Since the Lord your God has called you to a royal priesthood in Christ Jesus, by virtue of your Holy Baptism into Him, you should know what your priestly service is and how to perform it, that you might pray and confess His Holy Word and offer sacrifices of thanksgiving to His holy Name.
From St. Luke this evening you have heard the culmination and fulfillment of the Aaronic Old Testament priesthood, as it comes to the realization of its purpose in the duties of Zachariah and in the promise and conception of his son. All of this, along with all that has come beforehand, points to the coming of the Christ and prepares His people to receive Him and be united to Him.
It is in Christ Jesus, our merciful and great High Priest in the order of Melchizedek — not a son of Aaron but the Son of David — it is in Him that the Lord’s people enter into His divine and holy presence, into the true Holy of Holies, in holiness, righteousness, and peace. And that is what the Priesthood, the Tabernacle, and then the Temple were always all about, from the very beginning.
Likewise, the morning and evening sacrifices, as well as the incense offering that coincided with those daily sacrifices, were always about the Christ who was to come in the fullness of time. Those gracious gifts of God the Lord were both a prayer and a promise of the great Salvation He would bring about and accomplish by His Incarnation, by His Cross and Resurrection and Ascension.
Every morning and every evening, when the sacrifice was made on the altar of burnt offering in the outer courtyard, the appointed priest within the Holy Place would offer the incense on the golden altar that stood before the veil, before the Mercy Seat on the Ark of the Covenant. The sweet-smelling incense that filled the Temple and ascended to the Lord not only accompanied but actually embodied the petitions of Israel for redemption: That God would restore the oracle to the service of His House, and that He would gather the scattered into His courts, to keep His statutes, to live according to His Will, and to serve Him with their whole heart.
These are the petitions that Zachariah is offering with the incense in the Temple when the Angel Gabriel appears to him in the presence of the Lord and declares that his prayer has been heard and is being answered. And the evidence that it will be done entirely by the grace and power of God is provided in the way and means by which He goes about it: He gives a son to this old man and his barren old wife, and He provides a name for the boy, John, which means, Yahweh is gracious.
It is with St. John the Baptist, the son of Zachariah and Elizabeth, that the Gospel itself begins, because he is brought into existence, called by God from the womb, and sent as the Forerunner who goes before the Face of the Lord to prepare His way. For the good and gracious gifts of God cannot even be received or accepted in faith except by the preparation that He provides through the preaching of His messenger! The Lord Himself works all in all, from start to finish.
So, then, it is by the preaching and ministry of this priestly son, St. John, that the Old Testament priesthood ushers in the Christ to whom it has always pointed. St. John is the oracle of the Lord, who preaches the Law and the Gospel unto repentance and faith, and who thereby turns many of the sons of Israel away from their sins and death and back to the Lord their God.
He is called by God the Lord, already from his mother’s womb, to preach and to practice a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And, as you know, not only does he baptize the people with such a baptism, but he will also baptize Christ Jesus Himself, the Lamb of God, unto His own Cross and Passion. It is in this way that St. John anoints and offers the Lamb unto the Lord for the propitiation of the sins of the world. Not that John is worthy or even able of himself to do so, but according to his office and vocation, by and with the Word and Spirit of the Lord who sent him.
As the Christ enters and emerges from the waters of His Baptism, so is He crucified, dead, and buried, and so does He rise from the dead and ascend to the right hand of His Father in heaven. He thus descends into the depths of Sheol, and He ascends to the heights of the heavenly places, in order to become the Sacrifice and the Incense by which He brings you and your prayers to God.
St. John, the priestly son of Zachariah, is the instrument of the Lord’s mercy in bringing this about. But it is the Lord Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, who alone is offered and received on your behalf, who thus fulfills and accomplishes all things for you and your salvation.
In His own human flesh and blood, the One who is baptized by St. John the Forerunner is a great High Priest forever, who sacrifices His own body and life and sheds His holy and precious blood, once for all, as the Sacrifice of Atonement for the sins of the whole world.
By that Sacrifice of Christ Jesus, beginning in the waters of His Baptism and perfected on His Cross, His Body and His Blood have become the priestly Food and Drink, the Holy Communion Meal of the perfect Peace Offering, by which His priestly people are bound to Him in fellowship. Not only for His Israel of old, but also for you and for all who are baptized in His Name.
The same Body and Blood of the one Lord Jesus Christ, which are given and poured out for you from His Altar in the Temple of His Church on earth, are also, at the same time and forevermore, the sacred and sweet-smelling Incense and the great High Priestly Prayer that ascend to the highest heavens, into the true Holy of Holies made without hands, into the ears and the nostrils of His own God and Father. As He feeds you here with Himself, and as He preaches peace to you here by the Ministry of His Gospel, so does He never stop interceding for you and petitioning for your Peace and reconciliation with the Father in heaven, who sits enthroned upon the cherubim.
By these ways and means of Christ, as you receive Him into your body through the ways and means of the Gospel — in your ears, and in your hands and mouth — so do you also enter with Him, in His Body of flesh and blood, into the presence of God in perfect Peace: By repentant faith in His free and full forgiveness of all your sins; by your Baptism into His Cross and Resurrection and Ascension; and by your participation in the Holy Communion of His Body and His Blood.
United with Christ Jesus in both body and soul by these gifts of His Gospel, you do belong to the royal priesthood of His Body, the Church. Which is to say that, much like St. John the Baptist, but within your own particular place in this world, your body and your life are a priestly sacrifice of thanksgiving and a priestly service of prayer and confession. You thus offer to the glory of God and for the good of your neighbors what you have yourself received from the Lord by His grace.
What that means and looks like, at ground level, is that you are daily put to death and daily raised to a brand new life by repentance and faith in the Gospel. And that is not simply a mental activity, nor it is a self-help exercise of your emotions. It is rather to hear and heed the preaching of the Word of the Lord, the Word of Christ Jesus, from those messengers who are sent to speak it to you.
Your Christian priesthood is then also to serve the duties of your office and stations in life, as in the very presence of the Lord your God. To know what that means for you, specifically, consider your place in the light of the Ten Commandments, as the Catechism has taught you to do. And so live and do as God has commanded: Love and cherish, honor and serve your spouse, your parents, and your children, your brothers and sisters (within your own home and family, and in the Lord); and love your other neighbors, as well, as you are given to do in each case by the Word of God.
Because this life of faith and love is lived and offered as a priestly sacrifice, it bears the Cross and suffers patiently for the sake of Christ Jesus. Which is to say, not simply that you put up with it, but that you boldly confess His Cross in gentleness and reverence, in courtesy and peace.
Whatever disgrace and shame you may experience from other people, do not measure the grace and favor of God by your outward circumstances, but by the Word and promise of Christ, by His Cross and Resurrection. So, for example, Zachariah and Elizabeth bore the Cross of having no children for all those long and many years, though they were indeed righteous in the sight of God by faith in His Word; and by such faith, they lived according to His Word within their vocations.
That is the character and content of the priestly life and priestly service, the “liturgy of life,” so to speak, to which you also are called by the Spirit of God through the preaching of His Word. It does involve the doing of your duties, but it is always the case, at all times and in all places, that it depends upon the hearing of the Word of Christ, by which you believe, and by which you pray and confess the Lord your God. As the Father speaks to you by His Son, so by His Holy Spirit do you speak that same Word in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. You speak as an oracle of God.
That you might learn to speak and sing that Word of Christ, the Word-made-Flesh, the Lord does for you, as He did for Zachariah, the very thing that we have prayed in the evening Psalm: He sets a watch over your mouth, and He guards the door of your lips, lest your heart be inclined to sin by speaking the false confessions of doubt, despair, idolatry, and unbelief. For words are powerful — as you hear them, and as you speak and rehearse them out loud — whether for good or evil. What you mutter to yourself under your breath, what you gossip to and about your neighbors, and what you spew in the unguarded passions of anger or lust, it all wreaks havoc against your faith.
In the case at hand, Zachariah was disciplined to wait upon the Lord, to listen to His Word, and to watch for the fulfillment of His promises. And in due season, after many months of silence, he was able by the Spirit to speak the Word of the Lord both to and for his little son, St. John. In the same way, you are called to silence, first of all, that you might hear and learn the Word of Christ, and then, by His Word, to confess His Cross in the sure and certain hope of His Resurrection.
Indeed, it is by the grace and Spirit of Christ Jesus that everything you do and say as a Christian becomes a confession of His Cross and Resurrection. By His Word, all of your words and actions, your body and soul, your heart, mind, and spirit, are consecrated for priestly service to the glory of His Holy Name. From the font — from the womb of your Mother, the Church — you are holy and righteous in all things, without any blame or fault in the presence of your God and Father.
For the Word that God speaks to you by His Son is more than simply “true.” It is the Truth, upon which the heavens and the earth and all of creation are brought into being and perfected. It is the sure and certain promise of what is to be, of your tomorrow and forever, because it has already been fulfilled and accomplished for you in the Body and Blood of your Savior, Christ Jesus.
He has humbled Himself, even unto death, and He has been exalted by His God and Father on your behalf, as your merciful and great High Priest, so that you should be exalted in Him.
His Blood, shed upon the Cross, has atoned for all your sins forever. And with that Blood, in His own Body of flesh (just like yours), crucified and risen from the dead, He has entered the Most Holy Place, behind the Veil, where He ever lives to intercede for you before the Throne of God.
In order that you should be and abide with Him there in the presence of the Lord your God, both now and forevermore, He also feeds you with His Body and His Blood here at His priestly Table, and thereby nourishes you in your body and soul, unto the Resurrection and the Life Everlasting.
Therefore, take heart, and do not be afraid, dear child of God. Not only is your petition heard and answered for the sake of your dear Lord Jesus Christ, but, as you belong to Him, a member of His Body and Bride, His royal priesthood, so do you stand with Him before your God and Father in Peace. Even now by faith in the Gospel, and forevermore in Christ, you live and abide with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in that true Temple of God which is the very Body of the Lamb.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.