Sermon for the Nativity of St. John the Baptistadmin | 24 June 2012
“And thou, child, shalt be called the Prophet of the Highest”
“Sumer is icumen in”, as the Middle English round or madrigal of 13th century origin puts it, perhaps one of the earliest forms of musical counterpoint. It somehow speaks to our celebration this morning. For “summer is a coming in” as the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist reminds us since it always coincides with the week of the summer solstice. There is almost a double counterpoint about this feast, counterpoint referring to a set of opposing contrasts in musical terms which bring out a deeper resonance and harmony of sound. For we begin and we end the summer, especially the maritime summer, with the birth and death of the intriguing figure of John the Baptist. And, of course, the nativity of John the Baptist in the week of the summer solstice equally points us to the nativity of Christ in the week of the winter solstice; there is just that kind of complementary contrast between the week of the longest day and the week of the longest night, a kind of counterpoint of light and dark, we might say.
Such suggestive contrasts belong to the reflective richness of the Christian story, to the back and forth of light and dark, the interplay of birth and death, of nature and grace. Somehow we can only think in counterpoint, we might almost say. Each moment and story has its own integrity and yet illumines another and greater story.
There are only two nativities that the Christian Church celebrates on the basis of scriptural witness: the nativity of Christ and the nativity of John the Baptist. They are not equal. The whole point of the story of the nativity of John the Baptist is how it is preparatory for the birth of Christ. John the Baptist is the great and intriguingly complex figure who in a way sums up the whole of prophecy and points us to the new reality of Christ. “Art thou Elijah,” the Priests and Levites from Jerusalem ask him, to which he replied that he was “not the Christ,” nor the Prophet Elijah, but simply “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as saith the prophet Isaiah” and the one who points out to us the one who comes, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world.”
His birth is understood in the context of the Old Testament stories of the births of important figures such as Isaac and Samson, for instance, and the prophetic witness of such figures as Elijah. “What went ye out for to see?” Jesus asks the multitude concerning John the Baptist, and goes on to identify him as a prophet and yet more than a prophet. “Art thou he that should come,” asks John the Baptist in prison about Jesus “or do we seek for another?” “Go and show John again, those things which ye do hear and see,” Jesus tells John’s disciples, “the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are raised up, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them.” He then adds something which goes to the heart of the Gospel proclamation and which speaks as well about the figure of John the Baptist. “And blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in me.”
There is much that challenges and even offends our sensibilities about the Gospel and certainly about John the Baptist. There is something uncompromising, stern, insistent and uncomfortable in his message. There is nothing middle class about John the Baptist. He gives austerity a whole new meaning! It is the austerity of asceticism and denial, on the one hand, and the strong thirst and hunger for the righteousness of God, on the other hand. He is sent to “preach a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Repentance is part of the necessary preparation for the presence of God with us in our hearts and in our world.
It can only happen through the awakening of our consciences to the reality of sin and to the desire for the overcoming of sin, to the desire for forgiveness and salvation. There is something about John the Baptist which stirs us up to desire what is a good and holy, a desire for something more than the comfortable yet deadly ruts of our ordinary lives.
The familiar canticle, the Benedictus, is the song of Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist. It speaks profoundly about that preparatory work of the stirring of our consciences. Our Gospel reading gives us the fuller account of the setting of this canticle. Zacharias had questioned the angel’s prophecy about the birth of a son to him and his wife. They were, after all, like Abraham and Sarah, quite old and beyond the age of child-bearing it, seems. For his skeptical cynicism – itself a kind of denial of God – he was struck dumb until the birth and the naming of the child, named by Elizabeth his wife and not by him, and named not after him, but as ‘John.’ He concurs by writing down that “his name is John.” Only then does he regain his voice and sings the wonders of God’s providence about the meaning and purpose of his son’s existence.
Beyond the aspect of miracle, the greater wonder here lies in the insight about the nature of God’s workings with our humanity. The coming of God to us requires an awareness, in some way or another, of his coming in us. Without the awareness of our lack and our need, of our radical incompleteness, we can make no sense of Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, as God with us. And repentance is the key concept, the key idea in the gospel of preparation. God makes us part of his own coming to us through the preaching of repentance.
Jesus’ own public ministry will begin with the words, “Repent ye; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And what is repentance all about? Simply our honest realization that not everything is alright with us and our world, that all of us have done and not done the things we should and should not have done, that all have fallen short, and none can take refuge in the pretensions of self-righteousness. Tough stuff for our culture and age. They are the very things that occasion the rebellion against the Christian faith within and without the churches, the atheism of the rejection of divine authority. Yet this is the strong message and wonder of John the Baptist, the one who not only points us to Jesus but points out the way of Christ in us. It is about our humble openness and desire for God’s healing mercy and grace in our lives. We hear it in Zacharias’ exultant voice, “And thou, child, shalt be called the Prophet of the Highest.”
In every way, John the Baptist goes before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways. Even his birth is preparatory for the greater wonder and the greater birth of God made man in Jesus Christ. But it is this sense of a yearning and seeking after righteousness and truth that belongs to the wonder and the power of John the Baptist. He is uncompromising with respect to anything which stands in the way of the righteousness of God, of the right order of things as found in the Highest, as found in God, and in the possibilities of our lives being lived in accord with God’s will. That we “might serve him without fear,” as the canticle puts it, “in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our life.” It is precisely that sensibility and demand that constitutes the witness of John from birth to death, a sensibility and desire that is badly needed for our jaded and complacent souls.
P.D. James identified the atheisms of contemporary Christianity as the trinity of comfort, convenience and complacency, the atheisms of what Marx called the bourgeoisie, the middle class, we might say. “Sumer is icumen in” with John the Baptist but it is not about comfort, convenience and complacency; it is about commitment to God and a critical self-awareness about our own expectations and assumptions. There is, I suppose, the simple austerity of learning to live within the limits of the finite but to do it out of a deeper love for God and a desire for his righteousness and truth. It is, in short, about being awakened to repentance without which there can be no joy. It is what is signaled in Zacharias’ song.
“And thou, child, shalt be called the Prophet of the Highest”
Fr. David Curry
Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist
Sunday, June 24th, 2012