Text: Luke 1:57-80
Did you know that in the Church Year we celebrate only two birthdays? Out of all the events in the life of Christ and the lives of those connected to Him that we remember throughout the year, only two are birthdays. The first birthday we celebrate, of course, is the birth of our Lord. The second we celebrate today: the birth of John the Baptist. If you look on page xi in the front of your hymnal, you’ll see that today is the day we celebrate the birth of the forerunner. John the Baptist’s role was to go before the Lord and prepare His way. So, that means if John is born, Jesus must be coming soon behind. That’s what Zechariah sings about in the Benedictus.
Today we celebrate John’s birth both because it is miraculous and because it serves a purpose. The Lord promised through the prophet Malachi that He would send His servant Elijah before the great and awesome day of the Lord. Jesus Himself said John is that Elijah. All the Law and the Prophets spoke until John. He is the end of the Old Testament and Jesus is the start of the New. We celebrate the birth of John the Baptist because it shows us that God keeps His promises, especially His promise to send us salvation through His Son.
The story of John’s birth stretches back into the first part of Luke, chapter 1. After St. Luke’s introduction we hear that, “In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.” Zechariah and Elizabeth were faithful children of God who were waiting for the Messiah. They were righteous by faith and walked in the ways of the Lord, yet they had no children; Elizabeth was barren, and they were both, “advanced in years,” St. Luke says.
The time came for Zechariah to serve before the Lord in the temple, and he was chosen by lot to go into the Holy Place and offer incense. While he was there, the angel Gabriel appeared and stood by the altar. He said to Zechariah,
Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John…He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.
Gabriel came to tell Zechariah that the Lord would open Elizabeth’s womb to bear a son, and that son would be the forerunner of the Messiah. He would be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, and he is set apart by the Lord to preach repentance and faith to prepare the way of the Christ, who would follow soon after. Sadly, Zechariah doubted the Lord’s Word through Gabriel, and was made unable to speak for nine months. Still, nine months later, John was born. This is where our text picks up.
The Lord commanded Abraham back in Genesis that all male children were to be circumcised on the eighth day after their birth. And so, the time came also for John. In many parts of history, it was a custom to delay naming a child for a little bit after birth. For Christians, that’s meant that a lot of children have received their names at Baptism – a wonderful reminder that in Baptism we also receive Christ’s name upon our hearts. For Jewish males, it meant receiving their names at circumcision. So, when John’s time came, we heard that Elizabeth’s relatives wanted John to be named Zechariah, like his father. But, Elizabeth said, “No; he shall be called John.” When they made signs at Zechariah – who yet was still mute – he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” Immediately Zechariah’s mouth was opened, and his tongue was loosed again, and he began blessing God.
We might wonder what difference a name makes. What difference would it have made if John were named for his father? Surely that wouldn’t have been a big deal. Perhaps, perhaps not. It is true, though, that, in the Bible, names mean something. “Abraham,” for example, means, “father of many nations.” The Lord Himself gave Abraham that name, signifying that by faith as well as flesh, Abraham would be the father of many nations. “Elijah” means, “My God is the Lord.” “Daniel,” means “God is my judge.” “Zechariah,” means, “The Lord has remembered.” John is given his name because it means (in the Hebrew), “The Lord is gracious.” John’s birth and name are meant to reflect the mercy and grace of God. The name “John,” is also connected to a word for pointing. As in, John’s role would be to point to the mercy and grace of God that would be revealed in Jesus, the Messiah.
When Zechariah wrote that his son’s name would indeed be John, his mouth was opened, and he was filled with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit caused to him to prophesy what we now know as the Benedictus. In the Benedictus, the Lord, even, explains through Zechariah what John’s birth means. It means that the Lord is visiting and redeeming His people. It means that He has raised up a horn of salvation for us out of the house of His servant David – just like He promised back in 2 Samuel 7. It means that, by the birth, life, death and resurrection of the Messiah, we will be saved from our enemies and out the hands of all who hate us. The Lord is showing the mercy He promised to our fathers and remembering His holy covenant.
This is why we celebrate John’s birthday. If John is here, the Elijah that the Lord promised to send, it means that the Messiah is near. John is the one who would go before the Lord to prepare His way, and that’s what he did. John preached Christ crucified for us and was the first one to sing, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” We celebrate only two birthdays in the Church Year, our Lord’s and John’s. Today we celebrate John’s, because it means that the Lord keeps His promises, especially the promise to send us salvation through His Son. Amen.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Lk 1:5.
 Lk. 1:13, 16-17.
 Lk. 1:60.
 Lk. 1:63.
 Jn. 1:29.