24 June 2018
10.30 Sung Eucharist
The Birth of John the Baptist
Canon Simon Cowling
Isaiah 40. 1-11; Luke 1. 57-66 & 80
Compare and contrast. Three words with which school and university students taking exams this summer, especially in arts, humanities, and social sciences, will have become very familiar. Compare and contrast the characters of Portia and Jessica in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice; compare and contrast the behavioural and psychological theories of crime, or the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 – and so on. In chapters one and two of his Gospel St Luke offers his readers an extended example of compare and contrast as he interweaves the stories of the birth of John the Baptist, which we celebrate today, and the birth of Jesus of Nazareth which we will celebrate in six months’ time. For example Luke tells us that John was born to Elizabeth, who is barren, and that both she and her husband are getting on in years. In contrast, Jesus was born to Elizabeth’s cousin Mary, a young woman who is an unmarried virgin. Luke tells us that Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, refuses to believe that his elderly wife will bear a son and is struck dumb for his unbelief. In contrast, Mary acknowledges her acceptance of the news that she will bear a son with the simple response let it be to me according to your word.
But there are close comparisons between the stories too. It is an angel who announces the news of both these births – to Zechariah in the case of John, and to Mary in the case of Jesus. And the significance of the births is celebrated in two wonderful songs of praise and prophecy that have for centuries been incorporated into the worship of the church: My soul magnifies the Lord, sings Mary when she visits Elizabeth during her pregnancy – a song that has become known as the Magnificat. Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel sings Zechariah when his tongue is released after John’s birth – a song that has become known as the Benedictus and which we sang as our first hymn this morning.
In one of his sermons St Augustine describes John the Baptist as the ‘frontier’ between the Old and New Testaments. Augustine is referencing something said by Jesus, as recorded by Luke, later in his Gospel. Jesus is engaged in his customarily vigorous debate with some of his fellow Jews and says The law (that is, the Jewish Law) and the prophets were in effect until John (the Baptist) came; since then the kingdom of God is proclaimed. In other words, John is the last in that long line of prophets whose words are recorded in the Old Testament and who provided, as it were, a moral and spiritual hinterland for the Jewish people, especially in times of national crisis. The prophets’ words were sometimes heeded, more often ignored. To use a term beloved of anthropologists, John the Baptist’s role is a liminal one: he stands on the threshold between the old and the new dispensations as the last of the great Jewish prophets. He points towards but never sees the fulfilment of God’s loving purposes for humankind that will be revealed in Christ’s death and resurrection. It is no coincidence that artists of all periods have portrayed John with his arm outstretched, pointing beyond himself; pointing to Christ. As John the Baptist says of himself in St John’s Gospel: Christ must increase, but I must decrease. And in a succinct comparing and contrasting of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth, which would surely have pleased the equivalent of an Religious Education examiner in late antiquity, St Augustine writes ‘John was a voice for a time ….but Christ is the Word in eternity’.
A voice for a time. A voice that was fearless in naming the hypocrisies and sinfulness of his troubled times. Perhaps St Augustine’s description of the ministry of St John the Baptist is also a helpful way to describe the ministry of those of us who have chosen to follow Christ, the one to whom John pointed. We are voices for our time. Voices for all those whom we remember in this Refugee week, prompting us to recall the words of Christ in his parable of the final judgement: I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. Voices for the children we have seen and heard on our televisions in the past few days, huddled in cages in the land of the free, forcibly separated from their parents and prompting us to recall the words of Christ to his quarrelling disciples: whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. Voices for all those who lack what we take for granted and whose needs are routinely ignored because their voice does not count and their votes don’t matter, prompting us to recall the words of Christ to the self-righteous in the religious establishment of his day: I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
Welcome, humility, and generosity seem to be increasingly absent from our political discourse and our public life. As voices for these troubled times it is for Christians to be latter day John the Baptists, continuing to point the way in word and deed to Christ who in the beginning was the Word (and) is the Word in eternity. As the poet Malcolm Guite encourages us
So keep John’s fires burning through this night,
Beacons and gateways for the child of light.