Below is the prepared text for the sermon at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York this morning including two bouncing baby boys’ birth announcements: John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. This is the Fourth Sunday of Advent and also Christmas Eve…thus the focus on John the Baptist is for Advent and the focus on Jesus Christ is for Christmas Eve. The audio of today’s sermon is available here. Next Sunday’s message on the Twelve Days of Christmas will be based on Matthew 2:1-12. Further suggested reading would be the book of Daniel to learn a little more about the wise men (set a few hundred years before these events in Matthew) and Isaiah 60 regarding the gifts mentioned therein.
Now I don’t know about you, but I recall seeing birth announcements when I was young that would say they were introducing a bouncing baby boy, and I thought, “Bouncing is a strange word for a newborn baby.” Maybe it was just me, but the word “bouncing” made me think of John the Baptist who was literally bouncing in the womb during Elizabeth’s third trimester when Mary arrived with Jesus in her first trimester. Nevertheless, birth announcements mean the word “bouncing” figuratively. Newborns cannot literally leap for joy. The adjective “bouncing” in a birth announcement simply means the child is vigorous and healthy. Considering Elizabeth’s age, it was a miracle that John was indeed healthy and even happy when he was near Jesus in the womb. But not only were these miracle babies lively and healthy in the womb, both babies were lively and healthy when they were born. I would imagine that they were even happy newborns. Sure all babies cry from time to time, and this would not be any different for John or Jesus, but I remember that my son Josiah was usually a content and even happy baby boy. Surely John and Jesus were too. Our text from Luke today is two birth announcements including the naming of these babies and to describe them as bouncing baby boys seemed fitting. Thus the title of today’s message. But these birth announcements are anything but ordinary. The birth announcements of both bouncing baby boys led neighbors to feel an awestruck wonder. The scene where Zechariah was finally able to speak again after writing down “John” as his son’s name led Luke to tell us, “And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about all through the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” This is an awestruck wonder. It leads them to wonder, “What then will this child be?” I remember thinking about this question when Josiah was born because I was surprised how happy he was as a baby. I thought, “What great things does God have planned for my son?” But what I was feeling wasn’t even close to the awestruck wonder that the people of Judea had when they heard this story about Zechariah prophesying after something like ten months of total silence. Nor was what I was feeling close to the awestruck wonder that the people of Judea had when they heard about the amazing announcement of the birth of Jesus. We’ll read Luke 2:18, “And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.” There it is again – awestruck wonder at the birth announcement of a special baby boy. The people who heard it were likely thinking the same thing that they thought when they heard about John: “What then will this child be?” And while we already know who these babies will be, if for no other reason because we have heard the angel Gabriel tell Zechariah and Mary, let’s listen for the answer to that question in these verses too.
The birth announcement for John the Baptist tells us that he will be the prophet who goes before the Lord God Himself to prepare the way for Him with a message of forgiveness of sins (cf. Luke 1:76-77).
- The birth announcement portrays John the Baptist as a new Moses who will prepare God’s people for a new Exodus. Thus Zechariah borrows language and imagery from earlier descriptions of the Exodus event to tell us who John will be. The bigger picture is that John, as a new Moses, will tell the people to prepare to go through the Sea of Reeds with the pillar of fire (representing Christ) going before them to light the way. John would become known as “the Baptist” because he used a baptism of water in the Jordan River for the forgiveness of sins. John’s baptism in the Jordan, a reenactment of the Exodus with Moses, was to prepare the people for the coming new Exodus. Psalm 106:9-10 explains the Exodus this way: “He rebuked the Sea of Reeds, and it became dry, and he led them through the deep as through a desert. So he saved them from the hand of the foe and redeemed them from the power of the enemy.” Zechariah’s prophecy said something very similar: “as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old [prophets who said there would be a new Exodus], that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (Luke 1:70-71). Furthermore, the constant theme of Exodus is: “Let my son go so that he may serve me” (Exo 4:23) or “Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness” (Exo 7:16, or in shorter form Exo 8:1, 8:20, 9:1, 9:13, 10:3 and rest of chapter, see also Exo 3:12, 3:18, 5:1, and 7:16). Thus Zechariah can say the purpose of this new Exodus is: “that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days” (Luke 1:74-75). Again, this was the purpose of the first Exodus and it is the purpose of the greater Exodus accomplished by Christ in his death and resurrection: “that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days” (Luke 1:74-75). John’s part in this coming salvation was to preach to the people a message of the forgiveness of sins so that when Jesus saved the people from their sins they would be able to serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness. Indeed, we are talking about a righteousness that is by faith, for Zechariah’s prophetic announcement is clear that the people would not be saved because of their good works but rather “because of the tender mercy of our God” (Luke 1:78). This is a lesson that Zechariah has learned personally for he was someone noteworthy for his piety and righteousness under the law but at first he did not believe the angel who told him that Elizabeth, his wife, would conceive and bear this son and now Zechariah has grown in faith as a result of the sign of his inability to speak – and he might also not have been able to hear because he didn’t believe what he heard the angel say – I can’t say that definitively but it is a strong possibility and would have increased the awestruck wonder that the people felt when he wrote down the same name that Elizabeth had said. In any case, this is the first of many signs that would lead up to the new Exodus.
- The takeaway for us today is that this new Exodus accomplished by Jesus Christ with His death and resurrection has redeemed us to serve Him without fear, in a holiness and righteousness that is by faith. The birth announcement of this bouncing baby boy John, a new Moses, tells us that John will prepare the way for a new Exodus where we follow Jesus as our pillar of fire so that we can serve the Lord without fear, in a holiness and righteousness that is by faith. One of the most striking things in Exodus is that constant tension of God wanting to be with His people but not wanting to consume His people. Thus after the first Exodus the people had been saved to serve the Lord but they did so with the fear that God’s holiness might consume them because of their sinfulness. But this new Exodus, with John as the new Moses, would result in God’s people being able to serve God without fear because we are righteous by faith. (And already we are talking about Jesus when we are studying the birth announcement for John.)
And, since John’s role is to prepare the way for Jesus, the birth announcement for John the Baptist tells us who the yet unborn baby Jesus is too.
- Jesus is the morning star from the house of David who brings light to those sitting in the darkness. Have you ever been sitting out in the pitch dark, perhaps you were hunting or fishing in a place where there are no artificial sources of light and the moon was not shining and the stars were obscured by the clouds? Or in an underground mine or cavern when the light went out? Or perhaps you were sitting in your living room and turned off the television with the remote only to realize after you have set down the remote that it is pitch dark in the room. At least in the latter scenario you have a pretty good idea where to find the obstacles in the room. Nevertheless, these pictures should give you a pretty good idea of the world when Christ came. People were sitting in the pitch dark, sitting in the shadow of death – a place where there is no light. And then the Lord God of Israel, the Lord Jesus Christ, visited the earth. The beginning and end of Zechariah’s message tells us this – “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David” (Luke 1:68-69) and “whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:78-79). Actually the word there translated sunrise can mean the rising of the sun or the morning star. The point is that it is pitch black and the visit of the Christ is the first light. You have been sitting by the lake fishing but unable to see a thing, but now you can see to follow the one who will make you fishers of men. Christ the Lord has visited us. He came into the world in the womb of the virgin Mary “that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” including salvation from our sins and deliverance from the power of Satan and death. God has shown the mercy he promised to our Spiritual fathers, remembered the oath that He swore to our Spiritual father Abraham, He has remembered His holy covenant (cf. Luke 1:72-73). The shadow of death is a very dark place. But hear this picture of the gospel from the Old Testament Torah, it is the prophecy of Balaam given to him by the Holy Spirit, he says, “I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the head of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth” (Num 24:17). This morning star to come out of Jacob is Jesus Christ. Jacob said, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah” (Gen 49:10). This is the tribe of David and Jesus is the horn of salvation from that house. He has crushed the head of Moab, the head of Satan himself, as God told the serpent in Genesis: “he shall bruise your head” (Gen 3:15). Jesus has given Satan a fatal blow. The serpent will never recover. These very ancient promises were signs on the way to Christmas. But then God arrived – the morning star gave light to those who sit in the shadow of death.
The takeaway for us today is that Jesus is the morning star come down from heaven in the womb of the virgin Mary to be the King of Israel who defeats Satan for us. Indeed, Jesus is our light shining in the darkness so that we see the way to salvation, which is Jesus Himself. This image fits nicely with the Exodus imagery of the pillar of fire leading the people through the Sea of Reeds. Jesus is the morning star who lights our way through the Sea of Death to a heavenly country. (All this we learn about Jesus from the birth announcement of John for John always points us to Jesus. But here it is Christmas Eve and we haven’t even seen what the birth announcement for Jesus tells us about who He will be.)
The birth announcement for Jesus tells us that He is the heir to David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
Joseph and Mary’s birth announcement for Jesus includes the following details: His name is Jesus, which means “the Lord saves”; He is a bouncing baby boy—indeed the firstborn son and heir in the house and lineage of David; He was born in the city of David; mother is treasuring and pondering the words of shepherds who saw angels; and the announcement includes a picture with Jesus wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger. No surprise people would experience an awestruck wonder at the news. I would imagine that lots of people would have been visiting Bethlehem because of the census. Verse 7 says that there was no place for them in the inn. The word inn is used for the “upper room” later in Luke. It often refers to the guest room in a person’s house. Thus they may very well have been taken in by family but there wasn’t any space for them in the guest room so they were staying in the living room. Common practice at the time was to have a partially open concept from the living room to the room where the animals were brought inside. When you were in the living room you would see the animals and they would see you, but the living room floor was up higher than where the animals were. It was also common to cut feeding troughs for the animals into the floor of the living room. So one of these feeding troughs instead became a bed for the baby Jesus because there was no room in the guest room. This was the scene that the shepherds found when they came to see what the angel had told them. It isn’t exactly what we might anticipate would be the birth announcement for the King of Israel, but then again the story of Moses in a little ark among the reeds of the Nile isn’t exactly what we would guess is the beginning of a story of a great prophet unless we knew the legend of King Sargon who was said to have been born to a high priestess in secret and she set him in a basket and sealed the lid on the basket with bitumen and threw him into a river. It almost makes me start to wonder if Jesus being with the animals is also supposed to remind us of Noah and the ark.
- But let’s end today with the takeaway that this heir to David, is said by an angel to be, “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” He is our Savior for He saved us from our sins and from death itself. He is the Christ—anointed of God to be our prophet, priest, and king. He is the Lord. The angel has adopted the standard Jewish practice of saying Lord instead of saying the divine name of God. In other words, to say that He is the Lord is to say that He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Thus He is sending us out to publish this amazing birth announcement until He comes again.