The Lord your God has given you a Savior, Christ Jesus, who has redeemed you from sin and death, delivered you from all your enemies, and set you free to live without fear.
That is what the nativity, the circumcision and the name of St. John the Baptist mean; for everything about this boy points to the Christ, to the Redeemer of Israel, the Holy One, who comes after St. John. The greatness of the Forerunner derives entirely from the Greater One who follows, and so returns completely to Him, to the Horn of Salvation whom God has raised up for us from the house of His servant David.
It may seem unnecessarily complicated, that the Lord should bother with St. John the Baptist, instead of simply sending Jesus in the flesh, the Son of Mary, and starting the story there. What is the point in sending St. John, when his role and service are so relatively brief, and then he must decrease and make way for the Christ, the Coming One? The Lord could certainly have given Zacharias and Elizabeth a son, in any case — and several decades sooner, as far at hat goes, instead of leaving them childless for so many years — and then let well enough alone in the giving of his own beloved Son.
After all, it’s not as though Jesus needed any help in accomplishing redemption for His people. And what is there for St. John to do, anyway, who is not worthy to untie the sandals of the Lord’s feet? St. John is not the Redeemer. He is not the Christ.
So, what, then? He is but a Voice, who cries out today from his mother’s womb and in his circumcision, and who will cry out the Word of the Lord in the wilderness. He is a prophet, and more than a prophet, who preaches what the Lord has given him to preach, and with his preaching points to Christ Jesus and prepares His way.
It is by such a voice of preaching, by His Word spoken and proclaimed, that the Lord visits His people and gives them life and grants them peace. He does so in this way, and by this means, not arbitrarily, nor simply as an accommodation of human weakness, but by His good and gracious will, by His own choice and design, according to His own divine nature. As the Son is begotten of the Father from all eternity, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, so does the Father create and give life and accomplish all things by His speaking of His Son, by which He breathes and bestows His Spirit.
It is, therefore, not so much that God works through preaching because we “happen to be” verbal creatures, but He has made us verbal creatures after His own Image, because He is a Verbal God (and there is no other God than the Word, by whom and for whom all things are made).
Thus, for the purpose of giving His Son, the divine eternal Word who would become Flesh when the time had fully come, God spoke to His people of old by the Prophets — and precisely as He spoke, so He has fulfilled. There is consistency and perfect continuity in the Lord’s speaking, even as that Voice of preaching becomes true Man in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And now, in anticipation of and preparation for that gift of her Son, there is the conception and birth of the last and greatest prophet, St. John, who goes before His face as a messenger.
The message and the messenger are all-but-inseparable, especially in this case of St. John the Baptist. Again, everything about him points to the coming Christ Jesus, though He, the Lord enfleshed, will be that much greater in every way. St. St. John’s miraculous conception of old and barren Elizabeth anticipates the greater miracle of the Lord’s own conception and birth from the young Virgin Mary. St. John’s divinely-given name, which means grace, anticipates but yields before the gracious name of Jesus, which testifies that He is Yahweh, our Savior. The rejoicing of St. Elizabeth’s family, friends and neighbors anticipates the rejoicing of heaven and earth at the Nativity of our Lord Jesus. And the canticle of Zacharias at the circumcision and naming of his son, John, already begins to find its fulfillment in the presentation of our Lord Jesus at the Temple, in the canticle of Simeon, who departs in peace in accordance with the Word of the Lord to him.
In all of this, fear is giving way to such Peace, as the Glory of God is “seen” in His Word of the Gospel, and comfort is granted in the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sins.
This, dear friends, is how God works, and He does so in love. So much so that the almighty and eternal Son of God is revealed to be the Voice, the Speaking, the Word of God the Father. So, too, it is by the preaching of that Word that God the Holy Spirit is given, and by which the Spirit lays Christ Jesus upon your heart and mind, upon your body and soul, for life and salvation.
Which is also why those who are filled with the Holy Spirit do one thing, in particular, above all others: They speak as the oracles of God. They pray and sing His Word. They confess. They prophecy, proclaim and preach, each according to his own proper vocation. As they believe with the heart, so do they speak.
Whereas, apart from the Holy Spirit, man is unable to speak. Not that fallen man will actually keep silent — for he fills the world with his endless chatter, noise and confusion — but he cannot speak truth, or beauty, or wisdom, or anything of any lasting value and importance. He cannot speak life and love, because he cannot speak Christ Jesus, until the Holy Spirit enters in by the divine Word.
So does the Holy Spirit enter in and make ready the way of Christ by the preaching of St. John the Baptist. And the same preaching continues to this day, in order to open the way of Christ unto you. That is the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
That is the preaching that levels mountains and fills up valleys. It shatters both pride and despair. It straightens what is crooked and bent, and it makes flat and smooth what is rough and uneven. It is the preaching that wounds, in order to heal; the preaching that kills, in order to make alive.
Whatever it is in you that would oppose or prevent the coming of the Christ, the preaching of the Forerunner removes. Where you are arrogant and exalt yourself, he humbles you. Where you are doubtful and afraid, he silences your unbelief and quiets your fears, that he might speak the tender mercies of God to your troubled heart. For the Lord is at hand to visit and redeem His people, and this Word of salvation comes to all who fear God — not in terror, but in faith.
In the preaching of St. John the Baptist there is the culmination and crescendo of all the Law and the Prophets before him. He comes in the spirit and power of Elijah, to be sure, but his preaching is also that of Moses and Samuel, of Isaiah and Jeremiah. Here the rolling thunder of the Law, with all of its demands, its promises and threats, its holy perfection and fiery judgment, becomes a deafening roar that warns of a terrible storm. All hell is about to break loose in the righteous wrath of God, and even now the axe is poised at the root of every fruitless tree, to cut it down and throw it into the fire.
As this preaching is the Word of God, it certainly does what it proclaims. It is a fire and a hammer, which crushes and destroys the sinner. But where is the comfort of the Gospel in this? Where is the peace of forgiveness and salvation? And how does such dire preaching point to Christ Jesus and prepare the way for His coming? It is actually the key to understanding the point and purpose for which St. John the Baptist was born, and for which he was sent: in ways that even he did not fully comprehend or understand at first.
He was sent to preach, not only repentance, but a baptism of repentance (for forgiveness of sins). And in that baptism was all that he preached, all the Law and the Prophets, all the promises and threats, the blessing and the curse: the wound and the healing, the falling and the rising, the death of sin and the life everlasting in the way of the Christ.
Thus, the Lord Jesus comes on the heals of the Forerunner, and He submits Himself to St. John’s baptism of repentance. Though St. John tries at first to prevent Him — knowing that Jesus is the Greater One, and that He should be the Baptizer — it is necessary for St. John to baptize Jesus in order to fulfill all righteousness. For in this way the Lord Jesus submits Himself to the Law, and He takes His stand with sinners — in order to become their Savior and Redeemer, and yours.
St. John was not the M.C., called upon to introduce the Guest of Honor. Nor was this some kind of “bad cop, good cop” routine, in which St. John comes preaching fire and brimstone, and then Jesus comes in all soft and sweet. But something else altogether is at work and going on here.
The Lord Jesus comes, not to wave away the fire and brimstone, but to take it upon Himself. He is the Lamb of God that St. John will proclaim (following His Baptism), and He takes upon Himself the sins of the world, in order to remove iniquity by His own sacrifice and bloodshed. He cleanses the world of unrighteousness through the waters of Holy Baptism, by soaking up all the dirty bathwater into His own flesh and then handing Himself over to His death upon the Cross.
Indeed, it is already the death of His Cross to which He submits Himself in St. John’s baptism of repentance. Thus He dies, in order to raise you up. He comes down from the lofty mountain, in order to bring you up out of the deep dark valley of death and despair. He enters upon the way of the Cross, for you and for all, that your way might be cleared and opened up; that you might enter through His death into His Resurrection and Ascension and His life everlasting.
This is the mercy of the Lord that He reveals in the Nativity of St. John the Baptist: not only to Elizabeth and Zacharias, but to you. The birth of this child, his naming and circumcision, proclaim that Christ Jesus also is at hand, that the Lord your God has come in the flesh to save you, and that He will indeed deliver you from every evil of body and soul.
The birth of St. John the Forerunner is the promise and the evidence that God the Father shall continue preaching to you, and that He shall do all that He has spoken by the mouth of His holy prophets, and that He shall henceforth speak to you by His own beloved Son: in the flesh.
He remembers His holy Covenant in that flesh of Christ Jesus, and in His holy precious blood, given and poured out for you. He remembers you in love, and remembering, He acts to save you, to give you life. He makes Himself known to you, and gives Himself to you, and shines His Light upon you through the preaching of His Word — the preaching of His Christ — which is the Gospel, the forgiveness of all your sins. Truly, this Word does and gives exactly what He says.
This Word gives you peace, because it fills you with the Holy Spirit, so that you now also speak as the oracles of God. You live before God in the righteousness and purity, the innocence and blessedness of Christ, and you are free to worship the Lord without fear. For here there is no condemnation or punishment, but only the tender mercy and compassion of your dear God and Father in Christ Jesus. The One who promises is faithful, and He loves you; as He speaks, so He does, and so shall you live, both now and forever.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.