This is the third of three sermons on this theme of an alternative Advent. Since it is an alternative Advent we are not yet to the birth of Jesus, but it is still a very important birth announcement that we unpacked today. This was preached as a recording for Berkeley Springs Presbyterian Church in West Virginia. The prepared sermon text is below. The other passage I selected for today was Deuteronomy 34.
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 we heard last Sunday 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 healthy and even happy when he was near Jesus in the womb. But not only was this miracle baby happy and healthy in the womb, John was healthy when he was born. Our text from Luke today is his birth announcement including his naming, which usually gets overlooked in favor of His even more famous cousin’s birth announcement and naming. It is an alternative advent announcement especially when you consider that the Lectionary never uses this part of the reading. To describe John as a bouncing baby boy seems particularly fitting. Thus the title of today’s message. But this alternative advent birth announcement was anything but ordinary. It led neighbors to feel an awestruck wonder and to think, “What then will this child be?” I remember thinking about this question when Josiah was born because I was surprised how content and even happy he was as a baby. He even usually slept through the night when first brought home from the hospital. 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 and Zechariah’s prophecy after about ten months of total silence. Thus let’s turn now to this alternative advent birth announcement including that prophecy.
This spirit-filled announcement of John’s birth prophesied that he would become a prophet greater than Moses for he would go before the Lord God Himself to prepare the way for Him.
This alternative advent birth announcement advertises the newborn John as a new and greater Moses. He is a new and greater Moses because he will prepare God’s people for a new and greater Exodus. We know John as “the Baptist” because he used a baptism of water in the Jordan River for the forgiveness of sins. John’s baptism was a reenactment of the Exodus with Moses. His baptism of repentance prepared the people for the coming new and greater Exodus. Zechariah borrowed language and imagery from earlier descriptions of the Exodus Event to explain John’s pivotal place in the history of redemption. For example, Psalm 106:9-10 explains the Exodus, saying, “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 says something similar about the 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 the Book of Exodus was: “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). In like manner, Zechariah describes the purpose of this new Exodus as: “that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him [the Lord] without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days” (Luke 1:74-75). John’s part was to proclaim a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (cf. Luke 3:3) so that when Jesus saved the people from their sins they would be ready 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 learned personally for he had been “righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (Luke 1:6) but he did not believe the angel Gabriel who told him that Elizabeth, his elderly wife, would conceive and bear this son. Now, after about ten months alone with his thoughts, Zechariah has grown in faith as a result of the sign of his inability to speak. He might not have been able to hear either because he didn’t believe what he heard the angel say. I can’t say that definitively but it is a strong possibility since the people were making signs to him as if he couldn’t hear them and it would have increased their awestruck wonder when he wrote down the same name that Elizabeth had said. In any case, this was the first of many signs preparing people for the new Exodus including the signs of John’s baptisms of repentance with water. (But the most striking thing about this alternative advent birth announcement is that it blessed God more than it prophesied about John.)
For John, who would be called the prophet of the Most High, went before the Lord God Himself to prepare His ways. Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, the advent of Jesus Christ in the womb of the virgin Mary was the advent of the Lord God Himself in the flesh. And the purpose of His advent was to redeem us through the new and greater Exodus of His death and resurrection so that we would serve Him without fear, in a holiness and righteousness that is by faith. We follow Jesus, our new and greater pillar of fire, so that we can serve Him without fear. One of the most important themes in Exodus is God wanting to be with His people without consuming His people. Thus God saved His people with the Exodus Event so that they could serve Him but they still served Him with the fear that God’s holiness might consume them because of their sinfulness. But this new Exodus, with John as the new and greater Moses, would result in God’s people being ready to serve God without fear because we are righteous by faith. (And already we are talking about Jesus when unpacking the alternative advent announcement of John’s birth. This is unavoidable because John’s role was to point people to Jesus. But we’ve by no means exhausted what this alternative advent announcement prophesied about the preborn baby Jesus.)
For Jesus is the horn of salvation raised up for you in the house of David and the morning star who visits you from on high to give light to all those sitting in darkness.
Jesus is the horn of salvation raised up for you in the house of David. The beginning 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). This is an apocalyptic image. Christ the Lord has visited us. The connotation of visiting isn’t hospitality but victory. 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). Jacob said, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah” (Gen 49:10). It hasn’t. Jesus is the horn of salvation from that tribe for Jesus is the horn of salvation from the house of King David. 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—more about that in a moment. And the scepter to rise out of Israel is Jesus Christ. 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. (Jesus Christ is the scepter that rises out of Israel. But what about the star that shall come out of Jacob?)
Jesus is the morning star out of Jacob 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 some idea where the obstacles in the room are. 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 end of Zechariah’s message tells us this “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 shadow of death is a very dark place. 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. (These very ancient advent promises were signs on the way to Christmas. But now God has arrived – the morning star was giving light to those sitting in the shadow of death.)
Thus Christ is sending you out to publish this amazing alternative advent announcement of John’s birth until Christ comes again because it points all those sitting in darkness and death’s shadow to Him. Jesus Christ saved you so that you who are born again and therefore prophets of the Most High will shine Christ’s light to the world. Your message for the world is the gospel of Jesus Christ. 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 you. Indeed, Jesus is your light shining in the darkness so that you 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 your way through the Sea of Death to a heavenly country. All this you learn and can share about Jesus from the birth announcement of John for John always points us to Jesus. To whom be the glory and honor forever and ever, Amen.