The Birth of John the Baptist
Introduction and Call to Worship Let us praise God together as we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus Christ the Messiah. Today’s Readings First Reading Isaiah 40:1-11 Isaiah declares that God is speaking comfort to Jerusalem and that Jerusalem will be the place of God’s coming to the earth in might and in gentleness. Second Reading Galatians 3:23-29 Paul shows how baptism into Jesus Christ brings unity between Jews and Gentiles. Gospel Luke 1:57-66, 80 John the Baptist is born; his father gives him a name and regains his voice and praises God. HOMILY “Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.” (Luke 1:64) Moments of transition and change in our lives often stand out as markers in time. They can be moments of growth or renewal or sometimes utter devastation. We often remember them, and recall how experiences challenge or even change our perspective and thinking. Now we don’t all like change, indeed some of us have an allergic reaction to the very thought! But change, or transformation, for good or ill is all around us and is the way of creation – the world that God has made. Our bodies are one obvious example; after yesterday’s fayre some of us may feel even older today than we did before! Other examples could include experiences such as passing a driving test or our wedding day, the birth of a child or the death of a loved one. Likewise, the natural world can shape us as we observe its dynamic beauty – and for us as Christians, we marvel at the complexity of God’s creation, renewing even in the face of human greed and selfish consumption of its resources. As we reflect upon our experience of change we may recognize that much of this is necessary in order that we can grow and thrive as human beings in a complex world of interdependent relationships. And there are different ways to approach change. Some people are like gardeners: they tend, preserve and keep going; their view is continuity with the past. In the life of the Church this view leads us to believe our purpose is to carry on what is already here, like historians with an exciting story to tell. But are we then continuing the story on? Now some of us may be more adventurous and see ourselves as not just gardening or maintaining, but landscaping – the kind of gardeners who take what is already there and shape it for the future, making changes for the better. Some may even be more dramatic in their approach to change, and see themselves as designers! They rip up the original plan and start again! I fear the fire at the great Mackintosh building, the School of Art in Glasgow, will now mean exactly that: pulling down what is left of the old and starting again from scratch. And sometimes it takes a devastating event to cause such dramatic change, or at least, for such change to seem appropriate or necessary. Moments of change can also be pivotal times in our faith journey and we need look no further than today’s Gospel to see dramatic reactions to sudden and unexpected news with the story of the birth of John the Baptist – a pivotal moment in the revelation of God’s love for us, his people. To understand it more fully we need to look back to an earlier passage in the same chapter (which mirrors the Annunciation) in which John’s father, Zechariah, is visited by the great messenger from God, Gabriel. The angel tells him that his wife will give birth to a son. But Zechariah and Elizabeth are childless and getting on in years, hence his questions of how can this be? In response the angel declares that this revelation, this Word comes from the very presence of God and that since Zechariah has doubted it, he will lose the power of speech until “the day these things occur” (Luke 1: 20). Sudden and surprising change can and often does lead to doubt, and even fear – like a dumbness as we don’t know what to say! When John is born there is understandable joy! Yet Zechariah doesn’t immediately regain his speech because “these things” of which Gabriel speaks include the naming of the baby. The tradition of the community is to honour the father by naming the son Zechariah. But Elizabeth suggests a change to this pattern – “John”! This is confirmed by Zechariah, written down. John is a significant name, the Hebrew “Yohanan” meaning “God has been gracious” and this relates to the idea of “prayer for mercy”. In the birth of John, God had indeed “been gracious” to Zechariah and Elizabeth and had mercy upon them in their time of challenge, who no doubt had made many “prayers for mercy”, given their long childless state. Zechariah, a man who had served God as a priest all his life but doubted God at one critical moment and lost his speech, has again shown his faith in the naming of his son. With his speech restored he immediately puts it to good use as he praises God. But the neighbours, who care more about the continuity of their long held traditions, are left in a more reflective, even fearful, mood – who is this child going to be, they question. Indeed, John the Baptizer would grow to become the last of the great prophets, a bridge to the New Testament, and live up to his heaven-blessed name. Zechariah (and perhaps Elizabeth) were somewhat perplexed by the news they were expecting a child. This was a massive change for them. How often have we doubted God in the face of sudden surprise and change? Are we fearful of transformation? Of change in the life of the Church? Would we rather be gardeners in God’s kingdom than designers of his future revelation? Friends in faith, at times we all have doubts and face pivotal moments in our lives when we are challenged and our faith can feel tested. But more positively we can make a link between Zechariah’s story and that of our own experiences of change and transformation. In the example of John’s father, Zechariah, God worked through a troubled soul to renew his faith and voice in such a way that God’s praise was heard more powerfully than before. Zechariah’s own words of praise led into the ministry of his son John, who influenced the whole nation of Israel and was the bookend to the Old Covenant (or Testament) who proclaimed, ‘prepare the way of the Lord’. Life is not always easy, and change is an inevitable part of that journey. Yet the New Covenant in Jesus Christ offers us a wonderful new relationship, for God is pleased to dwell among mortals, and God is calling each one of us to proclaim his truth to the world anew. We are called not just to be historians or gardeners, but innovators, designers of his Kingdom to come! What an awe-inspiring challenge that is! Have courage! Be transformative! Amen. SUMMARY 1. To understand today’s Gospel reading we refer back to an earlier passage in which Zechariah questions, even doubts, God’s word brought to him by the angel Gabriel, and the power of speech is taken from him. 2. According to the word brought by Gabriel, Elizabeth gives birth to a boy. There is communal rejoicing and debate about his name which is settled by Zechariah naming him John, at which his speech returns and he praises God. 3. There is a parallel between Zechariah and John Wesley, because for both doubt is followed by praise and a renewed ministry. 4. In our own lives we will sometimes be troubled by the challenge of change. This could lead to doubts about God and our faith but if we persevere through them we can find ourselves renewed and ready to praise and serve God in new ways. We are called to change!