Sermon for Sunday June 24th, 2018, the Festival of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist
The Lessons: Isaiah 40:1-11; Luke 1: 57-80
The Text: Luke 1:68-80
The Topic: The Ministry of St. John the Baptist in relation to the Mission of the Lord Jesus Christ
Zechariah the priest and his wife had long been praying for a child, and the angel Gabriel had appeared to Zechariah to prophesy the birth of their son, whom they were to name John. He would turn many people of Israel to the Lord their God, and in the power and spirit of Elijah, he would be the forerunner of the Lord Jesus Christ, to reconcile children to parents, and turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, so preparing the people for the first coming of the Lord Jesus Christ (Luke 1:16-17).
Now the time had come, the son prophesied by the angel Gabriel had been miraculously born to this old priestly couple, and it was the eighth day on which they were to circumcise and name him. Elisabeth insisted that he be called John. Not accepting her judgment in the matter, they inquire of Zechariah. Still not being able to speak, since he had been struck dumb temporarily by the angel for not at once believing his words, he writes on a tablet, “His name is John.” At once he is cured of his inability to speak, and he begins to speak, praising God (Luke 1:64). Awe grips all who hear of this, and they ask the question (Luke 1:66), “What then will this child become?”
Zechariah’s prophecy is an answer to this question, set in the context of God’s raising up a mighty Savior for Israel and for the world. The purposes of God’s gift of a mighty Savior are to save Israel from their enemies and from all who hate them, to show the mercy God promised to their ancestors, to remember his holy covenant that he swore to Abraham, and to grant his people to serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness in his presence all their lives.
THE VOCATION OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST
St. John the Baptist we think of in terms of his preaching of repentance and his baptism for the remission of sins. It is indeed both of these that prepared the people of Israel for the Lord’s coming. But his ministry is as “the prophet of the Most High” (Luke 1:76). His ministry as “more than a prophet” in the words of the Lord Jesus himself (Luke 7:26-27; Malachi 3:1) is unique, in that it so directly and boldly calls upon people to repent, and turn from their sins, or risk destruction in “unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17). On the other hand, turning from sins, and being baptized to signify repentance, would result in the forgiveness of sins and the knowledge of salvation (Luke 1:77), and a whole new way of life brought by the Lord Jesus Christ, who gives light to those in darkness, life to those who live in the shadow of death, and who guides our feet along the path of peace (Luke 1:79).
The vocation of St. John the Baptist was to issue the call to repent with an urgency which had long been neglected. It is significant that, in the Gospel according to St. Mark, immediately after John had been arrested, Jesus comes to Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God, or the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15, NRSV  ).
“Repent” has taken on much more urgency since the ministry of St. John the Baptist. Some preachers today preach as if St. John the Baptist’s preaching of repentance never happened, and that one only need preach, “Believe in the Good News!” But if people do not know about the everlasting hell from which they need to be saved, they will not see the need to believe, or to change their way of life from a sinful, selfish one, to one that pleases God, and is righteous. To this day, Christian Baptism retains the call to repent as well as the call to believe, which is why parents and godparents should see to it that the children on whose behalf they have vowed repentance and faith grow up to learn and know the Bible, the doctrines of the Christian faith, and the Christian way of life. When parents and godparents neglect these things, they neglect to pass on the great salvation we have in Christ our Lord. In so doing, they allow succeeding generations to wander further and further from the Christian faith. The result of this is an increasingly pagan society, increasing ignorance of God and of the word of God. We have a society now in which there is too much pandering to the prevailing sins of contemporary culture, one in which the media rather than the Church influences people’s behavior.
Sometimes people fear the worst for preachers when they preach the truth, but things turn out better than they had feared, as in this story about a Methodist preacher and General Andrew Jackson shows:
In his excellent biography of Andrew Jackson, Marquis James tells of a Sunday morning in 1818 when the General traveled from his home, the Hermitage, into downtown Nashville to attend a Methodist Conference. The famous circuit-riding preacher, Peter Cartwright, was to speak that day.
The pastor of the church had invited Cartwright with misgivings, for the evangelist was unpredictable. He was known to knock a sinner down and literally drag him to the throne of grace. But interest had been high, and it seemed that everyone in Nashville had come to church that Sunday to see the eccentric Cartwright. His text was: “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?”
Cartwright had just read his text and had paused to let the words sink in when General Jackson entered the church and slowly walked down the aisle. Every seat was taken, and he stood for a moment, leaning against a pillar.
Peter Cartwright felt a tug at the tail of his coat. “General Jackson has come in!” the Nashville pastor whispered excitedly. “General Jackson has come in.”
The whisper was audible to most of the church. Peter Cartwright’s jaw tightened, and he gave the minister a look of scorn.
“Who is General Jackson?” shouted Cartwright. “If he doesn’t repent and get his soul converted,” he continued saying in effect, “God will condemn his soul to hell as quick as an unconverted pagan.”
After the sermon, the Rev. Cartwright was advised to leave town immediately, for Jackson was known for his fiery temper and his deadly duels. Instead, the evangelist accepted an invitation to preach at a church right next to the Hermitage.
Jackson invited him to dinner.
– pp. 296-297, Marquis James: The Life of Andrew Jackson. Indianopolis: The Bob-Merrill Co., 1937.
St. John the Baptist did not fare as well with King Herod, but suffered an untimely execution on King Herod’s orders, because of his faithful witness to Herod against taking his brother’s wife.
OUR VOCATION AS THE CHURCH
In the face of growing materialism and paganism in society, how are we to live, and what should our attitude be? Both our lives and our message to all we encounter must be uncompromising, reflecting deep repentance from sin and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Above all we must love God wholeheartedly, deeply desiring to please Him and do His will in all aspects of our lives. William Law (in A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, 1729) wrote that this basic desire to please God made the first Christians such outstanding examples of devotion, and created the fellowship of the saints, martyrs and confessors. He even goes so far as to claim that if Christians ask themselves why they are not as devout as those early Christians, it is not because of ignorance or inability, but because they never thoroughly desired it. He adds also that if this “general desire to please God was present in Christians, it would change the face of the world” [p. 11, Halcyon C. Blackhouse (ed.): William Law: A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1987). I would add that one must not only thoroughly desire to be devout, but one must daily persevere in one’s devotion to Christ and service, as the Lord Jesus himself told us, “But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13, NRSV).
St. John the Baptist lived in the desert and became strong in spirit (Luke 1:80), living in the presence of the Holy Spirit, desiring more than all else to speak God’s word and do God’s will. What if he had said to God, “O please, I can’t bear this terrific heat, or all these locusts and this wild honey? Can’t I just live an ordinary life?” He allowed nothing to distract him from the mission God had given him – to preach so as to turn people from their sins and be reconciled to God and their neighbor and family. This mission was to prepare for the preaching and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ.
St. John exercised the self-discipline that he did because of his love for God and God’s call on his life. Do you so long to please God and do His will that you lay aside everything that prevents you from obeying His call and doing His will?
 NRSV is the New Revised Standard Version, 1989.