous name. But do you know him as Redeemer? Do you know the Sunrise who has visited us from heaven to bring forgiveness of sin?

One day, John the Baptist would stand at the water's edge, see his cousin Jesus walking towards him, and would cry out, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29). Do you know this Jesus? Are you ready to let go of your sin that he might take it away? Are you ready to stop running from God that he might lead you along the path of peace? Is it time to stop being on the outside and come into the covenant of mercy? What do you need to do? John tells you: Repent. Repent of your sins and turn to the Redeemer who will baptize you, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit.

To the rest of you who do confess faith in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, I say to you forget not the covenant promises made to you by God. The oath that God swore to you was not ratified by passing through some dead animals, but it took place on the cross. There the Son of God received the very curse that should have been ours for breaking the covenant. And there he mediated for us a new covenant so that "those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant" (Hebrews 9:15).

Such is the redemption of God. Such is the redemption that Christmas brings.

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