Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Lord Remembers. . .

Sermon for the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, preached on Sunday, June 24, 2018.

    Zechariah means the Lord remembers.  The name John means the Lord is gracious. Two names that mark the beginning of the Gospel’s fruition.  Zechariah means the Lord remembers and the Lord did remember the shame of Eden and the promise to Adam and Eve.  The Lord did remember Abraham and His promise to build a nation from one man and one woman.  The Lord did remember Moses and the promise to deliver His people from their slavery and deliver them to a new land of promise.  The Lord did remember judges and kings who ruled as types of the King who would sit on David’s throne forever.  The Lord did remember the promise of the Temple, the House of His presence where sacrifice prefigured the promise and where prayers and praise were offered to the One who was to come.  The Lord did remember the prophets who came without warning, without welcome and often with disdain by a people who had become too comfortable living with God.  The Lord did remember as Israel became a nation captive to foreign armies and making its peace with enemies, no longer hoping for triumph.

    Zechariah means the Lord remembers.  But the people had forgotten.  The things of their past and the time of their present had become routine and ordinary.  God had become a distant God and the rituals of the Temple were no longer accompanied with the hope and expectation of the Messiah.  The people had forgotten the God who could not forget them and whose remembrance of their sin, their death, and their destruction called to Him for redemption long after the voices of the people were silent.

    Zechariah means the Lord remembers.  But the people had forgotten the promise of grace and settled into a pragmatic religion of works that made sense.  Do good and good would be done to you.  A God who could be bought off by works or even perhaps by intentions was not the God who remembered His people but it was the God the people had become comfortable with and the only God they knew.

    Zechariah means the Lord remembers.  But the people had forgotten there was nothing in the blood of oxen or goats or even a lamb without blemish that could atone for sin, that this blood had power only because it promised the blood to come that had the power to cleanse a dirty people from their sins and made the clean, wrapped in the robe of a righteousness not their own, to eat and drink the sacrifice as the heavenly food for a mortal people.

    Zechariah means the Lord remembers.  But the people were not watching or waiting and so when the first sign of the new day of salvation dawned, they saw only an old man and an old lady surprised

by an unexpected pregnancy.  They saw only an elderly priest who has some sort of fit and not the sign that this day had dawned with the promise of the ages ready to unfold right there before them.  They shrugged off the strangeness of what happened to Zechariah and went with their lives while a mute priest pondered the angelic word.

    On the day Zechariah took his turn to offer the daily sacrifice, the lambs were killed, their blood drained and spilled upon the altar, and his feet were cleansed.  Wearing the breast plate of judgment upon his chest with the stones of the twelve tribes upon it, Zechariah was presented with a coal from the fire and a bowl of incense so that he could enter the Holy of Holies.  He went in alone to pray for the people of God.  Smoke ascended as a sign of God’s favor.  Zechariah came out to give the Levitical blessing. All of this had taken place in silence and the benediction that we hear every Sunday was to be the first spoken word.  But Zechariah could not say anything.  He had met the angel in the holy place and was made mute.

    For nine months Zechariah was silent, reduced to scrawling a few words on a wax tablet.  All the while the child grew in the womb of his wife Elizabeth.  Zechariah means the Lord remembers but the people could whisper mocking words against the silent old man and his wife without child until the twilight of their lives when no one had a child.  They could have wondered if this was a sign but they did not.  They were too busy gossiping about it.

    Zechariah means the Lord remembers.  While Zechariah sat in silence and Israel whispered, Elizabeth receives a visit from her cousin Mary and the baby in Elizabeth’s womb jumps.  Elizabeth responds with joy that the mother of her Lord would come to her.  It was an amazing meeting – an old lady whose womb had the surprise of a child and a virgin also with child.  Somebody might have seen that God was doing something. 

    When the child was born to Zechariah and Elizabeth, suddenly his tongue was freed and he spoke.  “His name shall be called John.”  John means the Lord is gracious.  And then, when a man who had been mute for 9 months finally speaks, from his lips comes the song of praise that marks this child for his destiny as the forerunner of the Messiah, the prophet to prepare His way.  Zechariah’s blessing to the people came in form of a canticle we sing with him.  The Lord has visited and redeemed His people.  Our savior from our enemies, the fulfilled of the promise to Abraham, the Most High God has come to shine the light of His grace upon a people unworthy and undeserving.

    The Lord has remembered His promise even though His people forgot.  The Lord remembered His mercy even though His people deserved nothing of His kindness.  God has kept the promise of Zechariah’s name and delivered up the prophet who stands between the covenants of history to prepare His way.  And God has become His own people’s Savior, coming in flesh and blood to serve and suffer, to deliver and die, to redeem and give rebirth to those dead in trespasses and sin.  John means the Lord is gracious and the graciousness of the Lord comes in the new name under heaven and on earth by which any and all will be saved, the blessed name of Jesus.  And this is the name that John came to serve and the name that is raised up on the cross to draw all people to Himself.  This name, you dare not forget.

    So we come today to lay claim to the One who fulfills the promise of His name.  Jesus means He will save His people.  The Lord has remembered, the Lord is gracious, and
the Lord has saved His people.  It is a trinity of names that are not without meaning and not without hope to a people who too often surrender their hope to make peace with the situations and circumstances of this mortal life.  We are ready to live with death as long as it comes to us when we are ready for it and we are ready to live with sin as long as we all keep our secrets but God remembers, God is gracious, and God has saved us through His Son.

    Names have meanings.  We often forget that.  Zechariah means the Lord remembers. To an aged priest beginning to do his priestly duty in the Temple, that name became prophetic.  Even when His people forget, the Lord cannot.  Today is the nativity of St. John the Baptist, the only other person on the church’s calendar remembered on his birthday.  That day proved to be the fulfillment of Zechariah’s name.  John means the Lord is gracious.  When the Lord should remember only our sin, He remembers us in love.  John came to announce the One to whom all the Law and Prophets looked, the Lord who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  Jesus means He will save His people.  And in that name we meet the God who came down from on high to deliver His captive people from the guilt of their sins, the debt of punishment those sins accrued, the captivity to the Devil, and the death that held their lives prisoner.

     We wring our hands in fear and whine in complaint that God has forgotten us, ignored us, left us alone to our own devices, and abandoned us in our hour of need.  It is never God who forgets.  We are the ones who forget.  The Lord remembers.  He does not ignore anything, not even our sins but forgives them, does not leave us without His Word and Spirit, and has promised to be a very present help in time of need.  Would that everyone of us wore Zechariah's name (the Lord remembers) and just may be we would know the peace of John's name (the Lord is gracious) and the joy of Jesus' name (He saves His people).

    What can we say but “Thanks be to God!”  What can we do but remember what the Lord has done, how He has kept His Word, how He has fulfilled the promise of the names:  Zechariah, John, and most of all Jesus.  Teach it to your children, pray it together in your homes, and do not neglect the meeting together of God’s people around His Word and Table where we are reminded of the promise given and fulfilled in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.