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.
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.