The Nativity of St. John the Baptist
Grace, mercy, and peace be with you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today is another one of those “Lesser Festivals” that the Church celebrates occasionally. Today’s festival, The Nativity of St. John the Baptist, is one of the oldest ones of the Christian church. It is celebrated on June 24th, since in Luke’s gospel it is recorded that the angel Gabriel announced the impending birth of John six months before he announced Jesus’ birth to Mary. Therefore, John was supposedly born six months before Jesus – and his birth is celebrated by the Church six months before our celebration of Jesus’ birth at Christmas.
On a technical note, you might wonder why this observance is on June 24th rather than June 25th – which is exactly six months before Christmas. The most likely reason is because of the old Roman way of counting dates, which proceeded backward from the Kalends (first day) of the succeeding month. Christmas in that counting system was “the eighth day before the Kalends of January” - so therefore the Nativity of John the Baptist was also observed on “the eighth day before the Kalends of July”. But since June has only thirty days, that is why this festival is celebrated on June 24th.
Who exactly was John the Baptist? According to Luke in his gospel, his mother Elizabeth was a “relative” of Jesus’ mother Mary (Lk. 1:36) – but we do not know exactly what their relationship was. The other gospels give no indication that John and Jesus were related in any way, or that they even knew each other. But what we do know was that John was a great prophet whose ministry immediately preceded the ministry of Jesus – and perhaps for awhile was even done at the same time as Jesus’ ministry.
John’s ministry made a powerful impact upon the people of Israel. The gospel writers tell us that he proclaimed a “baptism of repentance” for the forgiveness of sins. Perhaps a better term for this would be a baptism of change. John was calling people to REPENT – or CHANGE – the way that they lived their lives. To love their neighbors, to share with those in need, and not to use authority and power to exploit others (Lk. 3:10-14). John challenged his hearers to begin living in ways so that they would actually BE God’s people in their deeds as well as in their professed beliefs. Many of those who heard John would then be baptized as a testimony that from then on they would live as God would want them to.
Certainly this is a message that we need to hear in our own day as well. It is not enough just for us to “believe” in God’s love. God wants his love to make a real difference as to who we are and how we live and act. Although we as Lutherans emphasize that our deeds do not make us “good”, the fact that God has made “good” should be manifested by our deeds! As we say when giving a lighted candle at one’s baptism: “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” May we heed the message of John the Baptist and others like him who remind us that holy living is an essential response for being God’s holy people.
Getting back to John the Baptist specifically, it is impossible to overemphasize the effectiveness of his ministry. He was a powerful preacher whose preaching made a real difference in the lives of people and in society in general. The people knew that he spoke God’s truth. He fearlessly called people to repentance and condemned evil conduct – even if it involved King Herod himself. John the Baptist was at least as popular and influential and effective as Billy Graham was in his heyday when he was conducting his crusades throughout the world.
But be that as it may, perhaps John’s greatest characteristic was not his powerful preaching but rather his humility. Even though he was one of the most popular and influential persons of his day, he did not feel a need to be the center of attention. John knew that his ministry was not about him, but only about God and God’s kingdom. And so when it came time for him to withdraw from the religious “superstar” scene, he did so with grace.
Listen to the following passage from the gospel of John: “A discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Jn. 3:25-30)
“He must increase, but I must decrease.” When Jesus in his ministry began to attract more followers than John, John was not offended in any way. In fact, John rejoiced that people were now going to Jesus – because he realized that THAT was the ultimate purpose of all the preaching and baptizing he had been doing. John had been getting people ready for the coming of God’s Messiah – and when the Messiah came, John was more than willing to give way to him. John’s humility and lack of self-importance provides a great “role model” for us to follow.
Although the dates that the Church has set aside for celebrating the births of Jesus and John may not be literally accurate, these traditions do have a powerful symbolic significance. Throughout Christian history, it has been noted that while the celebration of Jesus’ birth on December 25th takes place shortly after the winter solstice – when the days are getting longer; our celebration of the birth of John the Baptist takes place shortly after the summer solstice – when the days are starting to get shorter. It is another way of helping us to remember John’s statement about Jesus that “He must increase, but I must decrease.” May this be a motto for all of us in our lives as well!
And so today we remember St. John the Baptist, a great prophet who called upon people to love, share, and deal justly with each other in the same way as God does with us. A great prophet who helped to prepare people for the coming of Jesus Christ. And a great prophet who ultimately was willing to “decrease” in his ministry, so that Jesus’ ministry would increase.
Thanks be to God for the life and ministry of St. John the Baptist! May his witness continue to instruct and inspire us in our lives now as disciples of Jesus Christ. Amen!
George R. Karres,
Pella Lutheran Church
418 W. Main Street
Sidney, MT 59270