24 June 2007

Sermon for the Nativity of St. John

Rev. Charles R. Lehmann + The Nativity of John the Baptist + Luke 1:57-80
Saint Paul Lutheran Church
Hamel, IL
June 24, 2007

(This is my first sermon as an ordained pastor.)

In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
At the beginning of our text for today, Zechariah is mute. When Gabriel had told Zechariah that he would have a son, he did not believe. For this he is struck mute. Since he did not believe God's promise that Elizabeth would conceive, he was silent during the months of her pregnancy. The lips that denied are judged, and for a time the joy of confessing is removed.
We like stories like this one. We like to hear about Sarai laughing at God. We like to hear about Thomas demanding to see the Lord's hands and side. We hear the stories and rejoice that we believe, but more than that, we like to think that we're a little better than these saints of old. If we would have received the word of Lord, surely we would have believed.
But these games don't work. You have received the word of the Lord. You hear it from this pulpit every week as your pastors proclaim it to you. But you still 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 some other created thing instead of the eternal creator of all, the one who has redeemed you.
You try to justify yourself by thinking that these saints of old had better 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, showed up in the temple.
Zechariah was no different than you. He thought he knew how the world works. Angels don't appear in temples except in those old stories that no one really takes seriously anyway. He was surrounded every day by Sadducees who denied the resurrection. Dead people stay dead. Let's keep it real.
Is it really so different for you? In the modern world we're skeptical of much of what we read in the Scriptures. Water to wine? Maybe. Healing the sick. Sure, we'll grant that. But casting out demons? Most of us at one time or another have tried to dismiss that as a primitive misunderstanding of mental illness. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a modern man to believe the mighty acts of God.
We envy the people who saw Jesus during His earthly ministry because we sometimes don't really believe that he did it at all. And so we hold Zechariah to a higher standard. He lived in 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 the temple was the first for hundreds of years. Zechariah in the temple hearing the word of the Lord through Gabriel. This wasn't normal day to day stuff. It hadn't happened in 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. It shouldn't have surprised, shocked, and terrified him. He should have believed the gracious promises of God, but he didn't.
He looked to himself and saw that God's promise couldn't be true. Old men don't beget babies. Grey haired ladies don't go into labor. The world just doesn't work that way. You do the same things with God's promises. You hear that salvation is free and you laugh. There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.
Surely you have to do something. Sometimes when you help on church-cleaning days or wash windows or cook the Easter breakfast you think that God might love you a little more than the person who stayed home that day.
When you are struck with illness or have a long hard recovery from surgery you might wonder what sin God is punishing you for. You live in unbelief just like Zechariah. God's promises are too good and you're too evil. God's way is too easy, and you're a hard worker... you want to do your part.
Unbelief is easy. Faith is hard. All you have to go on is words. Words read from the lectern. Words read from a book in the midst of you. Words spoken by a guy standing in a pulpit. And you know better than anyone that I am not holy. I am not wise. I have no pearls of my own wisdom to drop. I'm an unexpected preacher talking to you in the temple. The only authority I have are the words, the ones God gave me to preach to you.
The words of eternal life which I preach are on their face weak words, simple words, the words of ordinary sinful men. It doesn't make sense that they should have the power to kill and to make alive, to condemn and forgive sin. We all disbelieve and deserve to be struck mute. We all doubt the promises of God and deserve to be thrown into a silent hell.
But Zechariah's months of silence bring repentance. We know that he believed the word he had first denied. His words written on a tablet before his gathered friends confess the truth Gabriel had told him. “His name is John.”
He confessed what the angel told him, and so the Holy Spirit loosed his lips and gave him more to say. As you heard the song read, you probably recognized it. You sing it every Thanksgiving and Easter morning in the order of matins.
It is fitting that Zechariah sings of the Lord's promises, promises that he disbelieved now, nine months later, he confesses. The neighbors are amazed. They want to know about John. Though Zechariah will get to that, that's not where he starts.
It is the Holy Spirit who is speaking through the old man, and when the Holy Spirit speaks, He speaks of Jesus. Christ has been conceived. Even at this moment He grows in the womb of His mother Mary. A horn of salvation has been raised up, sings Zechariah, and 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 the word he sees being fulfilled is the word sworn to his father Abraham. The promise to Abraham fills the song of Zechariah. The Lord saves us from our enemies. He fulfills the oath he swore to Abraham. Zechariah knows well the words the Lord spoke to Abraham when he had freely chosen not to withhold his only son.
“By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”
In Abraham's seed, Christ, all the nations of the earth are blessed. In Abraham's seed, Jesus, your sins are forgiven, carried by Him to the cross and destroyed there. Through the words that Abraham's seed has given to be spoken here in the liturgy, your sins are absolved, the Gospel is put into your ears, and the Lord's body and blood will be placed on your tongue.
Zechariah, filled by the Holy Spirit, sings of it all. But he knows that his little prophecy happens only on this day, the day that John receives the mark of the covenant, the day that Zechariah speaks with Gabriel, “His name is John.”
John, not Zechariah, is the prophet of the Most High. John goes before the Lord to prepare His way. John preaches salvation. John forgives sins. Well prepared for Jesus is every ear that has heard, “Your sins are forgiven you.” Well tilled is the field that is fertilized with simple words.
And so you confess eternal truths with words. Your sins are forgiven by sounds coming from these sinful lips. Simple bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ in your mouth. There is no work you can do to make yourself more forgiven. There is no suffering you can bear that Jesus has not destroyed on the cross. There is no accusation that can stand against God's elect.
Jesus blood cries out for you and all humanity, “Your sins are forgiven.” Jesus, the Lord God, King of the Universe is your Savior. His word does what it says even when it's spoken by a former vicar.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Rev. Charles R. Lehmann
Assistant Pastor-Elect, Youth and Education
Peace with Christ Lutheran Church
Fort Collins, CO

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