It was six or seven years ago, as I recall, when Bob & Herta portrayed Zacharias & Elizabeth in the Christmas Pageant at Emmaus. Bob wore an alb for the part of Zacharias, who was a priest; and he used the incense thurible that Pastor Grobien had brought back from Indonesia, because it was at the altar of incense, as we have heard this morning, that Zacharias received the Word and promise of the Lord concerning the son who would be born to him and Elizabeth, although they had previously been unable to have children, and now they were seemingly too old.
It is especially appropriate that we should remember this occasion and the conception of St. John the Baptist at this time, as we have now entered the sacred Season of Advent and wait upon the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. For it is the special office and vocation of St. John to go before the face of the Lord, to prepare His Way, and to prepare the people for His coming in the flesh.
In this Holy Gospel, then, St. Zacharias is found going about the duties of his priestly office, offering the incense within the Jerusalem Temple at the time of the morning or evening sacrifice. Those daily sacrifices were important and significant, but they were preliminary and preparatory to the incense, which ascended to the Lord as the tangible prayer and petition of Israel for the restoration of God’s Word and the preaching of it, and for the Redemption of His people.
It is this petition, which St. Zacharias offers on behalf of Israel, which has been heard and is here answered by the Lord in the message of the great Archangel Gabriel. Not that Zacharias and his wife have been holding out hope for a family at their age, but that their hope in the Lord will be fulfilled in the sending of God’s own Son within the house and lineage of David, and that their son, St. John, conceived and born by the grace of God, will come first to usher in the Christ.
By the sending of His Son in human flesh and blood like yours, conceived and born of St. Mary, God the Father turns toward His lost and wayward children, and He opens His heart to them in love. And by the sending of St. John the Forerunner, He calls them back to Himself, turning their hearts away from sin and death to forgiveness and life in the crucified and risen Body of Christ.
St. John prepares the Way of the Lord, and he prepares the people for the coming of the Lord, by the preaching and baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In the waters of the Jordan, the people are put to death to themselves, to their sins, and to the world with all of its idolatry, and they are raised up out of the water, cleansed and made brand new within and without, to live before the Lord in the righteousness of faith and love.
The surprising thing, of course, even to St. John at the time, is that the Lord Jesus comes and submits Himself to that same preaching and baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, although He has no sins of His own. He is baptized by St. John for the sins of the whole world.
So it is that St. John the Baptist, as the priestly son of a priestly father, prepares the Lamb of God for sacrifice and offers Him up to the Lord. In entering the Jordan River, Jesus enters into the sin and death of all the people and makes it all His own, even unto His death upon the Cross. And in His coming up out of the water to the Voice of His Father, to the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and to an open heaven, He receives the promise of the Resurrection and the Life Everlasting, which He has accomplished for you and for all people in His own Body of flesh and blood, and to which He called our brother Robert all those years ago, in 1936, in the waters of Holy Baptism.
As surely as the Archangel Gabriel spoke the Word of the Lord to St. Zacharias at the altar of incense, so surely did the same Lord speak His Word to Bob when he was baptized into Christ Jesus by Pastor Weber at Ridgedale Presbyterian Church in South Bend. There he was rescued from sin, death, the devil, and hell; and there he was given the sure and certain promise of the Resurrection and the divine gift of eternal Life and Light and Love for both his body and his soul.
That Word of the Lord has been the absolute Truth from the very start, as the Lord Himself remains ever and always faithful. He does not lie or deceive, nor is He unable to keep His promises. It is, for now, by faith and not by sight. But it has already been accomplished and established in the Body of Christ Jesus, that is, the same Body with which He has fed Bob at this very Altar for all these many years. Faith thus clings to Christ in His Word and in His good gifts of the Gospel.
You know, as Bob did, that it’s often not easy. To be sure, it is impossible for sinful man, except by the Word and Spirit of the Lord. Even righteous Zacharias doubted and disbelieved the Word of the Lord to begin with. And Bob also had his days of doubts and fears, of anxiety and stress. Nowhere is sin more prevalent and persistent than in the hearts of mortal men, who do not trust the Word and promises of God but worry and fret about tomorrow and fear death more than God.
This year was a particularly tough and challenging one for Bob. Not only with all the troubles and violence across the country and throughout the world, but especially as he watched some of his good friends grow weaker and die, and as he faced the frailties of his own flesh. His heart attack this past week also brought back memories of the attack he suffered some seven years ago, which was another stressful time. But I don’t suppose that anything challenged Bob’s confidence more than the death of his twin great grandsons, Levi and Owen, which weighed so heavily upon him.
Our Father disciplines his children in love, just as He disciplined St. Zacharias with ten months of silence, that we might learn to quiet our troubled hearts and minds and to listen to the mouth of the Lord. The office and vocation of St. John the Baptist continues to this day in the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, which is the daily and ongoing significance of Baptism, calling you back to the confidence and certainty of Christ and His Cross, by which you are saved.
Even now, the Father turns toward you and opens His heart to you in the Word of Christ and in His Word made Flesh. So, then, having tasted the kindness of the Lord in the Gospel, keep on thirsting for the pure spiritual milk of His Word. Regardless of your age or experience, even on the cusp of ninety years, like Bob, you are called to be and to live like a little child, like a newborn infant, fed and cared for by the Father in His Son and by His Spirit within His Holy Christian Church.
It was by that steadfast grace of God that Bob lived his life and finally faced his death with faith in Jesus Christ. Not only in the good times, but also in the bad, in both happiness and sadness. Not by his own wisdom, reason, or strength, but by the mercies of the Lord. He bore the Cross that he was given to bear and carry, following after Jesus in the promise and hope of the Resurrection.
Indeed, it is by the Cross and Resurrection of the Lord that Bob’s whole body and life were being conformed to the image of Christ, his Savior; in much the same way that you (and all Christians) are called to offer up your body and life as a sacrifice of praise to the glory of your God and Father, so that the world, in the midst of its deep darkness, should see the Life and Light of Christ in you.
That priestly sacrifice of Christian faith and life was beautifully exemplified in Robert Johnston, and not only when he was portraying St. Zacharias in our children’s Christmas pageant. The good fruits of the Cross of Christ and of His Resurrection from the dead, such as Bob received in the Ministry of the Gospel, were abundant in his own callings and stations in life.
Faithful in bearing the Cross in the service of his country back in the mid-40s, Bob was also then a faithful and devoted husband to his dear wife for almost seven decades. What a testimony Bob thus gave to the faithfulness of our heavenly Bridegroom, Jesus Christ. He was likewise a man after God’s own heart, as a father turned in love to the children. First of all to his own daughters, and then as a father to many other descendants, so to speak; not by genealogy, but by faith and love in Christ, not unlike old father Abraham. Five years of foster care for a total of twenty one babies. And then, in his retirement, nine years of rocking newborn babies at the hospital, some eight or nine hundred of them he told me this past Monday.
He wondered out loud whether it was weird for a man to love babies so much. But it was not. It was a demonstration of the true strength of a real man who showed genuine care and compassion for the weak and little ones. As God the Father turned His heart toward Bob in Christ Jesus, so did Bob turn his heart in love toward all those children for the sake of the same Lord Jesus Christ.
By the same token, at the other end of the spectrum, Bob and Herta have also been demonstrating the love of God in Christ by visiting so many of our homebound members over the years. I cannot even tell you how often I have gone to see those dear folks and have had them say, “Oh, Bob and Herta called or stopped by to see me.” What I can tell you is that it has meant the world to them.
Now, in my experience and estimation, Bob was generally a quiet and gentle man, but he did have things to say, and he said them as much with his life as with his lips. When he was confirmed here at Emmaus, Pastor Kleinhans gave him the verse that the choir has sung for us this morning:
Whosoever confesses Me before men, him will I confess also before My Father who is in heaven.
That is what it was: Not Bob earning his salvation by his good works, but Bob confessing his Savior, Christ Jesus, by loving his neighbor as he was loved. For the Spirit bears the fruits of the Gospel in those who hear and receive it, as Bob was given to do by the grace of God up until this past Sunday. To “confess” is to say the same thing, so Bob spoke to others as he was spoken to.
And according to His promise, Christ also confesses Bob before the Father in heaven, just as He has brought Bob to the Father in Himself. For Christ Jesus is our merciful and great High Priest in all things pertaining to God. He is the Sacrifice of Atonement for all of our sins, and He is the Whole Burnt Offering who has given Himself entirely for our salvation, so that we might belong entirely to God. He is also the sweet smelling Incense that arises and ascends unto the Father, so that Bob and all who are in Christ are well pleasing to Him. The Lord Jesus Christ is our Prayer and Petition to the Father, even as He has risen from the dead and ever lives to make intercession for us before the Throne of God. But so is He also the Answer to your every prayer and your every need, as He is given and poured out for His Christians to eat and to drink in the Holy Communion.
The Body of Christ Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead, is the true and everlasting Temple of God, whereby the Lord abides with you, here on earth as it is in heaven, and wherein you abide with Him, both here in time and hereafter in eternity. Whereas St. Zacharias entered the Holy Place of the Temple in Jerusalem, probably only on that one occasion, you are called to enter the Holy of Holies made without hands, eternal in the heavens, as a member of His royal priesthood in Christ Jesus, and to live and abide there with Him forever and ever. His Body is your true home, now and always, here at His Altar, and in the Resurrection of your body unto eternal life.
When I saw Bob at the hospital, what turned out to be the last time, this past Monday, he was sitting up and actually looked pretty good for a guy who had just suffered a severe heart attack. He told me then that he expected to go home the next day. I was surprised by that prospect, but I didn’t question him. And as it turned out, he was more right than he could possibly have known.
Like you, Bob was but a stranger here, a sojourner, an alien in a foreign country, as it were. His true home is with the Lord, in the better Country of the heavenly Promised Land, in the true City with lasting foundations, whose Architect and Builder is God — the Holy City, New Jerusalem, of which Bob sang together with the congregation here at Emmaus less than one week ago.
See how the Lord has shown His favor to His dear child, Robert. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has called Bob to Himself. He has answered all of his prayers by His Word and by the Redemption of His Son. Now his soul and spirit are at peace. All of his labors are ended. And at the last, his body also shall be raised from the dust of the earth and glorified forever, like unto the glorious Body of Christ. And so shall he live, both body and soul, forever and ever in Christ.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.