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john the baptist

The Rector: John the Baptist – from Birth to Beheading

Sunday 19 December 2021
Advent 4

Sung Eucharist
Revd Nicholas Mercer

As I was researching the sermon for this Sunday, I came across a series of lectures on the internet

The lectures were a collaboration between Kings College, London and the National Gallery and consisted of ten short talks about paintings of John the Baptist

The title of the series was called “John the Baptist – from birth to beheading” and the title was chosen, in part, because of the pictures available

In other words, from the very beginning of John’s life to the end

However, I thought “from birth to beheading” made a very good title for a sermon

Not just because we are in Advent, but because the readings today are solely about John the Baptist

First the prophecy from the Book of Isaiah and then the record of John

As we have heard, John the Baptist calls on us to prepare a way for the coming of Christ into the world – which is at the heart of our season of Advent

But he also plays his part in the life of Christ himself whilst, at the same time, being called to prophecy about the coming of God’s kingdom

And it begs the question, what does the life of John the Baptist say to us in this season of Advent?

Three paintings stood out for me in particular

The first was a painting entitled “The visitation of the Virgin to St Elizabeth”

The painting illustrates the passage in Luke’s Gospel where Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth who is similarly with child

It is on the front of your service sheet

The second painting is perhaps the best known and entitled “The Baptism of Christ” by Piero della Francesca”

Here Christ is being baptised by John with the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove

Finally, there is the painting by Caravaggio called “The beheading of John the Baptist”

This is also on your service sheet (on the back) and displays the severed head of the John the Baptist on a platter – with Salome turning away in horror

Each painting says something about the life of John the Baptist

Whilst, at the same time, saying something to us about our own Advent journey

The first painting captures the moment when Elizabeth and Mary meet whilst both pregnant

The story is well known but carries the touching detail that, when Mary greeted Elizabeth,

“The child leapt in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:40)

Have a look at the picture –

The importance of this, as far as John the Baptist is concerned, is that he becomes the first witness to Christ

Jesus’s potential is made known from this moment – for it is from this point that we know he is indeed the Son of God

The Psalmist says that God knew us “before he formed us in the womb and that we were set apart”

And here we can view the embodiment of that prophecy

But on this fourth Sunday of Advent, we might equally ask ourselves, what has God called us to do in our Mother’s womb – when he first knew us?

Have we ourselves been set apart to prepare the way for Christ?

This may seem like a grandiose question…but there is a possible answer in the second painting

Whilst the first painting captures the first encounter between Jesus and John, the second painting depicts their second meeting

For although John heralds the coming of Christ, he does not meet him in person until he baptises him in the River Jordan

However, the picture tells us much more than a mere encounter

For it is John who is preparing the way for Christ

Not just for Christ coming into the world, but for his ministry here on earth- which begins immediately after his baptism

It is a pivotal moment in which John plays the central role

However, standing back from the event – it is fleeting event – which probably did not last more than ten minutes – but it changed the world

So often we speak about our own life’s work as if a great masterpiece which has unfolded over four score years and ten

But it may be that our life “in Christ” can be a simple act of very limited duration too

Which can, nevertheless, make all the difference to the building of God’s Kingdom

This very simple act may be our pivotal moment and may still be yet to come?

It also reminds us of our own baptism and how we too have been prepared to go out into the world

Indeed our work may still be continuing

The final painting, of course, is the Caravaggio which is the one we are most likely to remember given the grisly subject matter

The scene is extremely graphic but a reminder of the price we can be pay when if we truly follow the way of the cross

As one Catholic commentator said, the life of John the Baptist reminds us “to raise our own voices and speak out against the injustices of our own day”

What might these look like in our times?

“Refugees being arrested and imprisoned at our borders, people resorting to foodbanks, taxation driving the poor into even deeper poverty…”

And so the list goes on

Preparing the way for the Kingdom of God in our own society can come at enormous personal cost

And is a reminder to us all today, not only our obligation, to speak out against injustice

But the potential cost if we do.

But as well as the different things that each painting can tells us about our own earthly lives

There is also the contrast between John the Baptist and Christ himself –

If you put them both side by side

· Both are baptised

· Both seek to prepare the world for the coming of God’s Kingdom

But they both take very different paths

John, is an angry and outspoken prophet

Jesus, by contrast, is the Pascal Lamb who went willingly to his death

But Jesus tells us that “among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist” (Matt 11:11)

What does this tell us about our own calling to follow Christ?

Are we to be the Pascal Lamb or angry prophet?

It is a question I still struggle to answer

But what is clear is that/whatever path you take/ if you follow Christ to the full

It can take us all from “birth to beheading”