Nativity of John A
Filled with a head of steam after touring local parishes near Wittenberg in 1529, Luther begins the Small Catechism with these words:
“…to All Faithful and Godly Pastors and Preachers: Grace, Mercy, and Peace in Jesus Christ, our Lord.
The deplorable, miserable condition which I discovered lately when I, too, was a visitor, has forced and urged me to prepare [publish] this Catechism, or Christian doctrine, in this small, plain, simple form.
Mercy! Good God! what manifold misery I beheld! The common people, especially in the villages, have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine, and, alas! many pastors are altogether incapable and incompetent to teach [so much so, that one is ashamed to speak of it]. Nevertheless, all maintain that they are Christians, have been baptized and receive the [common] holy Sacraments. Yet they [do not understand and] cannot [even] recite either the Lord’s Prayer, or the Creed, or the Ten Commandments; they live like dumb brutes and irrational hogs; and yet, now that the Gospel has come, they have nicely learned to abuse all liberty like experts…”.
Then a few pages deeper into the catechism, Luther turns his attention from clergy to parents, and has this to say of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism:
“…the head of the family should teach it in a simple way to his household, saying:
‘First, What is Baptism?’ Answer.
Baptism is not simple water only, but it is the water comprehended in God’s command and connected with God’s Word.
Which is that word of God? Answer.
Christ, our Lord, says in the last chapter of Matthew: Go ye into all the world and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
‘Secondly, What does Baptism give or profit?’ Answer.
It works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.
Which are such words and promises of God? Answer.
Christ, our Lord, says in the last chapter of Mark: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
‘Thirdly, How can water do such great things? ‘Answer.
It is not the water indeed that does them, but the word of God which is in and with the water, and faith, which trusts such word of God in the water. For without the word of God the water is simple water and no baptism. But with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a gracious water of life and a washing of regeneration in the Holy Ghost, as St. Paul says, Titus, chapter three: By the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost, which He shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ, our Savior, that, being justified by His grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a faithful saying.
‘Fourthly. What does such baptizing with water signify?’ Answer.
It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
Where is this written? Answer.
St. Paul says Romans, chapter 6: We are buried with Christ by Baptism into death, that, like as He was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.”
All this instruction about the Sacrament of Baptism, and all of it gets its start with a miracle boy named John.
He might be called Little Zach, but instead he is called John, a masc. proper name from 12 century Middle English, arising from Old French coming from Medieval Latin, which is a variant of Late Latin, borrowed from the Greek, springing from mother Elizabeth’s Hebrew, where Y’hohanan, (John) means “God has favored” and “God is gracious,” both at once.
And this begs a two-part question, “How did this child get named literally, “God has favored and God is gracious?” The short answer is, God said so.
The longer answer (in Luke 1:57-67) is that eight days after birth, circumcision day arrives for Elizabeth’s son, as it has for observant Jews from Abraham’s day forward, neighbors gather at this assembly as the child is set apart with the sign of God’s covenant to Israel. Mystery, tradition, and meaning are concentrated in ritual as ancient words of blessings are spoken over the child. The Jewish liturgy reaches the point of the naming of the child. And that’s when things get dicey. Obviously, there’s been no discussion with Elizabeth as to the child’s name, for Zechariah no longer speaks; assumptions are made that the child’s name is Zechariah, the old family name ensuring that the child might model his father’s priestly servant life.
Suddenly Elizabeth interrupts the ceremony, ‘No, his name will not be Zechariah, he will be called John.’
Confusion ensues. People turn to Zechariah wondering, “Why the name John?
Purposefully Zechariah writes, “His name is John.” Not, “His name should be John,” or, “we would like to call him John,” but, “His name IS John.” It is the name given by God. For through this child God has favored and is gracious, the both at once; for through this child God gifts God’s Church with the Sacrament of Baptism, a once size-fits-all grace-gift, a baby bath for all ages.
Apart from Baptism we could have had our old family name, Old Adam or Old Eve, lived into another identity, “lived like dumb brutes and irrational hogs; abusing all liberty like experts,” estranged from God, lost and undone without hope; yet God has favored us and is gracious to us, for through John we’ve received a Baptism of repentance, one made holy, gracious and favorable to us by Jesus when Jesus commands us to baptize in the name of the Triune God. Through Baptism we receive a better name, “God’s child,” marked with the cross of Christ forever. Not, “we should be called God’s child,” or, “we would like to be called God’s child,” but, “We are God’s child!” This name comes to us by God’s command, “Go…and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
So, we get our proper name through Baptism and along the way someone teaches us, and so we learn that our name, “God’s child,” means God has favored us and God is gracious to us, for with the gifting of our name in Baptism comes a favorable, gracious promise, from Jesus: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” No longer nameless. Never estranged. God’s own child. Christ’s own sister/brother; with Jesus forever. You are named God’s child, and how did that come to be? Because by the Holy Spirit’s joining of you to the death and resurrection of Jesus through Baptism, God has said so. And since God has said so, then it is so, and since it is so, then it IS so.