Holy Communion 24th June 2018
John the Baptist: What then will this child become?
Luke 1. 57 - 80
“What then will this child become?” ask the community around Zechariah and Elizabeth in the hills of Judea after the remarkable conception and amazing events of the birth of their son John. These people knew each other. The village held to be John’s birthplace remains small to this day. Rumours of an overwhelming vision given to John’s father in the Temple a few miles away in Jerusalem, a baby given in Elizabeth’s old age, the visit of Elizabeth’s relative Mary from the north and her experience of God’s call and her own pregnancy – these things would have been circulating for months. Zechariah has been struck dumb by it all, and his mouth is only opened when he indicates that the counter cultural decision to call him John is what it is to be, because God had said so. “What then will this child become?”
On the feast day of St John the Baptist, June 24 2012 I was in John’s wilderness, in Israel, where our group spent some time simply being in a landscape at once enfolding and exposing. It is not necessarily hostile – water is there to be found - but survival is not easy, and it exposes the truth about people. Later that week we went to Ein Kerem, John’s birthplace, and sat at the well where it’s held that Elizabeth, John’s mother, and Mary, Jesus’s mother, compared bumps and Mary sang a song steeped in the traditions of the women of the people of God, rejoicing in how God turns the world upside down. Then we went to the Jordan. We had watched the sun rise over Moab, walked for seven miles down the Wadi Qelt following the course of an ancient spring into Jericho, and then gone to the site held from ancient times to be the place where John baptised Jesus. Today it is surrounded by minefields.
“What then will this child become?” The one to whom crowds flocked in the Judean wilderness because his message was so uncompromising, so challenging, that he had to be heard. Like the wilderness which was his home John was both enfolding and exposing. You couldn’t stay away, but it was not a comfortable place to be. This child became the one who looked at the world as it was, and got angry. He was angry at injustice, at oppression, at the soldiers occupying his land, at the collaboration of his people in corruption and oppression. Soldiers came to him and he told them not to take bribes or extort people. Tax collectors came to him and he told them not to fleece people. The Lord knows what he would have said to world leaders, to bankers, to Google.
John was so angry about the world as he saw it that the only thing he could do was try to drown it. He’s John ‘the Baptist’, remember. Baptism is John’s thing. The thing is, no one had ever done it before. Baptise is a new word for a new action. Up to then ‘baptise’ meant to drown, to drench. You baptised cloth when you dyed it. Of course it taps into an ancient symbolic life: water washes the body, water transforms someone from being religiously unclean to being able to worship (every archaeological site has its ritual bath and the ritual bath remains part of Judaism today), water drowns and puts people to death. But no one had taken on the injustices and wrongdoing and general sinfulness of the world in this way before and said they had to be drowned. People came to him to admit their part in it all, to drown it, and to turn to something new.
John offers a new start. But crucially he says that people shouldn’t look to him for anything else. It’s his relative Jesus, who’s the one to follow, Jesus’s baptism which will give restoration, healing, forgiveness, new life. He’s the one, says John. Follow him. It’s always handy in renaissance art when you see two women and two babies: the baby pointing is John. It’s Jesus who’s crucial. “What then will this child become?” The one who points to Jesus. Turn around. Drown wrongdoing. Put sinfulness to death. And follow the way of Christ. Walk his way. John remains determined to know that Jesus is indeed the one. He’s pretty sure about it, but, just to be sure, when he’s in prison for speaking out too much, he sends his disciples to ask once more.
Jesus’s reply – it’s in Matthew’s gospel and you’ll hear it tonight at Evensong - is instructive. He takes John’s concerns, and adds to them. There are injustices and they are put right. The poor have good news ‘delivered’ to them. Unfairnesses are resolved. Those are John’s things. And then Jesus goes beyond. There are healings, and the giving of sight. Eyes and ears are opened. The unclean are made clean. Even death is put under authority. Go and tell John that he was right, says Jesus. And he was right to point to me.
The call from John the Baptist until today is to demonstrate the values of the Kingdom of heaven right here and right now. That will mean pointing to Jesus, and offering hope and new life. And it will mean being as angry as John about injustice, and as determined as John to point to the Messiah, the one who rights wrongs. I am pleased that we have the opportunity to do some of that here week by week, not least in offering shelter to the homeless and a welcome to the refugee, in supporting organisations which are hard at work in these areas. But there is so much more.
Bishop James Jones has just chaired his second major inquiry into institutional wrongdoing. This one was about the hospital in Gosport. In his preface to the first one, the Hillsborough enquiry, he quotes a fourth century Christian philosopher, Lactantius. “The whole point of justice consists precisely in our providing for others through humanity what we provide for our own family through affection.” If our community is just for ourselves we demean our common humanity. If our community is with John the Baptist, then we take on the world, and provide for others through justice as well as friendship, though the common weal as well as community. If our community is with Jesus then we become one with all people, sharing life and joy and suffering and brokenness and death, and in all that discovering together healing and wholeness and new life and resurrection.
“What then will this child become?” What will we become? Might we be the answer to that question, by drowning – baptising – what is wrong and pointing to what is good, in fellowship with John, and to the glory of the one to whom he pointed, Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.
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