Sermon for The Nativity of St. John the Baptist
Preached at St. Paul Lutheran Church, Hamel, IL
June 24, 2012
Hannibal Smith, leader of TV’s often bumbling A-Team, was known to say, “I love it when a plan comes together.” The irony is that often the team was way off-plan, or had just benefited from a quirky unplanned series of events.
In my work at Concordia Publishing House, when a plan comes together, it means that I have a new issue of Portals of Prayer to send out to our customers, or a new book has been printed, or a new Sunday School or Vacation Bible School has been completed and is ready to teach our children about their Savior. I don’t live in the fiction of TV, so for me, when a plan comes together it means a lot of smaller plans had to be made and finished along the way. Some of those plans are budgets. Others are how I will work with authors to get completed manuscripts from them; how we will get designers to add art and make the words look great on a page; how copy editors will make sure that great words have been used and the message is understood; and the plan includes those special people called proof readers who read everything we publish to ensure the ‘t’s are crossed, the ‘i’s dotted, and the commas are in just the right places. Unlike the Col. Smith and the A-Team, it would seem that little is left to chance.
“I love it when a plan comes together.” And yet, as carefully as I plan, and as closely as I work the plan, things don’t always happen according to plan. Budgets can be blown when suppliers raise the price of printing or paper. Sometimes authors don’t understand what it really takes to write something to be published, and they can’t keep to the deadlines. Sometimes authors take calls to be Chaplain at the International Center and their new plan trumps my plan*, and something new has to be figured out. Sometimes the planning wasn’t as good as we thought and things pile up together, and choices need to be made and priorities set that weren’t part of the plan to begin with. As much as we try there is no perfect plan, because there are no perfect people.
The Bible shows us that the God of love, wisdom, knowledge, and power is also the perfect planner. How wonderful it is to have someone who never lies, forgets, or bungles a job, be in charge of the universe, human history, and human destiny. In our text for this festival of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, we have a wonderful example of this. We get to see and hear God’s plan coming together.
We all know plans don’t always work out. Even good plans fail. Sometimes our plans fail because we have good plans that we simply don’t carry out. We procrastinate, allow ourselves to get side-tracked. We lose our focus or we lose our resolve. How often do we make resolutions to eat better, quit smoking, loose some weight–all good plans–but how many of us actually complete the plan, finish the good we had resolved to do? This can be what Paul was talking about when he said,
“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Rom 7:19).
Paul might also be speaking of a second reason our plans don’t always work out as we hope. That is the failure to determine what is really good. We work our plan. We achieve our objectives. But then we arrive at our intended destination and discover it wasn’t what we really wanted, needed, or envisioned it to be. Sometimes our plans are foiled because we forget what a messed-up, fallen, sinful world this is; we expect our plans to sail through. Then when things blow up in our faces, rather than taking setbacks as part of life in this fallen world, it can leave us cynical, and Murphy’s Law becomes our mantra: “If anything can possibly go wrong, it will!” This negativity discourages others around us and often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Sometimes our plans fail because the people we rely on let us down. The leaders we campaign for, vote for, and pray for fail for the same reasons we do. But they are not the only ones that let us down. Employees or bosses don’t follow through. Spouses get involved in their own plans and don’t finish a job that was started. Parents, brothers, sisters, and friends can all be source of frustration when promises are not kept, plans fall through, and we seem to be left with pieces to pick up.
All of us have seen our best-laid plans fail. Our dreams can go unrealized and our hopes can be dashed for so many reasons. Ultimately, all these failures can be traced back to sin, both our own sin and the sin of others.
In our text, Zechariah had experienced this sort of thing too, so when God let him in on a major development in his plans, Zechariah was quite sure God’s plan, the promise of a Savior made to Adam and Eve all those years before, wouldn’t work out.
You remember the grand news. The angel Gabriel came to Zechariah and announced that he and Elizabeth, his wife, would have a son, John, the one who came to be called the Baptist. But even more, that meant the Messiah, promised for thousands of years, was coming right now too, because John’s job would be to prepare the way for him. All according to God’s glorious plan witnessed throughout the Old Testament.
Of course, Zechariah’s life experiences told him this plan was a long shot at best. He and Elizabeth were way too old! God must have been distracted and missed the window of opportunity to give them the child they had undoubtedly prayed for. What’s more, the world was just too corrupt. The pagan rulers of Rome and the even the religious rulers in Jerusalem were surely too great an obstacle for God to overcome in Zechariah’s lifetime. Maybe in time. the plan could might work. Maybe God could catch a few lucky breaks and get a far-off future opportunity for the Messiah to come and establish a better kingdom and a better era. Maybe God could whittle away at evil and slowly establish another time of milk and honey flowing through the Promised Land.
So Zechariah didn’t believe this plan of God revealed to him by the angle Gabriel. It was happening, not now, not with him. For all of his trouble to believe in God, Zechariah was struck speechless. The Lord gave Zechariah ‘a time out,’ nine months of imposed “quiet time” to watch before his very eyes the beginnings of what he had counted as impossible.
John’s birth signaled that all God’s plans were coming together. During the pregnancy, Zechariah had time to ponder with a new appreciation his relationship to the Lord and all the plans God had put in writing in the Old Testament (vv 57–64). Zechariah undoubtedly contemplated the meaning of the name given his son. Why John? It means “The Lord has shown favor.” He and Elizabeth knew they were highly favored by the Lord to have this child in their old age. See, they’d been in his plans all along! Zechariah may also have thought about the name his parents had given him. Zechariah means “The Lord remembers.” What does the Lord remember? Thankfully, not the sins and failings of his people. No, He remembers his gracious covenant plans, and He fulfills them.
Zechariah was a changed man. When he wrote: “His name is John,” on that tablet, Zechariah confessed that now his will was aligned with God’s will–with God’s plan. Now God let Zechariah speak again, but this time with more insight and respect for his Lord (vv 67–79). The words the Spirit brought to Zechariah’s lips is the second of four songs recorded by St. Luke in his Gospel. Zechariah’s song has been sung as part of the liturgy of the Church since at least the ninth century. In our liturgy this canticle, or biblical song, is called the Benedictus and it gets its name from the first word of the canticle “Blessed be,” as it was translated into Latin. Today we see the Benedictus in our Hymnal appointed as part of the prayer service of Matins.
And how did the words of this beautiful song pop into Zechariah’s head? God caused him to remember over a dozen Old Testament passages filled with promises that were now being fulfilled. The Benedictus affirms that indeed God’s plan had come together. But more than just recalling the plan of God, Zechariah sang a prophesy that God’s plan to send the Messiah was being fulfilled in his little son, John, the forerunner.
God had Isaiah speak concerning the Messiah’s forerunner over seven hundred years earlier “A voice of one calling in the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”(Isaiah 40:3–5) and He had not forgotten His plan. Then some four hundred years before John’s coming God sends Malachi to speak again of the forerunner, saying, “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty.” (Mal 3:1; also 4:5–6). He hadn’t forgotten the plan. John’s birth meant that God’s grand plan was now coming to completion: Jesus, the Messiah of God. Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, was coming at just the right time. Jesus lived the perfect life that mankind had failed to live. Jesus suffered and atoned for all the sins of mankind, mankind—you and me—who failed to keep God’s perfect Law all our sins atoned for, set aside, when He died on the cross. Jesus rose from the grave to demonstrate his victory on our behalf. Jesus, who will come again at just the right time, and according to His plan, to usher in the kingdom of heaven in all of its fullness.
Jesus has come and demonstrated God’s resolve and ability to deliver on all of his promises. John the Baptizer was commissioned by God to prepare the world for Jesus’ first coming. Today, the Church, made up of people like you and me, has been commissioned to prepare the world for Jesus’ final coming—also very much according to God’s plan. Do we doubt that this plan will ever really come to pass? Will we be speechless to those who need to hear the Gospel to be prepared for that day? Do we live our daily lives in a way that fails to remember and honor our God who is faithful and perfectly keeps His promises?
Let us instead praise God as Zechariah did, in full confidence of our faith and in testimony to our God who is perfectly faithful. We sing Zechariahs’ song because of what the promised Savior does for us, just as He did for Zechariah and Elizabeth and John and all of our ancestors in the faith. “The oath sworn to our father Abraham;” the plan of God to take care of our salvation has been fulfilled in the birth of Mary’s Son Jesus and in His life’s work for us. He has “delivered us from the hands of our enemies;” God’s plan to rescue us from sin, death, and Satan has been completed in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The work of John was to make known the identity of the Savior. With that completed, his task, his purpose was fulfilled. As John himself would say: “Behold, there is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” John’s work is completed. But the Work of the Church continues—the work of pointing to Jesus continues.
And the announcement still happens today. “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Today the man appointed by God to make known to you Jesus Christ will stand before you and place in your mouth your Lord’s true body and true blood in and under the bread and the wine. THERE in those humble and holy means, is the Lamb of God. And as we take and eat, and take and drink, we receive the forgiveness of sins, we testify that His death was sufficient, and we are witnesses that the plan of God for us is complete.
And then, being prepared by Jesus Himself through Word and Sacrament, we go out from this place to “serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all of our days.”
* A “shout out” to friend, and St. Paul’s dear and former pastor, William Weedon.
This sermon is drawn in large part from the outline and sermon of Rev. Robert Dargatz, published in the preaching journal, Concordia Pulpit Resources, for June 24, 2012 (CPR 22:4). © 2012 Concordia Publishing House. Used by permission.