Sermon for the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist

“And thou, child, shalt be called the Prophet of the Highest”

And yet “more than a prophet,” Jesus himself will say. There are two nativities that belong to the major and scripturally based festivals of the Christian Church: The Nativity of Christ, of course, and this feast, The Nativity of St. John the Baptist, a celebration which coincides with the week of the summer solstice and so points us even in the measuring of time to Christ’s holy birth, itself the fons et origo of Christian life and faith.

This ‘summer’s’ birth points us to the ‘winter’s’ birth of Christ, whose greater nativity signals all the summer of our lives in the grace of God towards us. In a way, that is the point of John the Baptist. He points not to himself but to Christ. The Nativity of John the Baptist signals the preparations which God makes for his coming into our midst as the Incarnate Lord in the Nativity of Jesus Christ. The summer solstice is just past; the long march to winter, yes, even to Christmas, begins! And yet, it is all about Christ within.

For beyond the reminder of God’s coming to us, there is the purpose of his coming in us – the motions of his grace taking shape in our lives. From that standpoint, the strange and compelling message of John the Baptist is constant and necessary; he points us to Christ, yes, but as well to Christ in us.

There is a kind of miracle of nature in the conception and birth of John the Baptist to the elderly and skeptical Zechariah and Elizabeth. Indeed, Zechariah’s scoffing will be rebuked by his being silenced and unable to speak until the birth of John. His challenge to the angel, “how shall I know this?” contrasts with Mary’s question, “how shall this be?” The difference is between a doubting that denies possibilities and the intellectual inquiry open to their realization.

What is wanted to be grasped is how the birth and ministry of the one prepares us for the coming of the other, a miracle of nature preparing us for the miracle of grace. Everything is preparatory for the coming of Christ.

But what is that preparation which is not just about Advent but about the constant advent or coming of Christ into our lives? Simply this. John the Baptist is the instrument of God’s grace sent to “prepare the way of the Lord” by “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”; in other words, awakening us to our need for repentance and salvation. He is not the forgiveness of sins but the instrument of God preparing us for the coming of the one whom, he says, “is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals,” he says, “I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.”

Repentance is not quite what we always want to hear. We have an altogether too negative a view of repentance and forget that it belongs to the positive possibilities of transformation and renewal. It is the lesson we heard last Sunday(Trinity 3): repentance requires humility, itself a kind of self-awareness, which is the precondition for rejoicing. And that is a feature of John the Baptist. He points not to himself but to Christ.

Repentance is about the hope of change for the better and about the triumph of truth over the lies of our lives. We don’t need to be stuck in a rut. We don’t need to be defined by the circumstances and happenstances of our lives, or even by sins and follies, both past and present. There is a grace that is given in the midst of things. John the Baptist would awaken us to the possibilities of change, a change of attitude, of mind, a metanoia of the spirit within us that simply makes all the difference. There is forgiveness. It is the meaning of Christ’s death and sacrifice and it is given to be realized in us, in our lives of service and sacrifice. Such things stand in a strange and compelling contrast to the easy indulgence and destructive narcissisms of our lives.

The changes are within. They recall us to the truth of our humanity against all that separates us from that truth in God. In a way, there is a necessary unease about John the Baptist, about a birth that necessarily awakens us to death as well. That necessary unease is the meaning of his preaching about repentance for such is the dying to sin and self that leads to resurrection and life. That necessary unease is about the pattern of praise and worship. It always seeks to awaken us to the something more of God’s grace and forgiveness signaled and realized in Christ.

For we can be “no longer at ease” in our own ways, but only in the way of Christ, only by his grace in us. There are always the possibilities of change and renewal spiritually for us all, the possibilities so eloquently and no doubt ambiguously hinted at by T.S. Eliot in his poem, The Journey of the Magi.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This:
Birth or Death? There was a Birth certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

John the Baptist alerts us to birth and death, the birth and death of Christ for the redemption and salvation of our lives. He is the one who points us to Christ and to Christ in us. Rejoice in the tender mercy of our God!

“And thou, child, shalt be called the Prophet of the Highest”

Fr. David Curry
The Nativity of St. John the Baptist
June 24th, 2015

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