24 June 2019

Homily upon the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, 2019

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Joy, joy, joy! Zechariah and Elizabeth in their childlessness had learned to embrace a life of less joy than they saw many of their neighbors have. I don't doubt that they had prayed for the gift of a child and finally had assumed that the answer was "no." Some of you may know the pain of that answer. But the One before whom they were righteous, He was after all the God of Abraham and Sarah. And so when the Angel bops into the Temple as Zechariah is offering the incense and giddily tells him: "Oh, stop being afraid! Your prayer is heard! Your wife will bear you a son! His name will be John, Yahweh is Gracious! You will have joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth!" Joy, joy, joy! And Zechariah, of course, dumbfounded: um, my prayer? That was a very long time ago. How can this possibly be? I'm old. She's old. How will I possibly know this joy?

The angel of course gives him a remarkable gift that is so scarce in our day. The gift of silence. He can't talk because he didn't believe the embassy of joy from the mouth of God's joyful messenger.

And so as he awaited the fulfillment through those nine months, he'd learned in silence that when God announces to you great joy the proper response is not: "No way, dude." Gabriel had no doubt: "I was sent to speak to you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words (well, God's words that I was sent to speak to give you joy), which will be fulfilled in their time." 

The fulfillment of His promise is joy. But in those nine months, Zechariah gestated along with his wife on the rest of the words of Gabriel and they did swell up in him in a joy that finally grew big as Elizabeth's womb till at last it burst forth in the words of Benedictus. The child would be a source of joy and gladness by his birth because he would be great before the Lord. The child would not a partaker of the lesser gladness from wine or strong drink ("wine which You made to make his heart glad" -Psalm 104 it has its gladness, but that's mere water compared to the joy that would be John's). Filled not with wine but with the Holy Spirit, and not even waiting for that till after birth. He was born again before he was even born! While still in his mother's womb, drinking down the Spirit. And he had a mission for Israel: to turn many of the children of the promise back to the Lord their God, going before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, getting ready for the Lord, that is, for Yahweh, who was coming, a people prepared.

And so when the joy conceived in Zechariah and swelling within him in those nine months bursts forth into Benedictus, he isn't all about the joy of the miracle baby that Elizabeth bore him. First, it is the joy of the God of Israel. Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has VISITED and REDEEMED His people." The way Luke gives the narrative maybe hints that Mary's stay lasted through the birth of John and so if she were in the room, well then, HE was in the room. And that's the joy that was brimming over in Zechariah throughout those days. "God has visited and redeemed His people and raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David, as He spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and form the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember His holy covenant, the sworn Oath to Abraham. Blessing to all the families of the earth. Through His Seed. Jesus. So that we might serve him without fear in holiness and in righteousness before Him all our days." This is the joy that swelled in Zechariah and note the angel said: it wasn't just joy for him, but that many would rejoice at this birth! You are part of that many! You come here today to rejoice and share in the joy and awe. 

And at last Zechariah turns attention to the little one, his little one - not the little one still hidden in Mary. "You, my child, will be called prophet of the most high, going before Him, the Lord, to prepare His ways" and here's some massive joy, people loved by God, "to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins." And notice how Zechariah can't stay focused on John. He slips right back to the Lord: "This forgiveness is all because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high" (he'd been thinking a lot about Malachi since the angel basically quoted that prophesy in the temple about his son) "to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death and to guide our feet into the path of peace." 

Joy, joy, joy. Today, the one once hidden in Mary THEN but the cause of growing, bursting joy to Zechariah and Elizabeth and all who waited for the salvation He would bring, the salvation He would BE, He comes to you, hidden beneath the bread and the wine, but the same one, Mary's flesh and blood, very God of very God, begotten, not made. He comes to you as John would go on to teach, when he proclaimed in Him the forgiveness of your sins: He comes to be your Lamb that carries away the sin of the world, so that you may know in Him the tender mercy of God, this light that breaks through the darkness of death and the shines upon the path of peace, calling you home. Joy at John's birth! Joy at John's witness! Nine-month joy bursting from Zechariah! Joy coming into you! And that great joy has a God-given name, like his cousin, John, that is, Yahweh is gracious. Joy's name is Yahweh saves, Jesus, the one who came and comes to bring those lost and frightened in the darkness back home, to take them back to promised land, back to the garden, back to the Father. Joy. Jesus. Oh, and happy birthday, John!

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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