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Feast Day: The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist
Readings: Luke 1:57-80

“What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him. (Luke 1:66)

Our gospel reading this morning tells of the birth of St John the Baptist which is where our feast day today takes its name. And here is what I think Jesus is saying to us this morning: that God can do extraordinarily gracious things with those who in faith yield to his word and even with those who falter. And so we like the neighbours in the story are left wondering: “What then will this child become?” if indeed the hand of the Lord is with him?

The beginning of Luke’s gospel is unique in that it tells the birth narratives of John and Jesus side by side. It’s as if the story of John is woven into the one tapestry that shows forth the glory of God in Jesus Christ to the world. And there are a lot of similarities. The birth of both John and Jesus is announced and foretold by the angel Gabriel. When Mary visits Elizabeth John leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb at the drawing near of Christ in Mary’s womb. Both John and Jesus elicit songs of praise from their parents which interestingly enough have shaped Christian prayer for centuries in the Benedictus and the Magnificat.

But their development and birth also differ in certain ways. Mary receives God’s word in faith whereas John’s father Zechariah falters and as a result is made mute by the angel until the time of the birth. Then there are the births themselves. Jesus’ as you will recall from our celebrations at Christmas has hosts of angels praising God in the heavens and shepherds traveling by night. By contrast when it comes time to tell of the birth of John Luke simply recalls the fact that it happened: “Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son.” Done.

It’s like right from the start Luke is telling us that even though John’s story is caught up with the story of Jesus it will be subordinate to it. The same is true for this church dedicated to St Paul/John. We have been pulled in by the gravity of Christ’s love. Our story has been caught up into the story of God’s salvation at the centre of which stands Jesus Christ. But our work is to always be pointing one another and others to him, to decrease so that he might increase in us.

After John is born Elizabeth’s relatives rejoiced with her because of God’s great mercy. Earlier in the story we learned that not only was Elizabeth well past child-bearing age (1:18) but that she was also barren and without children (1:36). Nevertheless, God promises a child and the arrival that child into the world results in joy. Because God can do extraordinarily gracious things with those who in faith yield to his word and even with those who falter.

This is a theme that we see over and over again in the gospels. Think of all of the healing accounts: He opens blind eyes, unstops deaf ears, loosens mute tongues, and here enlivens a barren womb. Because the word of God brings life wherever it is met with faith and even in some places where it is not. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel of life. Which as an aside is why Christianity, unlike many other faiths and philosophies, has always cared deeply for the sanctity and dignity of human life from conception right through to death and at every point in between.

Like John’s birth we might say that the birth of faith, no matter how small, in men and women and children is a sign of the great mercy of Jesus Christ. Whenever faith comes alive in a person, rejoice! Whenever faith deepens in a person, rejoice! Wherever faith in Christ is found, rejoice! Because the mercy of Jesus Christ is always cause for deep and profound joy. And let me tell you that many-a-time these last eleven months I have rejoiced at your faith.

“What then will this child become?” The Lord opens the mouth of Zechariah and frees his tongue and he begins to praise God. His praise is the response to God fulfilling God’s promise. It’s significant that Luke tells us Zechariah was “filled with the Holy Spirit” because the Holy Spirit not only fulfills God’s promise but enables our praise. As it is written elsewhere, “no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit,” (1 Cor 12:3). I was thinking about that this week and it made me wonder, what difference would it make if we had a regular habit of starting each day by asking the Holy Spirit to fill us up that we might praise God not only with our lips but in our lives?

And here is the content of Zechariah’s proclamation: That God has looked favourably upon his people and that the mercy long promised has now come to pass in and through and with Jesus Christ. Blessed be God! The God of Israel, the God who spoke through the prophets, the God whose mercy extends across generations, the God who made a covenant with Abraham, the God who called John the Baptist to prepare the way, the God who took on human flesh and was born in Bethlehem, the God who raised Israel from Egypt and Jesus Christ from the dead.

Blessed be God! For this same God has delivered us from sin, has gathered us together here in Midhurst/Craighurst so that we too might be caught up into this grand story, so that our lives too might be woven into the fabric of God’s salvation, so that we too might shine like a light in our communities drawing people to Jesus Christ.

“What then will this child become?” The latter part of Zechariah’s proclamation answers this question. John will become the one who is sent by God ahead of Jesus Christ to announce his coming. To prepare people to meet him by proclaiming the forgiveness of sins. John’s ministry is entirely for the sake of others. For heaven’s sake he wore camel’s hair and ate locusts he wasn’t concerned with himself just with telling other people about the salvation that is theirs in Jesus Christ.

One theologian sums up the birth, life, and ministry of John the Baptist this way: “Because he comes from God in this special way, he belongs completely to God, and hence he also lives completely for men, in order to lead them to God.”[1] Part of what I’m wanting to say this morning is that like John the Church comes entirely from God, belongs entirely to God, and lives entirely for human creatures in order to lead them to God.

At the very end of our gospel reading Luke tells us a seemingly peculiar though important piece of information: “The child,” that is John, “grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” You see, before John can carry out his ministry in public he has to be in the wilderness because it’s in the wilderness where he is going to grow and become strong in spirit. Let me say that again: John’s public ministry began long before he was ever in public. It began in the wilderness.

So often we want the public ministry without having to put in time in the wilderness. But without putting in time in the wilderness we can not grow and become strong in spirit and be ready for the public ministry. Do you think the courage and faith that led to John losing his head simply came from within? It ain’t so. So if we want to be like John and prepare hearts and minds for Jesus Christ then we have got to head into the wilderness.

Let me just say it straight, the wilderness is prayer. You can’t say what you don’t pray. I want us to be a church that prays. And not just on Sundays but a church that has a rhythm of prayer throughout the week. And not just together but apart: at home, on the drive to work, in the waiting room. I want us to be a church that prays because I want us to be a church that is growing and becoming stronger in the Holy Spirit and that has the courage to tell people about the saving love of Jesus Christ.

“What then will this child become?” What then will we become? Will we become God’s people here in Midhurst/Craighurst? Will we together become the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit? Will we become the Body of Christ working together for the glory of God and the good of our neighbours? Will we become a light in the darkness? Will we become a community of reconciliation and renewal? Will we become a voice that tells out the gospel of Jesus Christ and calls people to believe in him? We will become just such a people, and indeed we are just such a people, as we open our hearts and minds to receive the word of God in faith, as we ask the Holy Spirit to fill us up, and as we give ourselves over to God in prayer. “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.”

Endnotes
[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, p.22.

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Feast Day: The Second Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Mark 2:23-3:6; Deuteronomy 5:12-15

“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” (Mk 2:27-28)

The Christian life has a certain goal—to know God in and through and with Jesus Christ. To know and love and adore the One from whom all goodness, truth, and beauty are derived. And so Christians are called daily to let go of our attempts to be our own masters so that the Holy Spirit might begin to re-order our lives in light of Christ’s love. This is why human creatures are given life at all, so that our life can be taken up into God’s life.

Yet the Christian life is challenging, difficult even. For example, there are so many things that a Christian ought to do. Consider one of my favourite portions of the Prayer Book, the Rule of Life tucked away on the bottom half of a page towards the back. It basically says that every now and then Christian men and women ought to examine their lives and consider if they are living in accordance with the gospel. Here is basically what the Prayer Book counsels: go to church, make a practice of praying, reading the Bible, and disciplining yourself, integrate the teaching of Christ into your daily life, share your faith with others, serve others both in the Church and in the community, and offer your hard-earned coin to support the work of the Church both at home and abroad. Do these things and you will live a Christian life says the Prayer Book.

Now, here’s my point. From one vantage these can seem simply like a rather long list of to-dos and quickly become burdensome and constraining, like some sort of spiritual straigh-jacket. But from another vantage, the Holy Spirit can open your eyes to see these disciplines for what they truly are, things that help you grow in your life in Christ by connecting you to the life of Christ.

It’s not that you were made for these various Christian practices and disciplines, as if you have to uncomfortably try and squeeze yourself into some mold and if you don’t then you’ve failed. Rather, these disciplines and practices were made for you that you might know the love of God in Christ and be set free and transformed by it. “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”

Yesterday afternoon I took our eldest out to learn how to ride a two-wheeler. She has been wanting to learn for a while now but was always a bit timid so we didn’t press the issue. She wasn’t made for that bike, after all. But let me tell you that bike, with the handlebar streamers and all, that bike was made for her. And when it all came together and clicked yesterday she must have done one-hundred laps of the basketball court down the street. Smile ear-to-ear as she proclaimed, “I feel like I’ve been riding for years! I love the feel of the wind on my face!”

See, the goal for us was never simply to get her riding a bike. The goal was the joy and freedom that learning to ride a bike can unlock for a child. In a similar way, the goal of the Christian life is to experience the joy and freedom of knowing God. The goal isn’t simply to pray more, to read your Bible more, to be more generous with your time and money. Those are just the practices that get us there. And once you begin to get a glimpse of that let me tell you the feel of the wind on your face, it is good. “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”

This is what is at the crux of the conflict that we encounter this morning between Jesus and the Pharisees. It’s the sabbath day and what is Jesus doing but plucking grain with his disciples in one instance and performing an act of healing on the other. Doesn’t Jesus know there are six other days in the week in which he can work? Doesn’t Jesus know the Law of Moses? We heard it ourselves this morning: “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.” And the Pharisees are furious. Because the Pharisees are very. serious. people. They know the rules and they’re going to hold people to them.

But the question must be asked, did Jesus break the sabbath law here by, for example, healing a crippled man’s hand? And if he did break the Law, does that mean that the Law has been done away with altogether, abolished?

It is possible, I think, in a very narrow sense to say that Jesus violated the law. After all, the Pharisees would have made the point that this was not an emergency and the man could have been healed the following day. So, say Jesus did violate the sabbath law. Was it because he simply disregarded the law? Jesus isn’t one to act quite so carelessly. One of the keys to understanding this passage lies elsewhere in the gospels and those of us who have been reading the Bible together on Tuesday nights read this a few weeks ago. Towards the beginning of Matthew’s gospel Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill,” (Mt 5:17).

Jesus does not disregard the law rather he fulfills it, perfects it, brings it to its true and proper end. Jesus reveals that to which the Law points: human life incorporated into Divine joy. That’s why the sabbath and the law of Moses is there, to remind human creatures of the grace of God’s saving love that has now appeared in Jesus Christ.

The Pharisees missed this. They had become so weighed down in the minutia of the Law that they somehow forgot about the intention of the Law. The sabbath is about life with God, the joy of eternal life. Yet the Pharisees had managed to twist it into an instrument for stifling life: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” Jesus asks. The sabbath is for life.

So here is Jesus, a man longing to be healed standing in front of him, and he looks around at the Pharisees and Mark tells us that he was grieved at the hardness of their hearts. He sees that though they are scrupulous with respect to the Law they have lost sight of the kindness of God. And now here they would actually hinder this man from knowing the healing love of God. And Jesus is angry.

Now, I know that none of this sort of thing ever happens in church anymore. And let me say, quite honestly, that I rejoice and give thanks for the last ten months since I have arrived in this parish. I love serving you as your pastor and I hope we get to do this together for a while yet. These last ten months I have been inspired by your faith and love of Christ. By your generosity and warmth. By your patience, not least of all with me! I love how you seek to serve those who are outside the walls of this church and welcome every one who walks through those doors.

But like I said, I know that a church like this one probably doesn’t suffer much from church politics. Let me tell you though that in other churches there can be a complex set of rules that build up over time, sometimes spoken but more-often-than-not unspoken. And these rules, they mark out and distinguish who is in and who is not yet in. They determine what is and what is not appropriate. They determine who has power and who doesn’t and who gets to make decisions and who gets to veto the decisions of others and so on and so forth

This is all well and good and frankly unavoidable but I think Jesus wants us to keep something in mind—this church community exists for the glory of his name and for the good of his people. The end goal is not simply to make good and respectable members of St. Paul’s/John’s. The goal is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Therefore, let us not ever get so caught up in our own little rules that we lose sight of the wideness and beauty of Christ’s love. Let us never hinder people coming to know the love of Christ here in this place. Let us never discourage anyone who comes here seeking Christ. Let us never heap burdens on others that we would not willingly help them carry. Let us not lose sight of the joy of the gospel and let us not dampen the joy of others. Let us make every effort to widen the circle and invite some of those folks that are out on the edges into the middle. Let us go out of our way and bend over backwards to extend the same hospitality to others that God has extended to each one of us in his well beloved Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Because the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath. And when we fix our eyes on the Lord of the sabbath we begin to see what it’s all about. And the feel of that wind on your face, let me tell you. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.