Nativity of St. John the Baptist
June 24, 2018
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
Christmas is only six months away! In six months, we’ll be getting ready for the children’s Christmas service, and putting the Christmas Eve dinner in the oven, and wrapping all the last-minute gifts. Only six months; doesn’t seem like that long, right? Except that that also means that every other day of the year is closer to Christmas than today. Today is the farthest from Christmas that you can get. But, there’s a little Christmas feel today in the service. It’s the celebration of the Nativity (or birth) of St. John the Baptist. And, it makes perfect sense; the cousin of our Lord was six months older than Him, so celebrating his birthday on June 24 is only fitting.
You just heard the story of John’s birth, maybe for the first time, or maybe for the umpteenth time. Today, though, I’d like to focus on something that comes a little later in John’s story:
Then there arose a dispute between some of John’s disciples and the Jews about purification. And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified—behold, He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him!”
John answered and said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent before Him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:25-30).
The dispute was about purification, which is to be expected if you’re baptizing with water. The Jews had their rites of purification—not only those prescribed in the Levitical law, but also additional laws in the Jewish commentaries on the Law. And John was in the wilderness baptizing with water for repentance. A rite of purification.
And then we find out that Jesus is baptizing, too, and more successfully at that. (Actually, we find out in a few paragraphs that Jesus never baptized anyone; His disciples did all of the baptizing. The people were mistaken. But that’s a different sermon).
But then, John says something peculiar. “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven.” What appears obvious—that Jesus takes over what John is doing—is actually inverted. John, who is Jesus’ senior by six months, is implying that Jesus is the one behind all of the baptisms. “I am not the Christ,” John confessed. “I have been sent before Him.” Six months before the Nativity of Our Lord is the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. But though he comes before Jesus, Jesus is the one who ranks above him, because He was before Him. Even though John was born first, Jesus predates Him. This would be impossible, except that Jesus is more than He appears on the surface.
When a man gets married, he often chooses someone close to him—a brother, a friend, maybe a cousin—to be his best man. He’s the one who holds the rings, pays the honoraria, makes sure everything goes smoothly. John says that he was chosen to be the best man, to stand at Jesus side as He prepares for His marriage to His bride, the Church. Another very important job for the best man—in fact, his only real job—is to be a witness. The groom doesn’t sign the marriage certificate; the best man does. He listen to the vow spoken by the groom and puts his name on the paper to say, “Yes, this word is true.” (Maids of honor do the same for the bride).
And this is John’s task. He is a prophet, to be sure, but his main task is to listen. That’s what got his father into trouble—he didn’t listen to God’s Word spoken by the angel, and lost his ability to speak. John’s task wasn’t to invent a new doctrine, but simply to say what had been given him to say. He is a witness. He is a martyr.
And so, when John’s disciples are getting a little antsy that Jesus is starting to gain traction, John says, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Jesus himself says that no man born of woman is greater than John the Baptist. But just as the days are beginning to get shorter, John’s ministry must decrease to make room for the groom.
When Zechariah regained his voice, he sang a prophecy of John. We have it in the last part of the Benedictus, which is a canticle we sometimes sing with Matins. It’s on p. 38 of The Lutheran Hymnal:
And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest,
for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways;
To give knowledge of salvation unto His people
by the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God
whereby the Dayspring from on high hath visited us;
To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
This little verse is directed at the infant John, but Zechariah quickly switches to the work of Jesus. He is the one who gives knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sins. He is the one who embodies the tender mercy of God. He is the Dayspring who rises upon us. He is the one who enlightens those who sit in the darkness of the shadow of death. He is the one who guides our feet into the way of peace. John goes before the face of Jesus to prepare His way, but the show is all about Jesus.
That verb “increase” seems to be an intransitive verb. In other words, the action of increasing isn’t transferred to anything else. Jesus must get bigger, Jesus must become more prominent, Jesus must become more important. That is true. But I think there’s also a little bit of transitivity to John’s statement as well. An transitive verb transfers the action to an object. Like when you tell the person riding shotgun, “Please increase the volume.” It means, “Make the volume more.” In this sense, Jesus also increases the ministry of John.
John came in the wilderness preaching repentance and administering a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. When Jesus had completed His passion and resurrection, He gave a new, different baptism than that of John. But it’s not completely different. It’s increased. This one goes to eleven. John’s baptism was one of repentance for the forgiveness of sins; Jesus’ baptism is all that, and a baptism in the name of Father, Son, and Spirit. It is a washing of regeneration and renewal. It is a baptism that saves. Jesus must increase, and He must increase John’s ministry. This is the New Testament. Everything that came before the cross of Jesus is a shadow of the reality that comes after.
The lesson for you is that, like John, you must decrease. Your desires, your way of thinking, your way of living. These are, by nature, contrary to God’s desires, God’s way of thinking, God’s way of living. You must decrease. That’s where repentance begins. But it’s when you are nothing that you can be raised up. This is the continuation of repentance. Faith is the increase of Jesus in your heart, in your mind, in your life. This is the goal of John’s ministry, and the goal of Jesus’ ministry. You must decrease,
Jesus must Increase
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard