SERVICE VIDEO (link)
TEXT: Luke 1:67-70,76-79; Isaiah 9:2,6-7
When I think about John the Baptist I sometimes think about Good Shepherd. Good Shepherd is a small church that, by the grace of God, has a big reach and impact for the Kingdom of God. While we gather in relatively small numbers week after week, we have been faithful in proclaiming and teaching the Gospel message to successive generations. We have had a steady stream of people grow up in and come through our church through youth ministry, internships, and active membership. I think of Jason and Josh Hinton, Pratt and Ashley Butler, Carter Robinson, Nadine Ellsworth (Moran), Courtney and Wes Butler, Karen Katibah, Paul Hamilton, Greg Joines, Jeremiah Caughran, Mark Ashbaugh, John Drexel, Mariah Woodbury, Bess McLawhorn, Claire Mackie, and even more others before them. They’ve gone on to pastor and plant churches, go to the mission field, lead campus ministries, work in the marketplace, and become faith leaders in other churches as they’ve moved to different part of the city or country.
They (and you!) all have something in common with John the Baptist. They believed in the promises of God and they are committed to telling the story of what God has done and is doing in the world. That’s the mission of our church as well – not to make a name for ourselves, but to equip you to make much of the name of the Lord and point people to what God has done and is doing. With that in mind, let’s look today at John the Baptist!
John had a simple outdoor ministry with a simple but significant message: “Repent! The Messiah is coming!” He was always pointing away from himself to what God was doing. He was not about gathering people to himself or making a name for himself. He was all about the coming Kingdom of God.
His calling and ministry started even before his miraculous birth. An angel told his father Zacharias that he and Elizabeth would have a baby. They were old and had never been able to have children. It was reminiscent of Abraham and Sarah of old. The angel Gabriel came and told Zacharias that he and Elizabeth would have a baby who would be a great prophet like Elijah, called to turn the hearts of the people back to God. When Zacharias asked for a sign, the angel took away his voice, saying that it would return when the baby was born.
When John was finally born everyone assumed the parents would name the baby after his father. But Zacharias wrote on a tablet that his name was to be John and at that moment his voice was restored and everyone marveled. That was when Zacharias spoke the words in today’s text from Luke. I want to look at that text and the one from Isaiah to consider the promises of God and what it means to tell out that story.
The Great Promise (Isaiah 9)
Let’s start first in Isaiah, one of many places where God’s great promises to save His people (and the world) are spoken. Isaiah is writing to God’s people who have lost everything, have been exiled, and who are desperate for rescue and restoration. The promises to them were provisionally fulfilled when they returned home from Exile, but in the days of Zacharias and Elizabeth the Jewish people, under the boot of Rome, were still longing for the kind of rescue and restoration described in Isaiah.
Isaiah wrote, “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them.” (9:2) And then a little bit later in that chapter he speaks of a child to be born, words we probably know so well because of Handel’s Messiah. But Zacharias would have known them well, along with all the Jewish people at that time, because they held so much promise for God’s deliverance, for THE Messiah:
6 For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us;
And the government will rest on His shoulders;
And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor,
Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
7 There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace,
On the throne of David and over his kingdom,
To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness
From then on and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.
Just to be clear, this child to be born was not John. But Zacharias understood that his child would live in the generation to see the Messiah, and John would be the one to announce and prepare the way for his coming.
As so as Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke prophetic words over his newborn son, John, he recognized that what God had promised was coming to pass:
Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying:
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
For He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people,
69 And has raised up a horn of salvation for us
In the house of David His servant…
Though Jesus would be born in a matter of months, Zacharias and Elizabeth already knew of the visit and promise to Mary, for Elizabeth had greeted her as “mother of my Lord” during their visit just prior to the birth of John. So between that and being filled with the Holy Spirit, Zacharias was able to prophesy, to declare: “Blessed be the Lord… He has visited us and accomplished redemption… salvation for us in the house of David.”
To Tell the Story of What God Has Done (vv.76-79)
After recounting the covenant and promises of God for a number of verses, Zacharias turns to speak words of blessing and prophecy over his son.
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
For you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways;
To give to His people the knowledge of salvation
By the forgiveness of their sins…
John would grow up to have a unique role in God’s redemptive history. He would be the last of the Hebrew prophets and the one sent to “go before” the Messiah to “prepare His ways.” Like many of the Old Testament prophets, he was an unusual character. You can find a fuller description in Matthew 3: he wore a garment of camel’s hair and ate locusts and honey. While his appearance may have evoked images of Elijah, expected as the forerunner to the Messiah, it was also the garb and diet of nomadic desert folks of the time. His message was certainly prophetic in the truest sense: a call to turn back from sin to turn back to the Lord to experience God’s mercy and redemption. John preaching out at the Jordan river and baptized people for repentance as they confessed their sin (again, see Matthew 3). For this particular activity of his ministry we call him “John the Baptist.”
Zacharias continues in verses 78-79 to describe a bit more – not just WHAT God was doing, but WHY God was doing it:
78 Because of the tender mercy of our God,
With which the Sunrise from on high will visit us,
To shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.”
The world was in spiritual darkness and God was sending Light into the world. We often associate that imagery with the Gospel of John (written by John the disciple, not John the Baptist), but here it is in Luke on the lips of Zacharias: God would send Light – the “Sunrise from on high” to those who “sit in darkness and the shadow of death.” And Zacharias gives us the reason and the result.
The reason for God’s Light, God’s salvation, God’s Messiah – is “because of the tender mercy of our God.” Why does God save? It is because of mercy, because of compassion and love. We don’t deserve it; we don’t earn it. It is because of God’s tender mercy, God’s HESED.
And the result, the purpose? It is “to guide our feet into the way of peace.” In restoring us to God, redeeming us from sin, rescuing from darkness, God leads us to peace with God, to God’s SHALOM.
There are, of course, additional words to describe all this. We looked last week at John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” It’s all the same elements though: God loved, God sent, God rescues, and we are invited to believe. Mercy, light, repentance, peace. It all amounts to Good News anchored in Jesus Christ, the Messiah.
What’s a Church For?
I want to end where I started and ask the question, “What is a church for?” Certainly one good answer is that a church is the gathering of people to worship God. It is also a sending of people into the world with the Good News about God and what God has done. Said even more simply, we come together to point to God (and marvel!) and we go out to point to God. We are to be worshipers on a mission!
There are abundant examples of how our small community has birthed many worshipers on a mission. Just think about all those folks I named at the beginning. But each of you – each of you – is also a worshiper on a mission. And we continue to teach, train, and raise up more to do the same, to believe in the promises of God and commit to telling the story of what God has done and is doing in the world.
At its simplest, that’s what we are to be about. That has always been the mission of God’s people. We are invited – YOU are invited – to believe in the promises of God and to tell the story, in word and through your actions, of what God has done and is doing in the world. It’s Good News and you are invited to be a part of it. Amen.
Some Music Used
- Labor of Love (from Behold the Lamb of God, Peterson) – feat. Katie Meeks
- Silent Night (arr. Austell) – feat. Katie Meeks
- Winter Snow – feat. Maddie Shuler
- Welcome to Our World – feat. Eric VanderHeide
- Minuet (Mozart) – Bobby White, piano
- Christ, Be Our Light
- O Come, O Come Emmanuel
- Good Christians All Rejoice/Let Us Be Known
- OFFERTORY: We light the Advent Candles – Bobby White, piano