June 24, 2018
Birth of St. John the Baptist
Today we are celebrating the birth of John the Baptist, and our Gospel tells the story of his birth, the circumstances surrounding his circumcision, and a foreshadowing of what his life is to become. The circumstances surrounding this birth itself are worth noting, because both John’s father and his mother Elizabeth are elderly, so right off the hop we are reminded that this God is a God of surprises.
God creates new life even in those places where new life seems utterly impossible.
I encourage you to ponder this truth in those places where you may have lost hope. In your personal lives, the church, this fragile world in which we live God creates new life – new possibilities – where new life seems beyond the realm of possibility. Often God uses us as agents through which this change may occur. More on that later.
Friends and family, of course, celebrated this news, and in keeping with Jewish tradition the child’s circumcision was set for the eighth day after his birth. During this ritual the child would receive his name, and again, according to tradition it was expected that this little boy would be given his father’s name, Zechariah. But Elizabeth firmly says no to this expectation; she says, “No; he is to be called John.” This results in what appears to be a bit of a family conflict, as those present point out that this makes no sense because no one, absolutely no one in the family has this name. Zechariah has been rendered speechless for the better part of a year, so when he is required to make the deciding vote, he writes on a tablet, “His name is John.”
Now, we know that Scripture does not indulge in frivolous anecdotes or side stories that contain no particular significance, so we ask what this piece of the story is suggesting. Why has Luke included this detail in the story of John’s birth and circumcision? Why was the naming of this child so important, and so emotional? Such a bone of contention?
Well, the naming of the son after his father implied that this child would “walk in the steps of his father,” that he would carry on the father’s name, and by extension, his work – his vocation - as well. Had John been named “Little Zach,” he would have been expected to grow up as a priest, just like his father. So, to be named any other name would have implied just the opposite: John would not follow in his father’s steps; he would not become a priest. I think this detail helps us understand why the family was seemingly so disappointed with the choice for this child’s name. Choosing the name John instead of Zechariah is an indication that this child is ushering in a new path that is different from what this family has always known.
We can never assume to know God’s plan from one generation to the next. Our job is to be open to discerning God’s new ideas with the dawning of each new day.
This is a good and helpful message for those of us who tend to resist change, and I include myself here, particularly as I get older. I often think to myself: but this is what I know; this may be what I have always known: how dare you suggest that I need to consider something different. This is exactly what Zechariah and Elizabeth’s family are suggesting when they discover what this child’s name is to be. But God is up to something new here, and the family members are invited to get on board with the dawning of this new day. This is a particularly important message for the church today. The Anglican Church here and elsewhere finds itself in a very different context and God is urging us to discover new ways of being church. May people are afraid of what this may mean, but we needn’t be because the ancient truths of our faith will continue to permeate whatever it is we are called to become.
Another interesting piece of this story is where Zechariah rediscovers the gift of speech once he supports Elizabeth in choosing their son’s name. Once he writes the words, “His name is John,” on that tablet, he is given the power of speech: “Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.” His immediate inclination is to praise God; his immediate inclination is to redirect people’s attention toward God.
He doesn’t post a selfie on Facebook with a message that says, “I’m SO proud of myself for having figured out the right – perhaps even perfect – name for my son! Yay me!” No, he takes the attention away from himself, and focuses the attention on God. And in this way, his son John does follow in his footsteps. John’s particular vocation is different; he does not become a priest as his father was a priest, but he inherits this commitment to redirect the attention away from himself, focusing that attention on to God instead – first and foremost. Once he began his vocation as the one called by God to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, we know that he never – NEVER – focused the attention on to himself; he always pointed to Jesus as the focus of attention.
This actually exists at the very heart of collaborative ministry, where ideally we are always redirecting the focus away from ourselves, pointing to the accomplishments of others, and ultimately to the God who creates the potential that exists within each of us. The structure we have always known in the church is one where much of the focus and attention is on that one particular leader, whereas with collaborative ministry the focus is on the ministry that is shared among one another, and ultimately on the God who creates the potential in all of us
As followers of Jesus, it is never all about us; or even remotely about us as individuals. It is always about focusing on the gifts of others, and ultimately on God whose plan unfolds through us.
This is a really hard concept for us to understand within the context of the culture in which we live, where it is all about what I want, when I want it, and how I want it to be. In a world where we place ourselves at the centre of everything this is difficult to grasp. It can even be difficult to grasp in the church.
Finally, we do need to reflect on the place of John the Baptist within the unfolding of God’s plan. As with all of us, this child was created by God to fulfill a specific purpose.
As he became an adult, John’s purpose was to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus, but in order to understand the significance of this we first need to understand the context in which he was born and exercised this ministry to which he was called. John was born in the midst of enormous political unrest, where increasingly there was rampant injustice, oppression of the poor, and a kind of blindness to the pain that permeated the very fabric of that society. And John was convinced (rightly so, as it turns out) that this world as he knew it was on the verge of massive change. He was convinced that this change would come only from and through a person, someone who would be known as the long awaited Messiah. His job was to prepare the way for the coming of this Messiah. This Messiah was to embody the love of God in a way that the world had never before experienced; in this Messiah God’s love would actually reach a state of selfless, life-giving perfection, and for the rest of time his followers (that is, us) would be called to aspire to that state of perfect love. Operative word: aspire.
So John was to prepare a way for the coming of this Messiah, and he did this by drawing people from Jerusalem, a large urban centre, into the desert. The desert location is significant for a couple of reasons: (1) it would have immediately been associated with the prophet Isaiah who spoke of the coming of the Messiah, offering a clue that the One for whom John is preparing is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesy; (2) this was a different location for those from Jerusalem which meant that they may for once look at their society from the outside and realize what a moral wasteland it had become. Once you see something from a different angle, you see it in a completely different way.
This is what John the Baptist did for those crowds, and through baptism he invited people into a completely new experience. He invited them to take off their outer clothes as a symbol of self-revelation, to step into the shallow edge of the river, to trust themselves to strangers by falling backward into the water, disappearing from sight then struggling to get back on to their feet. It was a communal experience – joining together through the cleansing of communal water – and requiring that they trust one another in the process. If it was true that a new kind of future was on the way, then a different kind of human being was needed for that future. John began the process of shaping this new kind of human as he prepared for Jesus to carry on with this important work.
And once again, John’s true greatness continues to shine forth as he refuses to become the center of his own movement. At every opportunity he points beyond himself toward the Messiah.
Jesus did follow after John and continue to grow and nurture a new humanity. His sacrifice on the cross and rising to new life is a profound expression of God’s love for us; a love that must shape and inform all that we are and all that we do. Nothing we ever do or accomplish is ever about us; it is always about the God who creates and equips us so that we may point to the one true source of life and love.
And just as the crowds from Jerusalem discovered a new way of seeing and experiencing life in the desert with John, we must offer that same gift to all who enter this place. Each of us, as individuals and collectively is called to embody and point toward the love that Jesus has shown through his life, death and resurrection. In this place of worship on Sunday morning or wherever we may be Sunday afternoon until next Sunday morning, people must experience through us a different way of being. In a world that is filled with despair, through us a message of hope must be found; in a world that is so often filled with hate, through us love must be found; in a world that is so focused on the individual, through us selflessness must be found.
This past week religious leaders from all over the U.S. have been protesting and issuing statements against the separation of children from their parents at border crossings as they have been seeking asylum from untenable conditions where they live. This is a profound example of what we are called to do as disciples of Christ: wherever the love of God made known through Christ is violated, we are called to speak out in love, demanding that this love govern our politics and policies.
John is a great role model; as followers of Jesus we must model ourselves after him and avoid the temptation to place the focus on ourselves; always pointing toward the God who creates us, Jesus who redeems us, and the Holy Spirit who empowers and sustains us through more than we could ask or imagine.