Sermon podcast: Birth of John the Baptist18 Jun 2018 By Robert Jones
Archdeacon of Worcester, Robert Jones, 24 June 2018
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‘In the fifteen year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.’
I love this build-up to the ministry of John the Baptist, whose birthday we celebrate in the Church today. St Luke in his Gospel lists all the powerful people of the day in order of priority, starting with the power in Rome and including the religious leaders of Jesus’ time. It is as if he is saying, ‘look at all these important people, the ones who count, the movers and shakers,’ – look at them: and yet, the word of God came to John in the desert! God’s power, shown above all in Jesus, is not the same as human power.
This sets a trend in Luke’s gospel where we see Jesus seeking out and searching for the needy, the poor, the side-lined, the no-bodies. It is in Luke’s gospel where we get the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise, where the powerful are brought down and the lowly lifted up. We see God’s priorities in a very different light from ours. Jesus says to the people who think they are nothing ‘you are somebody special’ and you are loved.
In John the Baptist Luke is announcing the ministry of the one who came to announce the ministry of Jesus, who by his life and his teaching turned the world upside down. John the Baptist doesn’t make great claims for himself: he says that he is simply a voice, and his whole message is to point to Jesus. He makes no great claims for himself, in fact the opposite: ‘among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thongs of his sandal.’ It is all about Jesus.
When in John’s Gospel his disciples ask him who Jesus is, he simply points them to him and says, ‘behold the Lamb of God’. He does what the job of the Church always is: simply to point to Jesus and let people make up their own mind about him.
In fact, John is more than a voice. He models what is going to happen to Jesus. His integrity of faith leads him to speak truth to power. He criticises Herod and pays for it with his life. But even in his birth they had so much in common. John’s mother Elizabeth and Jesus’ mother Mary were cousins, and before their babies were born were both in a bit of a pickle: Elizabeth was too old for child-birth, Mary too young. Two women, no doubt under close scrutiny of those tut-tutting around them, meet up, and Elizabeth’s child leaps in the womb, becoming the first one to greet Jesus in his mother’s womb.
These are wonderful stories, at once so human and so divine, around John the Baptist and Jesus. Normally in the church we celebrate saints on the day of their death, the day they enter into glory, but today it is John’s birthday we remember, the moment when the Old Testament tipped over into the New, when God broke in on the scene in a new and unique way. John points us to our future hope, which is in Jesus, and in doing so points away from himself in a way that models divine humility.
John wasn’t one to mince his words. He spoke in a prophetic way, but it didn’t seem to put people off. They flocked out to hear him. Perhaps that is what happens when people of integrity open their mouths. But it wasn’t, of course, just what he said: like his Lord he lived it out as well, and like his Lord, paid the price.
There’s a lot to be said for people of integrity, and even in our troubled world there are still plenty such people around. Who are they and where can you spot them? What might that integrity of faith look like today?