24th June 2018
Rev Tony van Vuuren.
The narrative of the birth of John the Baptist is more about the parents than the child. It’s a story about God’s grace and human faith overcoming doubt. Earlier in Luke’s gospel we read that Zechariah and the Virgin Mary reacted similarly when the angel Gabriel announced what was going to happen. They both asked, “How can this be?” But they asked with different attitudes.
Mary was a young girl and her question was sincere. She wanted to understand the mind of God.
Zechariah’s question was more of a challenge, arising from doubt. After all he and Elizabeth had been praying for years for a child. It’s as if he told the angel, “It just isn’t going to happen; my wife is now too old.” Of course he was struck dumb because of his disbelief.
But that’s not the end of the story. Zechariah’s encounter with the angel Gabriel was a life-changing moment for him. It is easy to assume that God was punishing Zechariah for his lack of faith. In reality, God’s love for Zechariah was so immense that he sought to ensure that Zechariah grew in inner humility and peace as he sought the Lord in prayer during the nine months of his silence. Zechariah recovered his speech when he insisted that the child be named John; meaning God is gracious. Giving thanks he compiled a canticle of praise, the Benedictus that is read as part of the daily morning breviary.
Thomas ‘a Kempis, in his book The Imitation of Christ, wrote, “If you know how to suffer in silence, you will surely receive God’s help.” There are times in our lives when God allows us to go through trials and challenges. Dare I suggest that God often allows these circumstances in order to humble us and teach us that even in the darkest of moments, he never stops loving us? Such knowledge can bring us to understand our deep and constant need for His presence in our lives.
The readings today show how God calls particular individuals to cooperate with his plan of salvation, and in particular we commemorate the unique part that John was called to play in the events leading up to the coming of the Messiah.
People like Abraham and Moses and the prophets were all individuals who, in the period of the Old Covenant, responded to an intuition that God was calling them to carry out some special service on his behalf.
Later, at the outset of the New Covenant, it was Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, and their son John, who learned, in different ways, that they were being called by God to play a particular part in the working-out of his overall plan. Today’s feast highlights the particular vocation of John, Jesus’ cousin, and that, even before he was born, John was someone whom God had marked out for a unique mission in life, as herald of the Messiah. The hinge prophet; the greatest and last of the Old Testament prophets and is recognised as the first witness to the New Testament.
John fulfilled his unique vocation in two ways. First, as Saint Luke writes, “he lived out in the wilderness as the archetypal desert monk until the day he appeared openly”.
The second way that John fulfilled his God-given mission was, as Saint Paul alludes to in the second reading; John emerged from the depths of his own prayer and meditation to castigate his fellow-believers for their lukewarmness; their pursuit of ambitions in life that brought them no nearer to God; and their habit of living in a spiritual darkness as though God didn’t exist.
As someone for whom the love of God was the only reason for existing; John addressed the community with a genuine sense of amazement and indignation and exasperation that anyone should pass his or her life oblivious of the needs of their own souls.
His indignation and amazement were so obviously genuine, and so obviously rooted in his own deep knowledge of God, that many people were moved by his words and came to receive baptism from him as a way of symbolising their decision to turn their lives from that moment in the direction of God.
In his preaching John was very resolute in pointing away from himself and towards Christ: “there is one coming after me, and I am not fit to undo his sandal”. But the arrival of Christ on the scene didn’t mean that John became irrelevant. He did at one point say that as He (Jesus) increases, I must decrease, but John remains relevant to us because as long as we continue to commemorate John in the Church’s public prayer, as we do on several dates in the Church’s calendar, John continues to exercise his prophetic ministry, raising our consciousness of God and reminding us of the need for silence and prayer and contemplation in order to deepen our consciousness of God, and also castigating us as he did the people of his own day for giving all sorts of inferior things more importance than God and effectively living as though God doesn’t exist.
What happened in Zechariah can happen in us when we open our hearts to God’s plan. When John cried, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” He was asking people to change direction. He is pleading with us to change our minds about what pleases God. Even those of us who believe in Christ can be tempted sometimes to find solutions to our problems in our own power, determination, talent and intelligence.
God is gracious. He wants to save us, to lift us up into his presence. He will share all things with us if we will just believe.