24 June 2008

Nativity of John the Baptist

Today the Church celebrates the Nativity of John the Baptist and gives thanks to God for His forerunner who announced the coming of the Coming One, our Lord Jesus Christ. Based on Luke 1:36, we know that John was six months older than Jesus. Thus we celebrate John's birth on this day, six months prior to Christmas. Today's feast, then, properly begins to prepare us for the coming celebration of our Lord's Incarnation and Birth--a subtle six-month Advent season, if you will.

Not only does the Church calendar begin to prepare us for our Lord's Incarnation and Birth, but the cosmos also joins in proclaiming the relationship between John and Jesus. As others have noted, the feast of John's birth comes at the beginning of summer, just after 21 June, when the amount of the day's light is at its peak. From this point on the daylight will decrease each day until the winter solstice on 21 December. However, come winter and the time when we celebrate our Lord's Nativity, the light will again begin to increase with each day. What a marvelous cosmological tool to echo John's own words: "He must increase, but I must decrease" (Jn. 3:30). It also reminds us that our true light is not John, but Jesus Christ, the Light of the world.

Lutheran Service Book appoints Isaiah 40:1-5 as today's Old Testament reading. John, of course, fulfills the prophecy of a voice crying, "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God." It was most fitting that our Lord would send His forerunner ahead of Him to prepare people, because our Lord Jesus would bring the truly life-saving and life-giving message: "Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins." John was given the honorable vocation of directing the people's attention to the Christ who would bring such comfort.

Acts 13:13-26 serves as the Epistle reading. While in Pisidian Antioch St. Paul is asked to proclaim "any word of exhortation for the people" and proceeds to recount how God had saved His people from Egypt, led them through the wilderness, and brought them into Canaan. He also spoke of the prophet Samuel and of kings Saul and David. As he then spoke of Jesus, St. Paul said, "Before his coming, John had proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And as John was finishing his course, he said, 'What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but behold, after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.'" St. Paul teaches us how to honor and remember John the Baptist--as one who prepared the way for the Savior by preaching a baptism of repentance.

The appointed Gospel reading is Luke 1:57-80, the Nativity of John the Baptist. Since Zechariah, John's father, could not speak (see Lk. 1:20), Elizabeth had to give the unexpected name "John." When Zechariah confirmed this name by writing on a tablet, he was able to speak. Then, led by the Holy Spirit, Zechariah sang of John's vocation and purpose in life. John would be "called the prophet of the Most High" and he would "go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins." Not only would John preach a baptism of repentance, but he would also direct the people to their God-given Savior who would forgive their sins.

Therefore, when we celebrate the Nativity of John the Baptist, we end up celebrating the things of most importance: our Lord's Incarnation and Birth and our Lord's comfort and salvation in repentance and baptism, that is, in the forgiveness of sins.

Collect of the Day
Almighty God, through John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, You once proclaimed salvation. Now grant that we may know this salvation and serve You in holiness and righteousness all the days of our life; through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Hymn Verse
We praise You for the Baptist,
Forerunner of the Word,
Our true Elijah, making
A highway for the Lord.
The last and greatest prophet,
He saw the dawning ray
Of light that grows in splendor
Until the perfect day. (LSB 518:18)

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