Monday 24 June 2024

Always to Jesus - The Birth of St John the Baptist

Isaiah 40.1-11 As voice cries out prepare the way of the Lord

Galatians 3.23-29 All are one in Christ Jesus

Luke 1.57-66, 80 What then will this child become?



‘And you will have joy and great gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth because he will be great before the Lord’. (Luke 1.15)




Today we celebrate the festival of our patron saint, John the Baptist.


John’s principal feast is today – the day of his birth - and his lesser, but still significant, feast is the day of his death, his beheading at the hands of the tyrant Herod.


The span of John’s remarkable life and character is attested to in the Gospels.


The first we hear of John is before his conception, when an archangel - the same archangel as came to the Blessed Virgin Mary - comes to Zechariah, a priest ministering in the Temple. (cf Luke 1.5-25)


Zechariah poo-poos the angel’s message that his wife Elizabeth will be mother to a son.


She’s past it, was Zechariah’s reaction. (Luke 1.18)


The name of this child to be conceived was John, a name that means ‘God is gracious’.


God is indeed gracious.


But there is a disruption here because he is not to be given his paternal name Zechariah, as would be customary, and this literally leaves Zechariah speechless. (Luke 1.22)


Something new, something creative, is going on here, but Zechariah hadn’t clocked it, despite knowing, surely, of other great Biblical women who were said to be too old or unable to have children, yet who did so by God’s grace: Sarah was beyond child bearing age when she conceived Isaac; Rebecca, who was childless, was blessed with Jacob and Esau; Rachel with Joseph and Benjamin; the unnamed wife of Manoah with Samson; Hannah with Samuel.


God’s creative potential is not limited by human physiology!


So, Elizabeth, the mother of John stands in a great tradition of women, named and unnamed, who are empowered by God to be bearers of a child, a child who will, in turn, be a bearer of the promise of God.


So we know of John before his conception, and then as a baby in his mother’s womb it is the unborn John who leaps within her at the presence of Mary and her unborn child.


It won’t be their last encounter! John’s life is woven into the life of his cousin, Jesus.


A birth is a hinge moment: we are the same person in the womb and out of it, yet what life brings when we’re born is quite different.


John’s birth speaks of a hinge moment for God’s chosen people, for the adult John steps out into the wilderness to proclaim that a new birth is possible through the washing away of sin and the restitution of justice and liberation of captives.


John comes after the example of the prophets, as the psalm says, ‘That the generations to come might know, and the children yet unborn, that they in turn might tell it to their children (Psalm 78.6)


That message is entrusted to us too.


Earlier in that psalm it says,


We will not hide from our children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord and his might, and the wonders he has done (Psalm 78.4)


That is what John is all about, and it is a message of renewal and hope.


How we need to hear that in the world, and our country, as it is today.


John is a bearer of renewal and hope because of who he proclaims.


To adopt something of the spirit of our patron saint we must frame our patronal festival as not about John, but about the Lord he came to proclaim: ‘Christ must increase’, said John, ‘but I must decrease’ (John 3.30).


At a public interrogation about who he is, John responds, ‘I am not the Christ’, I am simply the ‘one crying in the wilderness, “make straight the way of the Lord”’ (John 1.20,23).


What humility; a man graced by God.


It’s little wonder then that Jesus says of John ‘among those born of women’ – that’s all of us, by the way – ‘no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist’ but adds, mysteriously, Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he’ (Matthew 11.11).


This must encourage us today.


You and I have the capacity to be greater even than John!


We can be greater than John by walking in the straight path into the kingdom of the one John came to proclaim: Jesus Christ, Son of God, our Saviour.


In other words, John the Baptist is the most remarkable of men, a great person to emulate in his proclamation of the coming messiah and his radical dependence on God – something even the tyrant Herod recognised.


And yet, our entry into the kingdom of heaven, our living the seven-day-a-week life of being a Christian, exalts you, me and the saints throughout the ages to be even more exalted than John, and, you know, that’s just how he’d want it.


So today, as the archangel said, ‘you will have joy and great gladness, and many will rejoice at John’s birth because he will be great before the Lord’. (Luke 1.15)


So let us have joy and gladness today, and with him be great before the Lord.


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