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.” 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.”
 Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, p.22.