The Nativity (Birth) of St. John the Baptizer

John the Baptizer’s dad, Zechariah, is mute.  He can’t speak, for when the angel Gabriel had told him that he would have a son, he did not believe.  He was too old.  His wife, Elizabeth, had already gone through menopause.  So, of course he didn’t believe.  And so, God judged the lips that denied His words and He took away Zechariah’s power to confess through such words.

Stories like that intrigue us.  We like to hear about Sarah laughing at God, when she knew she was too old for Abraham to get her pregnant.  We like to hear about Thomas demanding to see the Lord’s hands and side, when He didn’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

We hear stories like that, and we rejoice that, at least, we believe.  But there’s something sleazier and more sinister in us than that.  We like to think that we’re just a little bit better than those saints of old, for if we had received the word of Lord, we would’ve believed.

But those games don’t work.  You have received the Word of the Lord.  You hear it from this pulpit every week.  But still you disbelieve.  You still wiggle your way out of what the Scriptures say.  You still live as if Jesus has not come.  You constantly seek ways to trust yourself or something within creation instead of the eternal Creator of all, the One who has saved you.

You try to rationalize by thinking that those saints of old had more-powerful reasons to believe.  They had miracles and signs from heaven.  They had fire and cloud and miracles of healing.  And that’s true.  Some of them did–but not Zechariah.  Not when that strange preacher, the angel Gabriel, arrived in the Temple.

Zechariah was no different from you.  He thought he knew how the world worked.  Angels don’t appear in the Temple, except in those Old Testament stories.  Even more, every day at the Temple, the Sadducees surrounded Zechariah, learned scholars who denied the resurrection.  Oh yes, the dead stay dead.  Let’s keep it real.

Is it so different for you?  In the modern world, we’re naturally skeptical of much of what we read in the Scriptures.  Did water turn into wine, for real?  All right; I can handle that.  Were the sick healed from real diseases?  All right, I can handle that, too.  But casting out demons?  Well, maybe that was mental illness or epilepsy; after all, that was 2,000 years ago!  Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the modern mind to believe the mighty acts of God.

We envy the people who saw Jesus when He walked this earth because, sometimes, we doubt that Jesus did everything the Scriptures say He did.  And so we hold Zechariah to a higher standard.  He lived during biblical times.  He should have known better.

But it was no different for Zechariah.  The prophets had been silent for centuries.  Gabriel’s prophecy to Zechariah in theTemplewas the first for 400 years.  When Zechariah heard the Word of the Lord through Gabriel, that wasn’t a normal, everyday event.  Something like that hadn’t happened for at least ten generations.

Did Zechariah know it could happen?  Sure; he knew it through the Word of God that he had heard and learned.  So, it shouldn’t have surprised him.  And so, he should have believed the gracious promises of God–but he didn’t!  He looked at himself and saw that God’s promise couldn’t be true.  Old men like him can’t father babies.  Gray-haired women don’t go into labor.  The world doesn’t work that way.

And you also do the same with God’s promises.  You hear that salvation is free, but doubt that, at least, a little bit.  Oh, you say it with the mouth, but a smidgen of doubt still lingers inside.  Surely, you have to do something, even if it’s just a smidgen.  Sometimes, when you help with the Altar Guild or cook the Easter breakfast, you think that God might love you just a little bit more than the person who didn’t help.

When illness strikes you, or you have a long, hard recovery from surgery, you secretly wonder if God is punishing you for some sin.  You live in unbelief just like Zechariah.  God’s promises are too unbelievable; His ways are too easy.  You know about life in the real world, and you want to cover all your bases.

Unbelief is easy; faith is hard.  All you have to go on is words: Words read from an ancient book and words preached by a guy standing in a pulpit.  And you know better than anyone that I’m not pure and holy.  I’m not wise.  I have few pearls of my own wisdom to send your way.  I’m an unexpected preacher in theTemple.  The only authority I have are words, the ones that God has given me to preach.

The words of eternal life, which I preach, are heard as but weak words, simple words, the words of someone ordinary.  It doesn’t make sense that they should have the power to kill and make alive, to condemn and forgive your sin.  It’s true: We don’t fully believe and so we also deserve for God to strike us mute.  We doubt the promises of God and deserve to be thrown into a silent hell.

But Zechariah’s months of silence bring him to repent.  We know that he believed the Word he had first denied.  The words he wrote on a tablet confess the truth that Gabriel had told him: “His name is John.”  He confessed what the angel told him, and so the Holy Spirit freed his lips and gave him more to say.

How fitting it is that Zechariah sings of the Lord’s promises, promises that he first disbelieved, but now, nine months later, he confesses.  And such an unusual confession amazes his neighbors.  They want to know about John.  Although Zechariah will get to that, that’s not where he starts.

For it the Holy Spirit who is speaking through the old man.  And when the Holy Spirit speaks, He speaks of Jesus.  Isn’t that what happened when the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary and Jesus began to stir in her womb?  It is as Zechariah sings.  A horn of salvation has been raised up and, in Jesus, the Lord has visited His people.  He knows this because His son John has told him so.  He leaped in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary visited.  The father of the prophet has heard the prophet’s word, even before his birth.

And Zechariah knows that he sees the Old Testament Word being fulfilled, the Word sworn to his father Abraham.  And so the promise to Abraham fills Zechariah’s song.  The Lord saves us from our enemies.  He fulfills the oath he swore to Abraham.  Zechariah well knows the words that God spoke to Abraham, when Abraham had freely chosen not to withhold his only son, Isaac.

The Lord told Abraham:

“I have sworn, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will, indeed, bless you.  I will multiply your offspring as the stars of the sky and the sand on the seashore.  Your offspring will conquer the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring will all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice” (Genesis 22:16-19).

In Abraham’s seed, Jesus, all the nations of the earth are blessed.  God has forgiven your sins because of Abraham’s Seed, Jesus.  Only Jesus has carried your sins to the cross and, there, destroyed them.  Through the words that Jesus, Abraham’s Seed, has given to be spoken here, your sins are absolved, the Gospel is put into your ears, and the Lord’s body and blood graces your tongue.

Zechariah, filled by the Holy Spirit, sings of it all.  But it is his son, John, who is the prophet of the Most High.  John goes before the Lord, preparing His way.  John points others to Jesus and forgives their sins.  Indeed, well-prepared for Jesus is every ear that has heard, “Your sins are forgiven you.”

And that’s how it is.  Your sins are forgiven by sounds coming from sinful lips.  Simple bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ in your mouth.  There is no work that you can do that can make yourself more forgiven.  There is no suffering that you can bear that Jesus has not already destroyed on the cross.  There is no accusation that can stand against those whom God has forgiven.

Jesus’ blood cries out, “Your sins are forgiven.”  Jesus, the Lord God, the King of the Universe, is your Savior.  And His Word does what it says, even when it’s spoken by a sin-filled pastor.  Amen.