[Zechariah said,] “Blessed is 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, As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets, Who have been since the world began… “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, To give knowledge of salvation to His people By the remission of their sins, Through the tender mercy of our God, With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us; To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, To guide our feet into the way of peace.” [vv. 68-70, 76-79 NKJV]
IN NOMINE JESU
If you watch the evening news, or even the cable news channels, you often see excerpts from daily White House press briefings. More often than not, you will see the Press Secretary briefing the news media on the issues and topics of the day that the President’s administration is addressing or monitoring. The Press Secretary is not there to give himself additional publicity or to speak on his own behalf, but he is there to put forth the President’s position on various issues. He is speaking for the President of the United States. When he addresses the media, he is, in fact, the President’s voice.
On the evening newscasts from the TV stations in Lincoln, a particular crime committed will be covered by a reporter. Included in the video package is a press release delivered by an officer with the Lincoln Police Department. This particular officer’s task is to speak on behalf of LPD, updating the media on cases they are investigating of have just closed. She gathers information on these cases from the officers working them and gives out what information she can, without jeopardizing any investigations. When she speaks in this capacity, she is the voice of the Lincoln Police Department.
Many corporations employ public relations officers. Their task is to brief the media on situations involving their respective companies. They may promote a new product. They may report on a number of things that involve their employers. Sometimes that comes in the form of damage control, when they have to try to put their business in as positive a light as possible in the midst of a potentially embarrassing situation, one that could drive down the company’s stock price. Similarly, the White House’s press secretary is called upon to do that from time to time to clarify the President’s remarks or to provide cover for the President in a sticky situation. This is true, regardless of who is in office at that time. Be that as it may, the public relations officer of a company truly serves as the voice of the company.
All three of these types of people have something in common. They speak but not for themselves. They are each accountable to someone, and they each speak while under orders to do so. That is their charge, to speak for their respective organizations. They may work alongside other people, but they speak on behalf of those people. They are the voices of the organizations they represent.
Something similar can be said of pastors. They speak, but not under their own authority. They are under orders from God by way of their respective calls. When a pastor preaches, he is not to preach whatever he feels like preaching. No, he is under orders to preach the Word of God in all its truth and purity. He preaches the Law in all its sternness, and He preaches the Gospel in all its sweetness. He is under orders to administer the Sacraments as the Lord Himself instituted them. He is under orders to speak words of absolution to repentant sinners but bind the sins of the unrepentant against them. The pastor speaks “in the stead and by the command of” the Lord Jesus Christ. In the Service of Corporate Confession and Absolution, which we have used during the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent, you heard me ask you, “Do you believe the forgiveness I speak is not my forgiveness but God’s?” To this question you answered, “Yes,” but you did so not just because it was the next line in the hymnal. Rather, you said yes on account of what you have been taught from Luther’s Small Catechism as it pertains to confession and absolution: I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.
When a pastor preaches and teaches God’s Word, and administers the Sacraments, he is acting in accordance with his divine call, which God has made through the congregation. The pastor has willfully placed himself under the orders of the Lord of the Church. So when the pastor speaks to the congregation, he is the voice of God. The voice is the pastor’s, but the words are God’s.
The same can be said regarding John the Baptist, whose birth we celebrate today. He received his call before he was even born. His call documents are found in the scroll of Isaiah. We heard the words of this call as God spoke through the voice of another prophet, Isaiah, in our Old Testament reading for today, that John would be The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord; Make straight in the desert A highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted And every mountain and hill brought low; The crooked places shall be made straight And the rough places smooth; The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, And all flesh shall see it together; For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” [Is. 40:3-5]
Zechariah, himself a priest, knew well what God’s call was for his son John. He was well acquainted with the book of Isaiah and the words we just heard from it a moment ago. Isaiah voice spoke God’s Word, just as John’s voice would speak God’s Word. The angel Gabriel came to Zechariah, to announce that this old priest and his old wife would become parents. But Zechariah did not believe this messenger of the Lord and was made mute until John’s birth for not believing the word of the Lord. When the time came for John to be born, everyone expected the child to be named after his father. So when Elizabeth said the child’s name would be John, they probably thought she was a bit nuts, for no one in the family had that name. But what Zechariah wrote backed up what his wife said: “His name is John.” By virtue of this confession of what God had said, his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God for what God has done and for what John would later do. The words he spoke in our text comprise one of the great canticles of the Church: the Benedictus, Latin for “Blessed is He.” “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel,” Zechariah said. Why? God “has visited and redeemed His people, And has raised up a horn of salvation for us In the house of His servant David, As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets, Who have been since the world began…” Note that the word mouth is singular and prophets is plural. While the prophets had their own voices with different pitches and inflections, they all spoke the same message. They were the voices, but God remains the Word. They spoke as God gave them utterance. John would speak as God gave him utterance, too, as Zechariah himself sang: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, To give knowledge of salvation to His people By the remission of their sins, Through the tender mercy of our God, With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us; To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, To guide our feet into the way of peace.”
One of the great Early Church Fathers, the blessed Augustine said, “John is the voice, but the Lord is the Word who was in the beginning. John is the voice that lasts for a time; from the beginning Christ is the Word who lives forever. Take away the word, the meaning, and what is the voice? Where there is no understanding, there is only a meaningless sound. The voice without the word strikes the ear but does not build up the heart.” That is something we sinners want to do, to separate the voice from the Word. That preacher might be a nice guy, but he talks about sin too much. I wish he’d quit talking about the Sacraments and say something I want to hear. I just can’t take his bringing up each week that bloody Christ on the cross; it’s just grotesque. We only hear what we want to hear. We pick and choose what we want to believe for ourselves. We seek to turn the Bible into a buffet. We pass up sin and grace in favor of the sappy and gratuitous. We want to be hip for Jesus, when what we need is a hip replacement, transformed from being hip to being repentant.
Augustine also says, “When the word has been conveyed to you, does not the sound seem to say: The word ought to grow, and I should diminish? The sound of the voice has made itself heard in the service of the word, and has gone away, as though it were saying: My joy is complete. Let us hold on to the word; we must not lose the word conceived inwardly in our hearts.” But yet how often do we take the Word we have heard with us into our daily callings? As St. Paul laments to the Romans, “But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our report?’ So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (Rom. 10:16-17). Our sinful nature despises the preaching and God’s Word and will not gladly hear and learn it. The Old Adam does not want to hear Isaiah’s report…or John’s report…or Pastor Schlamann’s report. We are but men, voices used to speak God’s Word. Paul planted the seed, Apollos watered, but God gives the increase. The voices come and go, but the Word of the Lord remains forever. We cannot place our trust in a mere man but in the God-Man, Jesus Christ. Augustine asks, “Do you need proof that the voice passes away but the divine Word remains? Where is John’s baptism today? It served its purpose, and it went away. Now it is Christ’s baptism that we celebrate. It is in Christ that we all believe; we hope for salvation in Him. This is the message the voice cried out.” For 111 years here at Zion, the voices have come and gone, but the Word remains the Lord’s, and the Sacraments are His, as well. This is why pastors wear robes and stoles (or as my niece once called them, “Jesus clothes”), to identify themselves not as the Word but as the voice proclaiming the Word, that the Holy Spirit would work through the Word He has given His called and ordained servants of the Word to proclaim, that all people would be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth that is Jesus Christ, the Word who became flesh.
The message remains the same: Repent and believe the Gospel. Believe that Jesus Christ died for your sins. Your sins are forgiven. The Old Testament prophets pointed their hearers forward to the Messiah who was to come, that they would trust and believe in Him whom God the Father would send, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. The apostles, witnesses of the Lord’s death and resurrection, would preach Christ crucified, just as their successors do to the present day. They were (and are) the voice, and Jesus remains the Word, and He does so for our benefit. Even though the voice may change, the Word—and its preachment—remains the same: Jesus Christ died on the cross to win the forgiveness of your sins and give it to you from the font, lectern, pulpit, and altar—the gifts Christ freely gives to you through His Word and Sacraments: the gifts of forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation. From prison, John asked Jesus, “Are You the One, or should we look for another?” Yes, Jesus is the One, the Word that John’s voice spoke: the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, has mercy on us, and grants us His peace, the peace that far surpasses all understanding, the peace which the world cannot give.
Our Lord gives us His peace, having established His covenant with us. In the days of the Old Testament, the terms of the covenant dictated what the people were required to do for God. The covenant of circumcision gave way to the baptism of John, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The baptism of John, the greatest of all the prophets, decreased and became nothing as the Lord established a new covenant with His people, His Baptism, the baptism into which you and I became baptized. As was Christ, so also we are baptized into His death, we who are marked with the sign of the cross both upon our foreheads and upon our hearts to mark us as those redeemed by Christ the crucified—whipped, crowned with thorns, stricken, smitten, afflicted, and bloodied…FOR YOU! That’s the baptism of Jesus. When the pastor baptizes someone, he may speak the words “I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” but his voice speaks God’s Word; God is speaking through the pastor, words of comfort and joy, as the Holy Spirit works in us saving faith in Christ crucified. But St. Paul reminds us in Romans chapter six that we are also, through this baptism, baptized into Christ’s resurrection. Through Christ’s resurrected life, we too get to live a new life.
Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Rom. 6:4-11]
At Pentecost it was Peter’s voice, but it was God’s Word that led 3,000 souls to repent and become baptized in the Name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, “To give knowledge of salvation to His people By the remission of their sins,” as Zechariah said of John, for, as Peter says in his First Epistle, “Baptism…now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to Him” (1 Pet. 3:21-22). This same Christ, who has ascended into heaven, has descended and come to us today in His Word. Jesus is truly present here in His house. Yes, it is my voice that you hear, but it is His Word you are hearing. I can add nothing, for, like John, I must decrease that Christ would increase…for your sake. As we heard earlier from Augustine, “John is the voice, but the Lord is the Word who was in the beginning. John is the voice that lasts for a time; from the beginning Christ is the Word who lives forever.” Amen.
SOLI DEO GLORIA
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