John the Baptist: God’s herald of grace

A sermon preached at St Paul’s Cathedral by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Feast of the Birth of St John the Baptist, 2015:

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‘What then will this child become?’ the neighbours and relatives of Zechariah and Elizabeth wondered when they came to celebrate the naming of John, whose birth we commemorate today. It had been a most unusual naming ceremony, our gospel reading tells. In accordance with Jewish custom, every male child was to be named and dedicated to God eight days after his birth. And so the temple priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth presented the child to be marked with the sign of the Jewish covenant, and to be named. And the name the child received was a most unexpected break with tradition in more ways than one. It was his mother who named him, and not the father. It was Elizabeth who named her child, a break with Jewish custom. And then Elizabeth astounded all by confirming that her son would not receive a traditional family name, but would be called by a new name altogether.

‘No; he is to be called John’, Elizabeth told the astonished relatives, who objected to the choice and pleaded with her to see reason: ‘none of your relatives has this name’ (Luke 1.60). Not only was the name given to the child a break with a family tradition, but the way in which the child received his name, from his mother, was a break with religious tradition by which the father would name the child. The fact that the child’s father, who had been struck dumb at the news of his birth had to resort to confirming his wife’s choice of name in writing, made this a most unusual naming. The fact that Zechariah regained his voice—immediately after he had confirmed by writing, ‘His name is John’—made John’s naming ceremony even more memorable. From the very beginning of his story, John was marked out to be extraordinary. No wonder the neighbours and relatives asked themselves: ‘what then will this child become?’ (Luke 1.66).

‘His name is John’ (Luke 1.63). The child’s name was given to Zechariah by the angel who caused him to be dumbfounded. Gabriel, the same messenger who announced to the Virgin Mary that she was to conceive a child, announced to Zechariah that his wife would conceive a child who was to be called John. The angel prophesied: ‘the child will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him’ (Luke. 1.14-17). Unlike Mary, who immediately assented to the angel’s message with joy and obedience, Zechariah received the angel’s prophetic word with unbelief: his advanced age, their previous inability to conceive, all these made this impossible, Zechariah told the angel. And Gabriel rebuked him for his disobedience and unbelief: ‘Because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur’ (Luke 1.20). And so, at the child’s naming, Zechariah had to resort to writing the name of his newborn son: ‘His name is John’, he confirmed.

‘His name is John’ (Luke 1.63). There had been no John in Zechariah’s family, the priestly order of Abijah, which traced its roots back to Moses’ brother Aaron. Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s son is given a new name, because God is beginning a new thing. The tradition of calling their newborn son by the name of the family of Aaron is interrupted: John was not born to perpetuate a priestly order that dated back to time when God gave Moses the tablets of law. John was born to fulfil God’s new plan that for his people. Even before his birth, we read in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, John was richly filled with the Holy Spirit. Even before his birth, we are told that John would ‘turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God’ (Luke 1.16). Even before his birth we are told that the child would be filled ‘with the spirit and power of Elijah’, that the child would be greater than the greatest prophet in Israel (Luke 1.17). Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s child is given a new name because by John’s birth God is heralding a new age: John’s birth means that God heralds for his people a new covenant, a new beginning.

‘His name is John’ (Luke 1.63). The Hebrew name ‘John’ literally means ‘God is gracious’, or ‘God’s graciousness’. The new name given to Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s son confirms that the birth of John marks a new beginning: the time when God will again be looking on his people with grace and love. ‘His name is God’s graciousness’ means: God is about to bring in a covenant of grace; a new covenant that will stand alongside the covenant of the law given to Moses. In the person of John two ages meet: John is the last descendant of the recipients of God’s covenant of law, Moses and Aaron, is the last firstborn male in the line of the priestly order of Aaron. At the same time, John is the first to proclaim the arrival of God’s covenant of grace. In Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s child, God is raising up the herald of his new covenant: John is to be the One who will make known to the world the coming of God’s agent of grace, ‘will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God’ (Luke 1.16). The newborn son will the One who will prepare God’s people for the coming of the Messiah, will make the world ready for another newborn Son: the birth of Mary’s child, Jesus Christ.

‘His name is God’s graciousness’. Beginning with the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, God will bring in a law of grace to replace his elder law, John’s unusual naming confirms. God will bestow his grace in place of a law that, as our patron St Paul put it, only ever taught people about sin: ‘if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin’, Paul knew (Romans 7.7). God’s covenant of law was impossible to keep, made people slaves, both to the ‘law of God … and to the law of sin’ (Romans 7.25). Certainly, John’s mother Elizabeth saw the arrival of her child in terms of grace: for her the first signs of the child of whose name means ‘God’s graciousness’ in her own life, was also the first sign of God’s graciousness to all people. God ‘looked favourably on me, and taken away his humiliation’, Elizabeth reflected (Luke 1.25). With John’s birth God had taken away her humiliation of being childless, Elizabeth felt: the fear of not being able to continue the line of Aaron the lawgiver. With John’s birth, God also had taken away the humiliation of his law and heralded the arrival of a new covenant of grace and love, Elizabeth knew. A new beginning that gave her the grace of an unexpected child, and the world the grace of Jesus Christ, the long-expected Saviour.

‘His name is God’s graciousness’. It is the priest Zechariah who, a few verses after our gospel reading, puts into words the hopes of a new gracious beginning for his people through his own son’s witness to Mary’s son, Jesus. In Zechariah’s song, which has become the church’s daily morning hymn of praise, he sings with joy, ‘Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel, who has come to his people and set them free. He has raised up for us a mighty Saviour, born of the house of his servant David. Through his holy prophets God promised of old to save us from our enemies, from the hands of all that hate us, to show mercy to our ancestors, and to remember his holy covenant. This was the oath God swore to our father Abraham: to set us free from the hands of our enemies, Free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life’ (Luke 1.68-72). And sang about his hope for his son, ‘You, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the of their sins’ (Luke 1.76-77). The one whose name means God’s graciousness will be the bearer of God’s ‘tender compassion that will break on us, shining on those in darkness and the shadow of death, and guiding our feet into the way of peace’ (Luke 1.77-79).

‘What then will this child become?’ This extraordinary child, herald of God’s graciousness, became the forerunner, showing forth the way by which God would save the world: his call to repentance prepared the people of Israel for Christ’s call to return to God and repent. His baptism in the river Jordan prepared the people of Israel for Christ’s invitation that all nations receive his baptism, be washed from their sins, and born again by water and the Holy Spirit. His challenging witness before Herod and his martyrdom at the king’s hand foreshadowed Christ’s own witness before the authorities of his own day and his death on the cross so that God’s new covenant of graciousness might be shown forth to all nations. And so, John called and prophesied, and Jesus came and confirmed: God is gracious, and seeks all people to come to him to receive the ‘knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins … to give light to those who live in darkness and the shadow of death and guiding their feet into the way of peace’ (Luke 1.77-79).

Let us pray:

God for whom we watch and wait, you sent John the Baptist to prepare the way of your Son: give us courage to make known the good news of God’s grace in our own generation and, by words of hope and works of loving service, make ready a people prepared for the return of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

© Text: Andreas Loewe, Photography: Carsten Murawski 2015

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