Preached at this Minster Church of St John the Baptist, Croydon at the Patronal Festival, 23rd June 2019. Gospel reading: Luke 1.57-66, 80.
‘What then will this child become?’ (Luke 1.66)
I don’t imagine that young John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, grew up wanting to be a train driver, an astronaut or even a Premier League footballer. Who knows? Perhaps he would be a priest like his dad!
It’s a question that children and young people get asked a lot: ‘what do you want to do when you grow up?’
That question usually refers to the sort of job or occupation someone might want. It’s a functional sort of question, and actually, I think, for most young people quite a dull one.
A rather different question is what will you become? That is the question being asked about John the Baptist. That is not so much about what you will do as what you will be and the essence of who you are.
That question – about becoming - is far more interesting and far more complex, and it’s not so patronising as to say ‘when you grow up’ - for which of the adults here is truly ‘grown up’, on the inside even if we appear to be on the outside?!
Becoming who we are called to be is a process that happens at all stages of life, and the real value is in the process, the becoming. We don’t ever, in this life, reach a state where we have completed everything and can grow in knowledge and love of God no more: we are always in the process, or on the journey of becoming.
This church is dedicated to John the Baptist: John the Baptist is our patron saint. It is instructive to ponder then, on this his feast, how John the Baptist can help us in our becoming as individual Christians and as a community of faith.
We are a week on from our church Vision Day when we were reflecting on questions of becoming: in a sense we were asking ‘what then will this church become?’
In our midst today are people, women and men, young and old, who are preparing for the Sacrament of Confirmation and Baptism next week. Those being baptised and confirmed are asking most explicitly, ‘what then will I become?’
Baptism is about finding an identity in Jesus Christ. This is what we have been exploring, young and old, in Confirmation preparation since Easter.
We have reflected on our own journey through life: where God has felt intensely near and felt far away; where we’ve believed and where we’ve doubted; where life has felt good and life has felt bad.
We have grappled with the nature of God as Trinity, on the essence of the Commandments in the Summary of the Law, to love God and our neighbours as ourselves.
We have reflected on prayer and the words Jesus taught us, and got our teeth into what it might mean to forgive and be forgiven. We have contemplated blessing and the life of blessing, and being blessed, that we are called to.
Confirmation candidates: you are signs of the life and growth that God gives to the church and we give thanks for you because your coming forward prompts all of us to go deeper too and to ponder our own becoming-in-Christ.
And what of us all, a community of faith in this place? We are in a journey of becoming as a church: not a temporal destination but an embodied spiritual journey lived out in the day to day.
Last Saturday we were able to capture many features and facets of who we believe we are, and who we believe, under God, we will become.
Tomorrow evening the PCC will begin to look at those many things and map out a way in which over the coming months we can be focus in on the things we discern to be essential to our ministry and mission in this church, parish and wider community. In other words, ‘what then will this Minster Church become?’
Here are some pointers that John the Baptiser, the Forerunner of Christ, might give us.
First, John is clear about who he is not. He has no claims or pretensions to be what he is not (John 1.19-28).
In the opening to his gospel John the Evangelist says, ‘There was a man sent from God whose name was John…he himself was not the light, but came to testify to the light’ (John 1.6-8).
John the Baptist is asked later in life, by priests and Levites, who he is and then is asked directly, ‘are you the Christ? ‘No’ is answers ‘I’m not’.
Knowing ourselves, individuals and as a community, well enough to know who we are not is a real gift and sign of maturity not a weakness.
It is very becoming!
It means we are not drawn into being defined by the fantasies, fears or expectations of other people. It means we can identify a ‘greater yes’ in our lives and act out of that.
Like John, let’s be clear who we are not: let’s also be clear who we are!
So, secondly, for John the ‘greater yes’ is found in beholding Jesus, the Lamb of God. ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1.29). Behold – don’t just gawp!
Beholding is more than just looking: it’s an adoring encounter.
It’s the message for which the world yearns, without always being aware of it.
Isaiah promised one who would come, the herald of good tidings to Zion, ‘Behold your God’ (Isaiah 40.1-11). At the heart of our life is our liturgy and worship and there at its heart is Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, whom we behold in the sacrament with reverence, tenderness and love.
John even beheld Jesus is his mother womb – and leapt for joy. In who we become it’s about all generations, young and old.
Finally, let’s recall that John is to be found ministering by a river (actually in a river). I have commented more than once that our church is located by a river, albeit one that is covered up and boxed in. From time to time the water seeps out, but the sparkle, life and teeming fish of it are not to be seen, they are hidden and eradicated.
The scriptures speak of rivers flowing in the barren places: ‘Restore our fortunes, O Lord, as the river beds in the desert’ (Psalm 126.5). ‘I am about to do a new thing’, says the Lord, ‘now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert (Isaiah 43.19).
This church is not in a stagnant tributary: the water of life flows here. At our Vision Day we caught sight of that sparkling life afresh. The river of faith, hope and love here is seen to be teeming with ideas, if not fish. We want that river to flow out of here bringing life to our parish and wider community.
Becoming - as in ‘who will this church become’ ‘ who you and I will become’ - is a process: the Vision Day was not an end, but part of the discernment of the ministry and mission of this place in its greater yes, in its beholding and making known the love of Jesus Christ.
We know what became of John the Baptist, the forerunner and beholder of Christ: he gave his life, his all, in witness. What will become of us, what will become of you?
A church, a Christian, beholding Christ, and saying, with Our Lady Mary, a ‘greater yes’ to God, has a future with hope (Jeremiah 29.11) as the Lord promises.