Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sermon for 6/24/12

Sermon “Forerunners of the Messiah” Luke 1:57-80

May the Lord make us faithful as John was with this Gospel he has given us, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

We learn a lot about the priorities of characters in the Bible as we read their words. Especially we learn a great deal from the blessings which are proclaimed upon different people. Today, this day of the Nativity of John the Baptist, the day the Church remembers his birth, we read the blessing of God delivered through his father Zechariah. As we read that blessing we find out what God’s priorities are for John.

It amazes me to realize that God has priorities he wishes to express over this little baby. Last week I took a newborn baby in my arms. Did I tell you that I’m a proud first-time grandparent? I hadn’t had a little bitty newborn with me for quite a while. Baby John is eight days old here. Nothing but a little squirt. He can’t hold his head up. He’s probably still sleeping about twenty hours a day. His little arms flail around aimlessly because he isn’t yet mature enough to make very purposeful motions. He’s a lot like the eight day old baby I held on Wednesday. And our Lord knows all about him. He knows what John is going to do. He knows every day that John will have. He’s lovingly numbered each and every one of them.

I’d like us to look at just a few of the prophecies made over John. You might want to look in your Bibles with me at those poetic verses we read in Luke 1, verses 68-80. I encourage you, keep your Bibles open, and if you bring your own Bible, remember you can always jot notes in the margins, underline key words, and do other things to try to improve your picture of what you read in Scripture.

What has God done? Zechariah gives us four main headings here. God has redeemed his people, raised up a horn of salvation, shown mercy, and established his covenant. We’ll look at those concepts in turn.

First, he has redeemed his people (v. 68). What is redemption? It’s buying something back from someone else. For instance, if a manufacturer gives a coupon, we can redeem something else with that coupon. Maybe it’s good for a discount or for a free product. We present the coupon and it works like money to buy something. Essentially the company buys the coupon back from us. God has redeemed his people. He has bought them back. They were sold to sin, but through the person and work of Christ on their behalf, God has bought them from slavery. He has bought us, all who believe, from the bondage of sin. It can no longer hold us. The price of our salvation has been paid. We who were bound to sin have been set free. And it’s by God’s work in Christ, not by our own work. Jesus has paid the penalty for sin and has redeemed us. Yet I wonder if you noticed a little oddity about the verb there in verse 68? Zechariah is praising God for redeeming his people. He says it is finished. He “has redeemed” his people. That’s in the past tense, just like you “have arrived” in the church building. You’re already here or I wouldn’t say you “have arrived.” But when did Jesus redeem us from sin? Jesus hasn’t been born yet. John is about six months older than Jesus. But in God’s eyes, he has already redeemed his people. Remember that Jesus is very much alive, though he is still in his mother’s womb. Salvation has come in the person of Jesus, even before he is born. How much more do we realize salvation in Jesus some thirty-odd years later when he dies for our sin and rises from the dead on our behalf? God has redeemed his people. He has redeemed you, he has redeemed me. He has bought us back from the power of sin and death. We are no longer in captivity, through faith in his name. Praise be to the Lord. He has redeemed his people.

What do we see next? He has raised up a horn of salvation, in verse 69. This idea of a “horn” is a little different in the Bible than we might think of it today. You all know what a horn is, right? After all, we know what has one horn and gives milk, don’t we? A milk truck. Beep, beep. Or maybe we think of a horn and picture a trombone. But when the Bible talks about a horn, it’s a symbol of strength. Think of a bull’s horn or a ram’s horn, something used for butting other animals out of the way. We also see the word “horn” used as a wing or a flank of an army, the part jutting out from the center, which could be used to attack the enemy. A horn in the Bible is used as a symbol of power. God has raised up a horn of salvation. He saves us from evil. In verses 77-79 we read what that salvation looks like. It’s forgiveness of sins. It’s pictured as the light of the rising sun. It’s that kind of light that dispels the darkness, chases away shadows. It’s the peace of God which directs us through this life, and it’s the life we receive when God has chased away death. Jesus, our horn of salvation, has destroyed death. He has driven it away. He has conquered this enemy.

Now how can I say that Jesus has conquered the enemy, death? Many of you know that just as I spent some time last week holding a sweet little baby, as alive as can be, I also spent time last Tuesday visiting some of Martha’s family members who were gathered around the funeral of her brother-in-law, John, who we have prayed for here recently. We saw him lying in the casket. He was dead. It didn’t seem like death was conquered. And we’ve seen death in this congregation as well, quite a number of times in the past year. How has Jesus conquered death? It seems to still be in effect. But Jesus has indeed conquered death. By faith in his name, by trusting in his work on our behalf, we who are mortal, when we die, will be clothed with immortality. It’s what we read last week in Corinthians. We are waiting to be born, and we will be born when this mortality has put on immortality. Jesus has conquered death by being the one who could bear all our sin, be killed by it, and rise to life again. Jesus proclaimed his victory to the souls in prison, those who were dead. Jesus showed that he had victory over death by rising from the dead. And he has promised that we will be as he is, rising from the dead as well. Jesus, our horn of salvation, has conquered death.

This is part of the great mercy of God we read about in verse 72. Zechariah doesn’t talk a lot about God’s mercy in specific detail. It’s more like a summary of all God has been doing here. He has shown mercy. Why did he bring salvation? Not because of our good works. It’s because of his mercy. Why does he present us faultless before himself? Because of his great mercy. Yet look at this. It isn’t his mercy to us here in verse 72. It’s his mercy to our fathers. Who are the fathers? God has shown mercy to the fathers of Zechariah. Generation after generation he has shown his mercy by preserving the line of the Messiah. Generation after generation he has proclaimed his mercy, not visiting Israel with punishment their sins deserved. Generation after generation, for thousands of years, he has preserved the seed of Adam, who would crush the serpent’s head, as he promised in Genesis chapter 3. He has raised up judges as we are reading in the Adult Bible class. He has preserved his people through the Babylonian captivity, as we read last week or the week before in the Bible reading challenge. As we read in Esther this week he has raised up his people in key places in their captivity, protecting this line of the Messiah, the line of the deliverer. God has shown his mercy. And he has shown his mercy to each and every one of us, not treating us as our sins deserve. We are not worthy of God’s forgiveness. Yet Jesus has granted us forgiveness anyway, taking upon himself the penalty of each and every one of us. God has shown his mercy.

Does it seem to you that maybe God’s mercy is some sort of a whim? Did he decide to be gracious the same way the pagan gods we read about in mythology are gracious, out of some self-centered or capricious motive? Not at all. Why was God merciful? It was because of his covenant. We saw that in verse 72. It’s all about God’s desire. He does not want anyone to perish but desires that all should have eternal life, life found in Jesus, by trusting that he is who he said he is, the resurrection and the life. This is God’s covenant. It isn’t our covenant. It’s his covenant. See how he is the one who swore the oath to Abraham. See how he’s the one who promised to rescue us. And notice that now it is “us” rather than “the fathers.” God has promised to rescue us, and Zechariah proclaims that his rescue operation is active. As God rescues us from our enemies, particularly sin and death, he makes us able to serve him. What kind of a fearful thing is it, after all, to serve God? Once again, think of the non-Christian religions. What happens when you try to serve Zeus and make a mistake? He’s the one with the lightning bolts. What happens when you promise to serve Athena and Juno gets wind of it? She’ll make your life miserable. What happens when you try to appease the volcano god? Someone dies, and if you don’t do it right, that someone may just be you. What happens when you try to make peace with the Great Spirit of the Plains? Hard to say. What happens, though, when the true God, the triune God confessed by Christians, makes peace by his covenant? He establishes the covenant, he makes the promises, and he puts himself to death on our behalf, realizing that we were never able to keep the covenant in the first place. Salvation is of the Lord. He enables us to serve him without fear, because he has destroyed fear by his perfect love, which casts out all fear.

How are we going to serve him, then? We serve him in holiness, in righteousness, and forever. We saw that in verse 75. This all happens only because our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has purchased us from sin.

Well, there’s been something mysteriously absent from this sermon. Have you noticed it? It’s called “Forerunners of the Messiah.” Who is Zechariah talking to? He’s making a prophecy over John, his infant son, the forerunner of the Messiah, Jesus. But what is John’s role in all of this? He doesn’t seem to have much of a role. Zechariah gets to it in verse 76. John will be a prophet. He will go before the Lord. He will prepare the way of the Lord. He will be a forerunner, pointing people to this Jesus who has accomplished salvation. Do you see how John himself almost gets lost in this prophecy? It’s all about Jesus. But John is the one who is being circumcised, dedicated to the Lord. Yet isn’t that appropriate? As we receive baptism and are consecrated to God, it isn’t really about us. It’s all about Jesus, who has purchased our salvation, who puts our sins to death. When we repent and believe in Jesus it isn’t about the quality of our repentance or even our belief. It’s about the quality of our Jesus. We aren’t on center stage. Jesus is. Just look around this room. Even in our church services we see that we aren’t on center stage. Where does the preacher stand? He stands off to the side. What’s center stage? It’s an altar, a cross, a copy of the Scripture at center stage. Jesus is center stage. John is just a forerunner.

May the Lord make us forerunners in our community. May we have the grace to proclaim Jesus’ wonders. May we have grace to point many to our Lord and Savior. As Professor Nagle used to say, “Don’t tell me about your faith. Tell me about your Jesus.” May we also be forerunners of Jesus, telling of his plan of redemption, of him as the horn of salvation, of him as the deliverer of God’s mercy, of Jesus as the one who brings God’s covenant to us, so we can serve him.

Do you believe that Jesus is the one who can take away all your sin? Maybe you wonder if sin is a real thing in this world. Sin is what brings death. It is what brings all the curse of God on this life. It’s real. And we all have it. We all deserve death and condemnation. But the good news is that through his good pleasure God has borne the penalty of sin on your behalf and on my behalf. All we do is believe that Jesus is the one who saves us, who forgives us our sin. And we receive his cleansing, becoming his messengers, forerunners of the Gospel. Do you believe? May the Lord bless us to trust in him more, day by day, looking to him, the author and finisher of our salvation.

Now may the grace of the Lord guard your hearts and minds, making you, as he made John, messengers of this Gospel, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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