“In the wilderness, prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God… Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed and all people shall see it together…” (Is 40:3,5)
Let us pray: O God, may I speak as one speaking the very words of God (1 Pt 4:11), and may your glory be revealed to us in the Word made flesh, your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Every Sunday when we celebrate Eucharist is a feast day, we celebrate and remember Jesus’s body and blood through the sharing of bread and wine. And today is a special feast day as we celebrate the Birth of Saint John the Baptist.
Of the saints that are celebrated throughout the year, John is unique. We celebrate both his birth – today – and his death, beheaded by Herod, on August 29. And for those are keeping track, today is 6 months and one day until Christmas. Yes, yes, John was born 6 months before Jesus.
That’s why we most often hear about John during Advent, in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Just as the birth of Jesus is foretold to Mary and Joseph, John’s birth is foretold to his elderly parents Elizabeth and Zechariah by the angel Gabriel. But Zechariah doesn’t believe the words of the angel and is made mute, unable to speak.
And today in the Gospel reading, we hear of John’s birth, just as Gabriel had foretold. And everyone gathers to celebrate. This old couple finally have a child, and Zechariah who was mute can suddenly speak again! And in verse 66: “All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’”
What more could they expect? John was already the joyous surprise to Zechariah and Elizabeth who had been barren.
Finally able to speak, Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and bursts out in prophecy, in poetic song. Zechariah’s song is included in our green BAS as Canticle 19, and its name “Benedictus” comes from the Latin “Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel” meaning, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.”
In the prophetic song, we hear that John “will be called the prophet of the Most High” (Lk 1:76)! These days, we sometimes hear about young soccer prodigies or math whizzes in elementary school, but here is John, eight days old, and his father foresees that he will be called a prophet! “For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him” (1:66) and “the child grew and became strong in spirit” (1:80).
Fast forward several years and “the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah” (Lk 3:2). John follows the pattern of other Jewish prophets, where we often hear the phrase “a vision from God came to…” or “the word of the Lord came to me.” So, Zechariah’s prophecy becomes true: his son, John becomes a prophet.
Jesus later says that “no one is greater than John” (Lk 7:28), not Moses, Elijah, Isaiah or any of the other prophets. In addition to being the greatest prophet, John is considered the last prophet. St. Augustine says that John “represents the OLD and heralds the NEW”. Prophets speak the word of God, but now the living Word of God, Jesus, “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (Jn 1:14).
So perhaps “John the Prophet of the Most High” is more complete that “John the Baptist”, even if it is a mouthful.
But I propose that we call him “John the Pointer.” There are a number of famous paintings of John pointing; he is pointing to Jesus. Starting in Elizabeth’s womb when he leapt for joy at Jesus, John pointed to Jesus throughout his life.
So, I propose to you this morning, that in the same ways that John pointed to Jesus, as baptized believers and faithful followers of Christ we also can point to Jesus. We may not have the title of “Ben the Baptist” or “the Prophet”, but we can have the title of “Ben the Pointer”.
First, let’s start with John’s title: The Baptist, or The Baptizer. Baptism is linked to the common Jewish practice of ceremonial bathing: cleansing oneself before entering God’s holy temple. John proclaims “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk 3:3). Or “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come” (Mt 3:2).
Repentance is what I most often associate with John the Baptist, with baptism. Repent. Turn back to God. We hear this in the liturgy for Baptism: there are three questions of “Do you renounce…” followed by “Do you turn to Jesus and accept him as your Saviour?” (BAS p154)
Repent. You’re going the wrong way. Turn around. John is like a road sign with directions: “Turn back to God.”
For those who use GPS for driving directions, “Repent” is the instruction it gives you when you turn the wrong or drive down the wrong street. Make a U-turn. Repent. Turn around.
But if we are going to be road signs pointing the direction to God, we need to be rooted in God’s word. Otherwise we will become like the roads signs and street lights during last week’s windstorm (on June 13, 2018). One day pointing this way, and the next day pointing another way, or coming completely unhinged in the storms of life.
Another way that we point to Jesus is in times of despair or distress, times of crisis.
John’s most famous line, which is recorded in all four Gospels is “Prepare the way of the Lord”, which is drawn directly from Isaiah 40: “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (40:3).
In Isaiah’s time, Israel was exiled, living in Babylon. The nation had disobeyed God and so, they were forcibly removed from their homes in Israel, taken far away from the temple in Jerusalem where God’s presence dwelt. Meanwhile in John’s time, Israel was under oppression, occupied by Rome. For both Isaiah and John, Israel was sitting “in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Lk 1:79).
And in their despair, God says, “Comfort, O comfort my people” (Is 40:1).
But what is the comfort to Israel? How is “[preparing] the way of the LORD” (40:3) or that “the glory of the LORD shall be revealed” (40:5) comforting”?
The comfort is not in the words of Isaiah, not like sympathy cards or funeral notes. In verse 9, Isaiah is commanded to “say to the cities of Judah, Here is your God!” Our comfort is not in the idea of God, in our beliefs or memory of God. Our comfort is the very presence of God himself.
“Here is your God.” The phrase in Hebrew is ‘hinnēh ělōhêkem’ (הִנֵּה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם). And the word ‘hinnēh’ is used over a thousand times in the OT and it means “Behold,” “Look”. My Hebrew professor called it the “pointing word”, since it used to point, to draw our attention.
“Prepare the way of the Lord” because God’s presence is coming. And “The glory of the LORD” is synonymous with the presence of God at Mount Sinai, in the Tabernacle or in the temple.
So these two words ‘hinnēh ělōhêkem’ are comfort and good tidings because they point to the presence of God coming. “See, the Lord GOD comes with might” (Is 40:10) to save us from our enemies and forgive us our sins. But God also comes with tender mercy, gathering his lambs into his arms, guiding our feet into the way of peace. This is comfort, this is good tidings.
Actually, we can indeed say that this comfort, these good tidings are the Gospel. The words “good tidings” in verse 9 are translated as ‘euaggelizo’ in Greek (LXX: εὐαγγελιζόμενος), related to the word “Gospel”: “good news.” And the good news, the Gospel can be summed up in those two words: ‘hinnēh ělōhêkem,’ “Behold, here is your God.” This is how Isaiah and John are joined together, both pointing to Jesus: The glory of the Lord, the presence of God is the salvation of God. Emmanuel, God with us.
Isaiah said “Behold”, pointing to God coming quickly on a highway to rescue Israel. And John pointed to God, to Jesus coming after him. And today we can point to God here in our midst.
Here is our God.
This is the third way that we can point to Jesus. HERE is our God.
We can point to God through the Holy Spirit working among us, in our lives, in our circumstances. In my short six weeks at St. Mary and St. Martha, I have already seen and heard God among us, God with us.
Let me point out the ways I see God here among us…
At Tuesday night PALS group, I hear how God turns thorns into roses. At ComSup this past Thursday, we celebrated 22 years of community fellowship, eating and faithfully serving together. Through our gardeners (Andrew, Carole, Winsome and others), we can see God’s handiwork in nature, in plants.
When we see God at work in our lives, in our community, we do not take credit. But we give glory to God. We point to Jesus.
Let us not be shy or intimidated, thinking that we are grass that withers, or flowers that fade. The focus isn’t about us. Like road signs, we point away from ourselves to the destination, to our goal, to Jesus Christ.
When John attracted a large crowd in the wilderness, people asked if he was the Messiah, and John answered by pointing to Jesus: “Behold, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29, NASB).
Our culture, our society encourages people to look after themselves, to point to themselves saying, “look what I’ve done,” but John points away from himself to Christ.
And John’s example is for us, because when Jesus said, “No one is greater than John” he then said, “yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (Lk 7:28).
We can follow John’s example: we point and we proclaim words “Here is your God.” In the Anglican prayers for Baptism candidates, we pray to the Lord: “Send them into the world in witness of your love” (BAS 155). To witness, to see what God is doing and to proclaim it to others. To point to Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.
These are three ways that we point to God, that we point to Jesus:
- For people who are lost, we point to God saying: Repent, you’re going in the wrong direction. Repent, turn back to God.
- For people in despair, we point to God, telling them comfort: “Behold, your God is coming with might and mercy”
- And we point to God working among us, transforming us by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Our worship is all pointing to God, pointing to Jesus. In all the Scripture readings today, Zechariah, Elizabeth, John, Paul, the psalmist, Isaiah, they all point to God. In our songs, and in our prayers, we point away from ourselves, and to God.
And as we prepare our hearts for the Lord’s table, even the sacraments of bread and wine point us in remembrance to Jesus Christ.
May we go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to point and proclaim “Behold, here is your God,” to give knowledge of salvation to all people by the forgiveness of their sins in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.