“What then will this child be?”

a sermon for the Nativity of John the Baptist

Luke 1:57-67 [68-80]


“What then will this child be?”

That is the question all the neighbors and relatives of the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth ask and ponder as they marvel over the birth of their miracle baby and receive him into their midst. Zechariah was so surprised and doubtful about it that he has his voice taken away for a while, like some sort of punishment for not trusting the miracle could happen. And now that the child is born,  Zechariah can finally ask aloud with the others as he cradles him in his arms, “What then will this child be?”

“What then will this child be?”

 I suspect that’s the question asked by anyone who has ever held a baby or met a young child or spent any time in the presence of a kid. You look into their eyes, observe their behavior as they play with their toys, maybe, if you’re lucky, you have a conversation with them, and can’t help but wonder what they’re going to grow up to accomplish. Those who, like the village friends of Elizabeth and Zechariah, are privileged enough to receive a child—whether their own or someone else’s—can’t help but be filled with hope. They could turn out to be anything, perhaps.

As it happens, I just spent a full week in the midst of a place that all about receiving children. I’ve been up at Lutheridge, a Lutheran outdoor ministry in the mountains of North Carolina, serving as a Bible study leader for 3rd-5th graders. I know that this congregation is helping to send several children there as well as to Camp Caroline Furnace, one of the Lutheran camps here in Virginia, this summer. Receiving children and nurturing them well is the reason any summer camp exists whether its faith-based or not. Every Sunday a new group of children arrives at the gates, and you can feel the excitement in the campers as well as the staff.

All the counselors have at that point is the campers’ names. At least at Lutheridge, they’ve received those names on little printed-out sheets of paper from the registrar. One of the first things—and most important things—a counselor does to set the stage to receive their campers and make them feel at home is to take a plain, old piece of white poster paper and make a sign with their names on it and then hang the sign on the front of the cabin. When I worked on staff there, we often got a little competitive in our sign-making, seeing who could come up with the most creative signs. This week there were some amazing signs (I wouldn’t be able to hang) like one counselor who look the first letters of the names of the campers assigned to her and matched them with elements from the periodic table. Making a sign with names is such a basic task, and it doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but it communicates to each kid, “We are ready for you. We’ve been expecting you. We are glad you’re here.” And the counselor thinks to herself as she writes out their name, “What then will this child be?”


The villagers make a sign for this child, too. It’s because Zechariah is still unable to speak, of course, so they look for a writing tablet and he writes, “His name is John.” This is a big deal, and would probably make people wonder more than usual about what the child would become, because John is a somewhat of a strange pick. John is not a family name in a time when family names were the standard custom. It would be especially odd for him not to receive the name of, say, his father, considering the circumstances of his birth.

However, Zechariah had received a visit from an angel who had told him a bit about the child and that his name was to be John, and as it turns out, John means, “God’s gracious gift.”


One of the prophecies about this gracious gift which the angel announces to Zechariah is that John will cause the hearts of parents to turn toward their children. John will bring about a time of possibility and hope, a time when people will begin to look forward again, open to what God is doing in their midst. John’s life and ministry will bring people out of this idolatry of the past and usher in a time of change and new perspective. They’ll think a bit less on what has already happened and a bit more on what’s to come. I suspect Jessie’s and Matt’s hearts are turned today toward Elaina, as she is baptized, and turned again to Leo and Jacob, her older brothers. And as the water is poured over her head, we all can once again turn our hearts towards the future as it unfolds and we are remade in Christ.

When John finally comes back from the wilderness as a young adult, we find him at the river Jordan as the Baptist, washing people in the water for the repentance and forgiveness of sins. He is involved, you see, in helping people start over. Giving people a chance to be washed of their past and step into a new future.

And as we know, the whole surprise about John the Baptist is that who he turns out to be ends up being far less important than the person he comes to pave the way for. What John ends up becoming is focused on preparing the world to receive an even greater gracious, gift. The hope and possibility that John represents is no less and no more than the real dawn from on high, the light for those who sit in darkness, Jesus Christ.

Saint John the Baptist Pointing to Christ (Bartolome Murillo, 1655)

And this is a very important point we cannot overlook, especially in this day and age. John the Baptist is not special in and of himself except for the ways in which he prepares the way for Christ to come. We eventually hear this from John’s own lips, himself, who says at one point, I must decrease so that he, Jesus, must increase. As it turns out, that’s why the church, so early on, placed this festival at the end of June. We’ve just passed the summer solstice, so the hours of sunlight are decreasing. They will finally increase once again in about six months, in late December, which is when we’ll be celebrating the birth of the light of the world.

Jesus’ life is woven together with John the Baptist’s like no one else in the gospels. One theologian I read pointed out how every time John the Baptist appears, Jesus’ ministry makes a significant turn, eventually getting us to the cross. When Jesus is conceived, John the Baptist leaps in his mother’s womb. We learn that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise of a savior. When Jesus is baptized, John is there, and we hear that Jesus is God’s beloved Son. When John is arrested by Herod Antipas, Jesus begins preaching about the kingdom of God. And when John the Baptist is beheaded, Jesus doubles down on his ministry of feeding and healing, eventually embracing the fact that God’s love for the world will require his own suffering and death.

There is such an emphasis on “making a difference in the world” these days, such a desire for our lives to mean something, to create change, a lasting impact. We hear it in our politics, in the way that candidates speak about the problems we face and in the idealistic slogans of our education systems. I hear it in the way we speak to our youth, even in youth ministry settings. A group of our high schoolers will take off this week for the ELCA Youth Gathering in Houston, and I’m sure they’ll hear it there, like they have before. In a world filled with so much tension, so much division, it is hopeful to see so many people giving their lives to bring about change, to see people respond to our challenges not by withdrawing but by rising up.

And yet from John the Baptist we hear the reminder: our lives are only important insofar as they reveal Jesus’ light to the world. Our impact on others (and the world) will be beneficial only insofar as it leaves the mark of Jesus on them. Because what Jesus does is the only thing that it ultimately eternal. All else fades away.

When Zechariah finally speaks, he sings, and the song he sings is a prayer that points not to John primarily, or to Zechariah’s future. He sings about what John’s birth means in the ongoing work of God for the world, how holding John is holding an eventual deliverance from sin because John will point us to Jesus. Our prayer for the youth gathering in Houston this week…our prayer for those who’ve prepared these beautiful quilts…our prayer for those who are awaiting a new round of campers at Caroline Furnace or Lutheridge…our prayer for those who are mobilizing for justice and compassion at the US-Mexico border…is not that people they serve will have an encounter with their own greatness or our effectiveness or wisdom, but that they and we will encounter and receive the mercy of Jesus. For it is never ourselves who can make a difference, but Jesus within and through us. Like John the Baptist eventually teaches us, (and I paraphrase), “It’s not about me. It’s about God.”

One of the activities Melinda and I planned for our Bible studies with the 3rd and 4th graders last week was to make simple crosses with them. They were the most basic craft of all time (mainly because I was involved): just two sticks tied together in the middle with twine or yarn. Basically we just needed them as a time filler at the end of the session, and we were a bit embarrassed we couldn’t come up with something better. The crosses weren’t intricate and wouldn’t take the kids long to make them. She and I hunted around camp and along the roads for about an hour gathering up about sixty sticks that we could use.


When the time came, the kids rooted through the pile of sticks of various lengths and thicknesses, fumbling them as best they could to get the yarn to hold them tight together. Time came for the session to be over and pick up their things and leave, and I turned around to find the eyes of one young blond third grade boy looking up at me with tears in his eyes. “What then will this child be about?” I caught myself thinking. He had been struggling with homesickness the whole week and was ready to go home to see his family. He said, “If there are any sticks left, I’d like two more, because I really want to make a cross for my sister.” He said she was in high school at a cheerleading camp, and he wanted to bring something home for her because he missed her.

So, of course there were sticks. And suddenly they didn’t seem so plain anymore. We put one together, and he ran off to stick it in his luggage.

The kid’s name was Alden, but it could have been John. He purified me! Like fuller’s soap. He reminded me: Don’t ever be ashamed of the cross! What a gracious gift from God he turned out to be, thinking less of himself and more of the cross he could share with someone else, turning my own heart to the message of children.

May each child of God—young as well as old—reveal to you and me our own gifts in service to nothing more and nothing less than the cross of Christ.




The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

stretch out your hand

a sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost [Year B]

Deuteronomy 5:12-15 and Mark 2:23–3:6

As some of you may know because I’ve mentioned it before, our 4th graders planted wheat from seeds back in March as a part of their Holy Communion instruction. It was the first time any of us had ever tried growing wheat, so we didn’t know what to expect. I was thinking the stalks would grow somewhat slowly and give us some grain by mid-summer. I don’t know if it’s all the rain we’ve had or just what wheat does but, lo and behold, we’ve got amber waves of grain already. Actually, they’re still green waves, and it’s more of a ripple than a wave, but each stem is topped by 9 or 10 kernels of wheat bobbing in the wind.

The thing is: I don’t have a clue about what to do with them. We had a great time that day planting them, and I was excited to see them sprout perfectly in time for Easter, but I’ve never harvested wheat, so I don’t know when to pick them or how to do it. Therefore, I figured that maybe we planted the wheat just so that I’d have some grain to pick on a Sabbath, which is what I did this morning before I came in to worship.

I picked this grain of wheat and I doubt anyone is going to get after me for doing it, except for maybe the 4th graders, and even they wouldn’t be upset because I’m picking it on a Sunday. However, as we hear in this portion of Mark’s gospel this morning, Jesus didn’t get off so easy. As he and his disciples are walking through grainfields on their way through Galilee, they begin to pick the heads of grain and, I assume, eat them. Some religious officials catch them doing this and immediately want to know why, if he is a follower of the Jewish faith, he would allow his disciples do something that is not allowed on the Sabbath Day. Why is picking grains of wheat not allowed on the Sabbath Day? Well, as far as they and their religious laws are concerned, picking wheat is one of the long list of things that qualify as work, and as any law-abiding Jewish person would know, work is strictly prohibited on the Sabbath Day.

Now, this may sound really silly to us (what is picking wheat?), even though we are still, as a culture two thousand years later, are still a bit unclear about what the days of the week are for. It wasn’t too long ago that most of the country had blue laws, restrictions about which businesses could be open and which goods and services could be sold on Sundays and weekends. Most of those have been repealed now, probably to our detriment, even though we wouldn’t like to admit it. I know most people would probably expect a religious leader like me to be in favor of blue laws because it might lead to better worship attendance, but that’s actually not my concern. I wonder more about how things like a common day of rest across a whole culture might actually strengthen families and contribute in some way to making us less divisive overall, a problem we are clearly dealing with in all kinds of ways now. I just know that whenever Chik-Fil-A decides to open on Sunday there’s going to be a lot of happy people…except for people who wear Chik-Fil-A uniforms.

Closed on Sunday-blog header

Whatever your stance on blue laws is, honoring the Sabbath Day in Jesus’ culture was not just a minorly annoying little law the religious leaders had made up. It was one of the Ten Commandments; that is, one of the ten core, foundational rules of the faith given by God for God’s people to have a life where they would flourish, the life that God intended for them. In fact, the real name for the ten commandments is actually the Ten Words. These commandments are so basic and so intrinsic to everything about life with God that they are like words are to a thought or a sentence. They speak life and hope into the life of the people of God, giving them purpose and identity, and one of the first words, depending on how you number them, is to take a break. One: You’ve got a great God and remember to obey him. Two: Take care of that God’s name because that name is directly related to God’s particular story and identity, and you don’t want to treat the name so carelessly that it gets mixed up with other gods’ identities. Three: Now you need to remember those two things, so set some time aside for it and make it a priority. Time, which is truly our only non-renewable resource, is necessary to be reminded of those first two things because we’re terribly forgetful. Too much time goes by and we’ll forget.

There’s a key in there about these ten words that the religious authorities seemed to have forgotten. The key is that these words were never meant to be viewed as restrictions, as “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots,” but as gifts. There is an inherent promise in each of the commandments, like a kernel of grain inside a hard husk, and focusing only on what it prohibits or does not allow is actually a warping of them.

What then is the promise in keeping the Sabbath Day, of refraining from certain things that could involve work? It is to allow our attentions to focus on the life-giving work of God (who accomplishes more work for us than we ever could). It is to honor the fact that built into creation itself is renewal and restoration. It is to recognize over and over that fundamental to human creativity and ingenuity and industry is rest. Taking time away and time off is not an interruption of work. It is a part of it. Sabbath-keeping, you see, helped instill that in people’s faith, but the Pharisees had taken it to an extreme. They would not even allow feeding the hungry or healing to occur on the Sabbath day because it looked like someone was working.

Then along comes Jesus doing those things. Along comes Jesus who allows grain-picking on the Sabbath because disciples are hungry, who sees a man in need of healing and says, “Stretch out your hand” just so that the Pharisees can hear it. And it’s not because Jesus is a rebel and disliked religion. It’s not because Jesus goes around looking for ways to tick off religious leaders. It’s because Jesus, unlike anyone else, could understand what the point of that commandment was, just like he could embody what all of God’s words meant. He could see that it’s work to go through life with a withered hand, or any disability, for that matter. Or in grinding poverty. Jesus could see that holy time was not holy simply because you were following God’s rules and being good. Holy time was holy because it was blessed by the presence of God’s Word, and God’s Word has always been that which truly gives life. Keeping the Sabbath preserves a time where God’s word can be heard and seen and then let loose to do its thing, which means it makes absolute sense for someone to have their life restored and withered hand stretched out on the Sabbath. It isn’t work at all.


That’s why when Martin Luther gives an explanation for the Third Commandment in his Small Catechism he does not relate it to taking time off, per se, but in taking time with God’s Word. He says, “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”

Church and worship is not just another activity, even though pastors often make it seem like that, and there’s nothing inherently more holy about Sunday than the other days. Time with God’s Word is always life-giving, no matter when it happens. Our time here, the day the Word rose from the dead, is a weekly reminder of who and whose we really are. It’s a weekly identity check that our life depends on.

Once when I was in high school I attended a week of Rotary camp with kids from several different high schools. On one of the first days there I ran into this one girl who knew me from another camp somewhere, but she had mis-remembered my name. She walked up to me and called me “Peter,” and because I was flustered and giddy around girls at that age I was too shy to correct her right off the bat.

Well, the next time she walked up to talk to me, sure enough, she yelled out, “Hey, Peter,” and I was even more embarrassed to correct her because there were other people around. Thankfully, none of them heard her say it. For the rest of the week, however, whenever I saw that girl wanted to talk to me I would try to walk away from earshot of everyone else so I could be “Peter” to her, even though, of course, I was really Phillip.


Here God wants to remind us of our real name each time we hear his Word, drink of the cup, eat of the bread. One study in 2015 showed that the average American is exposed to somewhere between 4000 and 10,000 ads a day. That is 4000 to 10,000 daily suggestions of who someone thinks you are or what someone thinks you need to be, essentially calling you Peter when you know you are someone else. And that’s before we factor in the messages we receive from social media that try to tell us who we are supposed to be friends with or what label we’re supposed to be comfortable with.

Youth, in particular, these days are under unbelievable stress to “form an identity” and choose a label and I worry about that pressure in their lives. It’s unfortunate this all coincides with a time when there are so many more options for activities on Sundays and every other day of the week, too.

In this city, just driving up and down Monument Avenue we find reminders of a certain identity and history that authorities want us to remember and adopt for ourselves, whether it’s true for us or not.

In this midst of all this, in the midst of the misnaming and the mistaking, we have a God who gets honest with us. He doesn’t need a monument or memorial or place for this honesty; just time with his Word. We have a God who knows we’re not perfect even when we’re pretty sure we’re “all that,” and so time with his Word will remind us of our brokenness, our need for forgiveness. We have a God who understands our inclination to turn into Pharisees, demanding holiness from everyone else, and his Word knocks us down a notch or two to where we belong.

But we also have a God who knows how to heal, who knows we’re wandering, who knows it’s hard to know who we really belong to in this world. We get to follow a God who loves us and has offered himself on the cross for us, who knows we’re worth a lot even when we don’t feel it. And in those times, when we’re not too busy, his Word gathers us in and lifts us up. In those times we realize that we get to follow a God who says, “Stretch out your hand.”  And then into our open, stretched out hand—wonder of wonders—he places his very life.




Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.