Sunday 23 June 2019
Evensong of the Birth of John the Baptist
Malachi 3:1-6, Luke 1:5-23
May I speak this evening in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
On Good Friday, for the past several years, we have held a walk of witness around Hadlow involving this church and the people of St Peter’s Catholic chapel, which is just up the road. There were 50 or 60 of us this year, evenly split between the two churches, and, at the start of the walk, I said that when Christians of different denominations worship together it is a small foretaste of worship in the kingdom of heaven and is also a sign of the kingdom of heaven breaking into this world. And I feel the same this evening. Human beings are very good at convincing themselves that there is good reason to separate and walk apart from other people, but when the church was created at Pentecost the work of the Holy Spirit was about overcoming differences of language and culture in order to create one church. So I am delighted by our friendship with the Methodist Church, I am equally delighted by our friendship with the Catholic church and I pray that one day we can all see each other as I hope God sees us, which is followers of his son, empowered by his spirit and needing no other label or man-made division.
Here endeth the lesson.
Sorry, not quite, you don’t get off that easily.
Tomorrow, the 24th June, the church celebrates the birth of John the Baptist. He wasn’t actually a Baptist of course but, given what I just said that would be fine too.
John being born on 24th June would make him 6 months and 1 day older than Jesus, according to our modern calendar, but I understand that he is still traditionally thought of as being exactly six months older because of a peculiarity of the earlier Roman calendar and the fact that June is one day shorter than December. Do have a look at Wikipedia if you want to go down that rabbit hole.
And because his feast day is celebrated tomorrow this means, according to Anglican tradition, that the evening service before that day is the official start of the celebration. Or something like that, let’s not get too technical.
Anyway, the readings set for this evening bring to mind the forerunner of Jesus, John the Baptist.
The first reading comes from the Old Testament prophet Malachi and, of course, does not mention John by name. Instead, in 3:1, it talks simply of a ‘messenger who will prepare the way before me.’
In Jewish tradition, it was thought that the messenger Malachi was talking about would be the prophet Elijah. You may recall that Elijah did not die but, following him giving his mantle to Elisha, he was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire. The Jewish people believed that Elijah would return the same way as a forerunner of the Messianic kingdom, when the Lord would return to his Temple.
And although, of course, there was a desire to see the Lord return there was also a recognition that this would be a mighty upheaval to the status quo:
“But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiners fire or a launderer’s soap.”
A refiners fire, of course, burns all the dross out of base metal in order to produce pure silver or gold and a launderer’s soap washes out the impurities in order to make clean again. Although both do good in the long run the process of being refined by fire or perhaps bashed against a rock in a stream and rubbed with soap can be painful in the short term – who can endure it, who can stand?
And he is not just a fire or a soap, but also a judge:
“So I will put you on trial.”
I don’t want to delve into the whole works versus faith argument this evening but, it seems to me that many of the things for which the world will stand trial are not to do with what we believe, or even which denomination we belong to, but what is done:
“I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulaters, and perjurers, against those who defraud labourers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless and deprive the foreigners amongst you of justice.”
This seems to reflect the judgment that we see in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 when Jesus makes it clear that the prime dividing line is not who believed what but who looked after the hungry and the thirsty and the naked and the oppressed.
There is both a longing for a return of the Lord but also a recognition that it is not all sweetness and light but also involves judgment and cleansing and transformation – that God’s kingdom does not tolerate injustice and oppression.
And if you think briefly about the adult ministry of John the Baptist it should be apparent that these are the Kingdom values he was ushering in when we called the people a ‘brood of vipers’ and was offering them a baptism of water to symbolise their transformation – perhaps like a launderer’s soap in the stream of the Jordan.
But our Gospel reading was not from the adult ministry of John, but tells us the story of his birth.
You will recall that Malachi spoke about the Lord returning to his Temple, well the story of John starts in the Temple. Although we may think of him as a prophetic outsider, denouncing the hypocrisy of organised religion out in the wilderness, his story begins not only in the Temple but in the centre of the temple, in the Holy of Holies where only one priest could go once a year.
Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were elderly, respectable people in Jewish society. Zecharish was a priest, and we are told that Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron, who was the centre of the priestly caste. However they were childless.
Zechariah was chosen by lot to go into the Holy of Holies and offer up incense. Perhaps we should have had some this evening. Whilst he was there an angel of the Lord appeared and Zechariah was ‘gripped with fear’ – this is usually the response of those who encounter angels in the bible, which makes me suspect they may be a bit more intimidating than the Christmas cards would have us believe. Gabriel said ‘Do not be afraid’.
And then Gabriel explains that he and Elizabeth are to have a son, whom they are to call John, and ‘he will be a joy and a delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth.’
This is a lovely reminder that although the figure of John as an adult may be severe, he also started as a little baby and that he was a joy and a delight to his parents.
But there’s more.
‘He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born’
We often think of the gifts of the Holy Spirit being imparted at Baptism but, for the Baptiser, the Spirit is present from the beginning and if you think of the story of Mary visiting Elizabeth during their respective pregnancies and how John as an unborn baby leapt at the presence of Jesus the foetus. Apart from Mary and Joseph you could say that the unborn John was the first to rejoice at the presence of Jesus in the world.
“He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah.”
Did you catch that? The angel Gabriel says that this baby, full of the Holy Spirit, also has the spirit and power of Elijah. So John is both the fulfilment of the prophecy of Malachi, but he is also the fulfilment of the Jewish expectation that it would be Elijah returning. However he did not return in a chariot of fire but, rather like Jesus himself, he snuck in through an unexpected and perhaps unorthodox pregnancy.
In fact it was so unorthodox, given the age of Zechariah and Elizabeth, that Zechariah didn’t quite believe this could happen. I find it quite amusing that you can encounter the Angel Gabriel in the Holy of Holies and then go, “Nah, that’s not happening!”
This was quite different from Mary’s response of acceptance and the response of Gabriel was to seal Zechariah’s lips until the day came to name John and it took a moment of obedience to open them again. Just imagine how much quieter the world would be if that happened more often.
It is easy to think of John the Baptist playing only a bit part in the story of Jesus, baptising him in the Jordan and then being imprisoned and beheaded by Herod. But the story of the birth of John the Baptist reminds us that he was a hugely important part of the divine story of salvation, that the annunciation to Zechariah preceded the annunciation to Mary, that the story of the Lord returning to his temple in the person of Jesus started in the heart of the temple with John and that when an angel tells you something impossible is going to happen it is best not to argue.