Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist

A sermon delivered at Christ Church, Cooperstown, NY. June 6th 2014.
Today we celebrate the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist. What makes this day so significant?
You may have realized that ordinarily the Church observes the day of a saint’s death as their feast day. This represents their passing from death into glory. Saint John the Baptist is one notable exception.  In the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, the Virgin Mary visits Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. Upon her arrival Elizabeth begins to prophesy, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” She continues, “But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” The Early Church recognized a uniqueness in Saint John, that he was filled with the Holy Spirit even in the womb. John the Baptist was actually born a Christian! Sanctified at birth!

The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist anticipates the Nativity of Jesus Christ. At the Annunciation the Angel Gabriel informed the Virgin Mary that her cousin Elizabeth was six months pregnant. We celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation and Mary’s conception on March 25, nine months before Christmas Day, and so we celebrate John’s birth three months after the conception of Mary. John’s feast day is like a taste of Advent in the midst of Ordinary Time.  Even in his birth, John points us forward to the coming of Christ.  

Saint John’s birth, and the events leading up to it, are given special attention in the Gospel of Luke. John’s infancy narrative is told side by side with that of Jesus. John is the forerunner of Jesus Christ. He represents the Old covenant and the Law, and precedes Jesus just as the Old Testament precedes the New Testament and the dispensation of grace. His birth is significant because it marks the closing of an age.

There is a profound symbolism to marking his birth now, during the time of the summer solstice. The days are longer now than any other time of year because during the Summer Solstice the sun reaches its pinnacle in the sky and its greatest strength. Likewise John represents the pinnacle of the Old Testament. The last and greatest of the prophets. Jesus said, "Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist" (Matt. 11:11). The Summer Solstice also marks the time when the Sun, having reached its pinnacle, begins its descent. The sun will be at its lowest point on December the 21st. On December 25th, Christmas Day, the Sun will begin to rise again. Jesus’ birth marks a new beginning. The age of the Old covenant has been fulfilled and come to a close, the age of New Testament and the time of grace has begun. Thus John the Baptist says, “I must decrease and he must increase.”

Before the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, he appeared to the father of John, a priest named Zechariah. The story is remarkably similar to that of Abraham and Sarah. Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth is barren and advanced in age, yet just as God did with Abraham, he assures Zechariah that his wife will indeed conceive a child. The promise of fertility from barrenness and life from death serve as bookends for the beginning and the end of the Old Covenant. Just as Sarah laughed in unbelief at God’s promise, Zechariah also doubts and so he is struck dumb until the promise is fulfilled.

Our Gospel reading today picks up the story at the day of John’s circumcision. The extended family, understandably  overjoyed at the amazing reversal of fortune that has taken place, have run quite ahead of themselves and are about to name the boy after his father without even consulting Elizabeth! She, out of obedience to God’s instructions, insist that the child be named John. The family will have nothing of her unorthodox rejection of tradition, but they are all shocked into submission by what happens next. The Father steps in, siding with his wife and writing on a tablet, that the boy’s name is John. All at once his tongue is loosed and he can speak again! Not only that but he begins to prophesy the most amazing words! The long awaited time of Israel’s divergence is at hand. God is raising up the promised messiah!

It is not his child, however who will be the promised deliverer, but they are to expect another. He begins to speak prophesy directly to his son,

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

to give knowledge of salvation to his people

by the forgiveness of their sins.

A new day is coming! He says, “The dawn from on high will break upon us.”

The new day has indeed arrived, but we still wait. Christ has come and through his death and resurrection the powers of darkness are fleeing in defeat. The light of Christ has broken on the horizon but we wait for it to reach its pinnacle and full strength. We wait for the day that will have no end. Just as John the Baptist and all the prophets of old heralded his first advent, so we as the Church herald the second advent of Christ.

Prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up,

and every mountain and hill be made low;

the uneven ground shall become level,

and the rough places a plain.

Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,

and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

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