Sermon preached in Lincoln Cathedral by the Dean, the Very Revd Philip Buckler, at the Sung Eucharist on the Birth of John the Baptist, 24th June, 2012
In celebrating the birth of John the Baptist we are departing from the norm. Usually saints are commemorated on the day of their death – recalling the culmination of their work and often the manner of their death. Indeed we do acknowledge the death of John on 25 August – being put to death almost by accident, caught in the cross-current of events: the dancing at a feast, the vanity of Herod, and the revenge of Herodias. But today it is John’s birth we celebrate, and of course it is both likened to and contrasted with the only other birth observed in this way in the New Testament – the birth of Jesus himself.
Both were unexpected, one to a woman advanced in years and thought barren; the other to a young girl as yet unmarried. Both are the result of promises heralded by an angel. The one is met with disbelief, the other with willing submission. One birth is noticed by all, the other takes place at night in a stable.
Our gospel reading [Luke 1.57-66] tells of the naming of John following his birth. Instead of being called after his father Zechariah, he is called by the name given him by the angel: John – which means ‘God is gracious’. Gracious to the elderly childless couple, but gracious also to God’s people. What then will this child become? those around are led to ask as they witness the miraculous return of speech to his father who goes on to declare the hymn we recite as the Benedictus [Luke 2.67-79] in blessing God for his goodness.
He grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness [Luke 1.80]. So John emerges as a figure like the prophets of old. Rejecting social comforts and conventions he is schooled in the wilderness and later appears and challenges his people. He calls them to change, to repent, to look at life differently. Such is the role of the prophet, calling attention to the ways of God which so often have been forgotten or ignored.
Where are the prophets today, we might ask? Certainly the Church has a prophetic role to play in society, and at times it has done this to good effect. But not always.
The prophet is often uncomfortable – John the Baptist appearing like a wild figure to challenge the respectable rabbis, the Pharisees and Scribes of God’s Law.
Today there are many who call our attention to issues of concern – on social justice for example, or care for our environment. They too can be uncomfortable figures for our comfortable lives, and we can be tempted to ignore them and their message.
John the Baptist called the people to repent and change their ways. To those who listened he challenged them to bear fruits worthy of repentance. Each of us must listen to that challenge in our own lives. But the prophet also calls us to look behind what we are doing, to see what is true rather than what is convenient. We can be so fixed in looking at life one way that we forget to see the truth behind it.
Think for a moment of the topical matter of tax avoidance. The question being asked is whether what is legal is also moral. But that is the wrong question. Rather we need to change the way we are looking at this, to repent of our self-serving schemes, and to remind ourselves of the purpose of taxation in a civilised society – a sharing in the common good for all. We have lost sight of that purpose and consequently lost touch with our common concern for each other.
Or look at Syria and other examples where leaders cling to power at the tragic expense of their people. There it is spelt out in the cost of human lives; nearer to home we might see it in politics so focused on keeping power that ideals are sacrificed for short term approval. Again the prophetic challenge is to look beyond this to understand again that power is something entrusted to us by God for the well-being of those we serve, caring for others rather than pride in ourselves; holding or relinquishing power in trust.
The prophet has things to say to our Church as well: asking why so much time is spent arguing about imagined boundaries of Christian belief and practice (whether this or that is right or wrong) rather than sharing the life Christ has given to us, reflecting the love he has brought to us.
Perhaps the most tragic picture of our Church today lies in the imminent debate on the question of women in the episcopate. It is a non-question for the majority of society, but in the Church people have opposing views. To my mind the really sad thing is that the current argument which may delay any decision stems not from any sincerely held belief, but from a profound lack of trust within the Church. The present issue of trying to legislate for safeguards in alternative oversight have led to contradictory contortions. I may sound naïve in expressing sadness or surprise at this, but it is worthy of the prophetic cry You brood of vipers when we, who talk of trust in God as the heart of our faith, can find so little trust in one another.
Perhaps one of the most significant prophetic voices today is someone apart from the Christian Church – the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. In one of his thought- provoking articles in yesterday’s Times he writes of the wisdom in taking the road less travelled. Instead of following the herd instinct of humanity – obsessed in our western world at present with matters of the economy – he suggests this is exactly the time to seek after spiritual truths and understand them in our own lives. They transcend the material. We may be rich or poor in the latter but without the former we shall indeed be destitute.
The birth of John the Baptist demanded the reluctant trust of Zechariah and Elizabeth his parents. John in turn demanded that people turn from their own ways to trust once again in God. He is a prophet for all seasons.