57 When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. 58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.
59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, 60 but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.”
61 They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.”
62 Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. 63 He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65 The neighbors were all filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. 66 Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him.
— St. Luke 1:57-66
When families get together, they tell stories, and sometimes those stories come from the time before you can remember. On the day my brother was baptized, the wind chill was -30 below. The pastor, my family, and a few others were just about the only ones who made it to church that day. Only a few got to witness his rebirth through water and the Word. I don’t know that because I remember it. I was two when it happened. I know that story because my parents told me after I grew up.
John the Baptist would have heard such stories about himself as well. His birth had been announced by the angel Gabriel as his father, Zechariah, took his turn serving in the temple. Only a few people in Scripture have ever had their births announced by angels. Samson was one. Jesus was another – and that’s about it. That must have made for a great story as John was growing up.
His father’s being struck dumb for Elizabeth’s entire pregnancy would have been another story John heard. Zechariah didn’t believe the Word of God through the angel at first. He asked, “How can this be?” and to teach him not to doubt what God says, he lost the power of speech until John was born. Husbands, imagine not being able to talk for the entire nine months your wife is pregnant. You can decide for yourself whether that would be a good thing or not.
John would have also heard about the story recorded in our Gospel for today. Zechariah had lost the ability to talk before John was born, but it didn’t stay lost. When it came time to name the child, their relatives wanted to do what was customary – name the child after his father. Elizabeth insisted, “No, his name is John!” This was what the angel said his name should be, so that‘s what they were going to do. They turn to Zechariah and start to motion to ask him what he thinks, and he makes writing motions with his hand so they give him a writing tablet. They watch as he scratches out on the tablet, “His name is John,” then to their astonishment, he opens his mouth and words start coming out! This man whom everyone assumed would never talk again is praising God at the top of his voice! That’s the sort of thing that makes people sit up and take notice! By this miracle God was signifying that this child would grow up to speak His Word as a prophet, that by his speaking he would lead many to righteousness, and that many would open their own mouths to confess the true faith – based on what John taught.
It was a miracle that Zechariah could talk again after nine months of silence. But there’s a miracle behind the miracle: that Zechariah finally believed the word spoken through the angel. It took nine months to accomplish, but Zechariah finally believed what he’d been told. His heart had accepted that God was right, that God could do anything, and that He was going to save His people – that every word of His is true. God had predicted through the angel that Zechariah would be unable to talk until John was born, and because God said it, it came true, because everything God says comes true. That’s just the way it is – things happen, promises are kept, deliverance comes, because God says so.
God had said that Zechariah and Elizabeth were going to have a son, even though she was barren and they were well past the point where that was a possibility – and bingo! It came to pass, even though Zechariah had doubted. His doubts didn’t stop God – because God said it and that was how it was going to be!
Zechariah’s inability to talk until John was born shows us something else, too: this child was going to be no ordinary man. This child was going to grow up and be the Elijah that was to come that was spoken of by the prophet Malachi. This child was going to go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah. He was going to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just. He was going to prepare the people for the great and dreadful day of the Lord, when God became man and walked among His people. That was John’s life’s work, to prepare the way for the Messiah, and that’s what he did – because God said it and that’s the way it was.
Not even Zechariah and Elizabeth understood it fully at the time, but the question asked by all their friends and neighbors – “What then is this child going to be?” – was going to be answered in spectacular fashion. Jesus called John a “burning and a shining light,” and that’s exactly what John was. He grew up to be someone it was impossible to ignore. If he lived today, those who didn’t like him or who lacked faith would call him ‘polarizing.’ This boy, John, was going to grow up to be someone who would look the rich, the powerful, and the influential right in the eye – didn’t matter who it was – and tell them like it is. He was going to tell them, “This is what the Lord says,” because God said so and that was that. Even if it was someone like King Herod, who was one of history’s greatest builders and who ordered the murders of dozens of people at the drop of a hat, sometimes before breakfast – even if it was someone like King Herod, John would still look them in the eye and say, “What you’re doing is not right. No, you cannot steal your brother’s wife. Repent!” He’d look the Pharisees in the eye, the rich, arrogant religious elite of his day, and tell them, “Repent, you brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” These were the people that everybody else kowtowed to, and John was not afraid to poke them in the eye with God’s law – because God said it and that’s the way it is, even if they didn’t like it.
John also grew up to preach Christ just as uncompromisingly. The Lord through the prophet Isaiah spoke beforehand about John the Baptist: “Comfort, comfort My people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” That was what John preached. John was the voice calling in the wilderness who revealed the glory of the Lord. To those with ears to hear and hearts to repent, His message was simple: “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! Him, not me! He is your forgiveness, your mercy, your surety before God! Look to Him for forgiveness and grace, and you will never be put to shame! There comes One after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. I’m not even worthy to scrape the mud off His boots – yet here He is, knocking at the door, coming as a lowly, humble carpenter’s son. He will not turn you away. He accepts you just as you are – a sinner, yes, warts and all – so put your trust in the One whom God has sent, His only Son, and produce fruit in keeping with repentance. Turn your heart to Him and clean up your life, and you will be saved – because God says so, His only Son says so, He came to make it so, and that’s the way it is!”
That message that this baby boy, John, would grow up to preach is why we celebrate this day. That message still applies to us, because John’s message wasn’t about John, it was about Christ, and it’s for you. That message about Christ makes you bold enough to speak up when you should, because it’s God’s message, and it’s saving. Even though you don’t have the same office and calling as John did, you can still trust in that message and live it like John did. Like he did, you can look people in the eye and say what God says, because God says it and that’s the way it is. How else will the people around you know what God says, if not through you?
You aren’t called to save them or to fix their lives or make them better – those things are God’s business. But you are called to be faithful with the message He’s given you, just as John the Baptist was. There’s a world of difference between confessing your faith and trying to sell someone something spiritual or trying to convert someone all on your own by arguing them logically into the kingdom of heaven. We don’t sell, we don’t argue, we don’t use trickery; we confess our faith boldly and live it uncompromisingly, and let God handle what happens after that. We look people in the eye and say, “This is what the Lord says.” May God make us all faithful confessors of His Word in the world. Amen.