Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Every mother and father knows how important it is to choose the perfect name for their baby. You have to choose carefully, for a name often foretells what a child will become. You have to consider what words rhyme with their new name. You don’t want to choose a name that is going to be a constant source of torture on the playground. Of course, biblical names are nice. Mary and David, Jacob and Hannah are still popular. But you might be less inclined to name your child Boaz or Jezebel. We grow into our names and they become part of who we are. The best names simply bring to mind a positive image of a happy, trustworthy soul. Don’t ask me, how my parents came up with Arden. But for every child that is born, and placed into loving arms there is always question pondered, “What will this child become?”
In religious art, John the Baptist is easily recognizable. It doesn’t matter whether it is in a painting, or a sculpture, he under dressed and in camel hair, many times with a staff in his hand or a lamb beside him and generally looking quite disheveled. When I was in Rome on April, I was startled to look up from St. Peter’s Square and see atop the basilica a statue of John the Baptist standing next to Jesus as one of his apostles. So, what gave him that coveted spot? Was it simply his name?
Throughout the summer I will be preaching on the Lessons and Legends of the Apostles, and this morning I would like to meditate St. John the Baptist, who incidentally, is the patron saint of godparents and baptisms. John may only have a brief appearance at Advent, calling for people to prepare the way, and at Jesus’ baptism pouring water over his head, but we actually know more about him than most of the Jesus’ twelve disciples.
According to scripture, Zechariah had been waiting all his life to share his knowledge and wisdom with a child. Unfortunately, the years passed quickly and there was never a son to bear his name or a daughter with whom to share his lessons of life. One day while Zechariah was serving in the Temple’s holy sanctuary, offering incense at the side of the altar, the angel Gabriel appeared to him. The angel said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.”
The angel’s message alone should have been assurance enough, but Zechariah was skeptical. He asked, how will I know that this is true? Zechariah was quickly rebuked by the angel and was made mute. By his silence, rather than by his speech, it was clear that Zechariah had seen a vision. After completing his priestly duties that day, Zechariah went back to his home village in the hill country of Judah, and there his wife Elizabeth soon became pregnant, just as the angel had said. She remained in seclusion for five months, and in her sixth month she was visited by her cousin Mary, who had just received the news from the angel Gabriel that she was to bear the Messiah. The two women expressed their marvel at God’s Word and of his work in their lives.
Our gospel this morning begins precisely at this point in the story. The aged Elizabeth had given birth to the promised “miracle child,” and her neighbors had come to rejoice with her in this blessing. The excitement opens as they prepare for the service of naming. Under normal circumstances, Zechariah’s son would be named Zechariah after his father. But to the surprise of the family, Elizabeth insisted that their son was to be named John, which means God is merciful. So they turned to Zechariah, who took a writing tablet, and scratched, “His name is John.”
It’s a moving and touching scene. At that moment, Zechariah proclaimed and affirmed, what every parent knows is ultimately true and is pained to admit. Sons and daughters do not belong to us. They belong to God. They are merely entrusted to us to love and to nurture. At some point, we can protect them no longer and instead, we must let them go to be what God has created them to be. God alone knows what they may become.
Zechariah would not know his long-awaited son long. According to the apocryphal book of the Gospel of James, after the wisemen from the East visited the palace of King Herod in Jerusalem and informed him of the birth of a new king of the Jews, the king ordered the slaughter of all the male children 2 years and younger. Zechariah was killed by Herod’s soldiers because he would not reveal the location of his son. Zechariah selflessly gave his life to save John’s.
Elizabeth and John fled to the desert where he would be raised. There in childhood he lived an ascetic life eating locust and wild honey and wearing rough clothing. John would spend his formative years among the monastic communities of the desert, such as the Essenes, a strict Jewish sect, and with individual hermits who often educated the young in their own ideals. John emerged as his own man who lived a life of religious, Jewish purity. He became an unapologetic preacher calling for justice, mercy, honesty, morality, fasting, prayer and repentance. He predicted the imminent coming of God’s kingdom and his judgement of good and the evil.
John the Baptist’s fame spread throughout all of Judea and people journeyed out to the wilderness to be baptized by him. John’s message reached the ears of Jesus in Nazareth as well, calling him to the land beyond the Jordan River, where he was baptized by John. In St. John’s gospel, we read that Jesus and John the Baptist were actually teaching at the same time, but that John knew his role and place. When John’s disciples questioned him about Jesus emerging notoriety and fame, John answered, “I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. He must increase, but I must decrease.”
John’s work was crucial to Jesus’ ministry. Without the people’s acceptance of John as a godly man and his message, they would not be prepared to welcome Jesus. John pointed them always away from himself to Jesus stating, “I am not worthy untie the thongs of his sandals.” Only a few months passed before John the Baptist’s public ministry ended abruptly. He had earned the ire of King Herod Antipas for criticizing the king’s decision to take for himself Herodias, the wife of his brother Phillip. In spite of his own high regard for the prophet, King Herod imprisoned John in the fortress of Machaerus, about 9 miles east of the Dead Sea. According to tradition he sat in prison for almost two years. Out of fear and curiosity, King Herod visited him regularly, but his wife, Herodias was waiting for a strategic opportunity to destroy him.
While John was waiting in prison, he heard reports of Jesus’ ministry, but he was growing discouraged and filled with doubts. Perhaps, he had expected Jesus to act differently—to immediately burn the chaff with fire? He expected to the kingdom to come now. So John sent his disciples to Jesus with a question: “Are you the one who is coming, or should we look for another?” Jesus told John’s disciples that they should tell him what they had heard and seen: “The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.” Finally, to strengthen John’s faith, Jesus added, “Blessed is he who is not offended because of me.”
Tragically, the prophet did not leave his prison at Macherus alive. On Herod’s birthday, the king had promised to give his step-daughter Salome anything she asked for. After seeking her mother Herodias’ counsel, the girl asked the king for John the Baptist’s head on a platter, and so the prophet was beheaded. According to tradition, the prophet’s disciples had secretly taken their prophet’s body and buried it in Sebaste in Samaria, but Herodias forbid the prophet’s head to be buried together with his body. Instead, she desecrated the head and buried it near her own palace. The wife of the king’s steward, however, knew where she had buried it, and she decided to rebury it on the Mount of Olives, on one of Herod’s estates. Sometime later, when word reached Herod’s palace about Jesus’ preaching and miracles, the king went with his wife Herodias to see if John the Baptist’s head was still in the place they had left it. When they did not find it there, they began to think that Jesus Christ was John the Baptist resurrected from the dead.
Jesus himself mourned the death of his second-cousin John the Baptist, and he said, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist.” He was “great” because he held the honor of being chosen by God as the forerunner to the Messiah. John’s mission was to prepare the world for Christ’s arrival. Certainly, Zechariah and Elizabeth could have never imagined what their son John would become.
So what is so spectacular about John the Baptist that his statue would be placed at the right hand of Jesus atop St. Peter’s Basilica? Martin Luther offered his answer in a sermon of the Festival of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist in 1532, “The real reason for observing this festival, the day of John the Baptist, is not because of his austere life, not because of his phenomenal birth, but because of his beloved finger, message and office.” Yes, John pointed his finger, not to himself, but rather John pointed people to Jesus. His message was to repent, to get ready, not for himself, but all for Jesus. As John the Baptist himself said in the light of Christ’s coming, “I must decrease so that He may increase.”
My friends, all in Judea who heard the story of John the Baptist’s birth pondered, “What will this child become?” It is the same question that we ask of the children we love today. The story of John, however, invites us to ask another far more poignant and personal question. “And what will you become in relationship to this child? Will you be the One who raises your beloved hand and points them to Jesus? Or will you wait for another? Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.