A sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
Two homilies for the Birth of John the Baptist
The Eve, Sunday 23 June, 2019
John is one of two saints whose births we mark with a special day (the other is the Blessed Virgin Mary) and in August we also commemorate his death. To mark a death is to mark the end. It is a moment for summing up all that the person’s life has held. The moment of birth is rather about potential, promise, about beginnings. But we mark that moment tomorrow, so what is this, the eve of the birth of John the Baptist, about? To misquote Winston Churchill, this is not the end; it is not even the beginning of the end; it is perhaps the start of the beginning.
That start comes long before John, with a barren woman – in ancient societies infertility is rarely seen as a male problem – who receives from God the promise of a son. This is a culture of destiny not personal autonomy, so the child’s path is set antenatally: he will be consecrated to God and be a defender of his people against their oppressors. (The mother-to-be, however, is given the rather up-to-date advice of no having alcohol during pregnancy.)
This story of the birth of Samson foreshadows the story of the birth of John the Baptist: that brings another childless couple, these rather old; another visiting angel, this time sent to a man; and a similar promise of a spirit-filled son. Zechariah, the father-to-be, is sceptical, though, and is made mute for doubting what God can do.
As Luke’s gospel unfolds, we shall see how the story of John’s birth in turn finds an echo in the story of the birth of Jesus, though this time the angel will come to a very young woman. For Luke, John the Baptist is a hinge figure – the last of the old before Jesus and the Kingdom of God – but Luke also shows continuity. Times and people may change – John the Baptist is a country mile away from the gutsy but gullible Samson, Israel’s Forrest Gump, just as Jesus is of a different order from John – but by writing each birth story in the style of a previous birth Luke shows how it is the same God working in the same way. Samson is a character in the same drama as John: they may be poles apart as people and centuries apart in time, but they are part of the same cause.
‘Cause’ is a word that has resonance for me. Forty-three years ago I heard a sermon that had quite an influence on my faith. The preacher was Colin Morris, a Methodist minister with a career that ranged from running a missionary organisation to heading the BBC in Northern Ireland. The sermon was called The Gifts of Christian Faith, and I still have a copy, produced on foolscap paper from a Roneo machine (if under fifty, you will not know what that last phrase means).
Morris summed up the gifts of faith in four C’s. First was coherence: Christianity made more sense of things than any other faith or ideology he had studied; second, conversion, that necessary act of choosing God’s way at the ‘pressure points of life’. The third C that Christian faith gave was a cause ‘worthy of my dignity as a human being’.
He cherished a newspaper photo of the aged philosopher Bertrand Russell being taken to jail for protesting about the threat of nuclear war. Morris’ point was not the issue itself but the sight of someone so passionate about something that was unlikely to happen in his lifetime. Russell said in his autobiography, ‘It is necessary to stand for things which will not come to pass until long after we are gone.’ I saw a quieter equivalent yesterday: people of the third age on the Transition City stall in the market, working for a more sustainable future for Salisbury, even though they will be in another climate altogether by the time this one gets really bad.
For Morris, the cause, the cause which embraced all other causes of peace and justice, was ‘the kingly rule of God which needs the whole of history as its theatre’. He saw a dignity in dedicating himself, like Samson and John, to God’s purposes, even though their harvest would lie beyond the scope of his years on earth.
Alas, we are about to go beyond the scope of our time, and questions remain. Where is this great cause leading; what is the end of which the birth of John the Baptist is the beginning? What was Colin Morris’ fourth C? And when will Zechariah get his voice back? For answers to these and perhaps other questions, don’t miss the concluding episode of the Birth of John the Baptist tomorrow, at the later time of five-thirty.
Feast Day Monday 24 June, 2019
Previously in the story of John the Baptist...
Yesterday we heard how Luke’s gospel tells the story of the angel breaking the news of the coming birth of John in a very similar way to the angel breaking the news of the birth of Samson, centuries before. This seemed to be a way of showing that both these figures, very different from each other and many years apart, were nevertheless characters in the same drama. Paul’s history lesson in the first reading today does the same: it links Samson’s age of the judges and the ministry of John. Both were agents in the cause of God, an unfinished project that would outlive them both.
That word ‘cause’ led me to recall the preacher and broadcaster, the late Colin Morris, and a sermon on the gifts of Christian faith. He summed them up in four Cs: coherence, the sense that Christian faith makes of things; conversion, the decision it asks of us to choose God in the pressure points of life; and cause, the call it makes upon you to stand for things that might not come to pass in your lifetime.
That is what John will do. This child of promise, born against that odds to ageing parents, who makes the neighbours say, ‘What will this child become?’ John will grow to become the one who calls an entire nation to be washed in the river Jordan and so be ready for God. He will do that because he believes that God’s great cause is nearing the fourth C, completion. Not the end of the world, exactly, but the end of an awful chapter of pain and humiliation, and something new and wonderful from God. But he will not be the completer. That will belong to the one who comes after him, whose shoelaces he is not fit to untie.
Later in Luke’s gospel, we shall meet John again. He is in jail (imprisoned by king Herod) and unsure. He has staked his life on God’s cause, but has he backed the wrong messiah? There is certainly no liberation of prisoners in his jail. He sends disciples to Jesus to ask, ‘Is it you? Are you the one who brings completion? Or must we go on waiting?’
It’s a question many of us ask: are you the one who brings completion? We are rather in thrall to the idea. I have spoken before about the number of companies that put the word ‘solutions’ in their name, with its promise of things finally ticked off a list, and how our would-be leaders vie with each other to ‘deliver’ this or that (currently Brexit). A word people use to describe what will bring peace of mind is ‘closure’.
We are drawn to the vocabulary of finality, and often we are right to be. There’s no virtue in not finishing a job that is completable. Before my gall bladder was removed, it was great to hear the doctor say, ‘Once the operation is complete you will be cured,’ (it was) and unfinished business can indeed be the enemy of a peaceful heart. But so much of the deep stuff in life seems to elude completion. The deep wrongs are never finally put right; and if the deep wonders give us moments of completion, like the petals of a gorgeous rose, they don’t last.
What Jesus will offer John’s disciples to take back to their master in his cell is not quite completion. He will say to them, ‘Look around you. What do you see? Healing, forgiveness, poor people hearing good news.’ It’s not complete – many are not healed, many remain sad in poverty – but it’s unmistakable, impossible to dismiss. These are fragments of God’s future in the middle of a tired old world, hints of completion among the unfinished mess of life.
‘What will this child become?’ ask the neighbours. John the Baptist will become a model, a kind of patron saint for all who take Jesus seriously: he will say that it’s not about him, but one who is greater than he is; he will commit himself to a cause that is bigger than he is; and he will doubt - he will wonder whether he has exhausted himself in the service of a cause that has exhausted itself. And for his doubt he will receive – not a solution but an invitation to look, with an eye of faith to notice signs of glory that defy despair.
Colin Morris ended his sermon like this:
For me the gifts of Christian faith are coherence, conversion, a cause, and the offer of completion…I live not with a dream but with a vision of all life alive with His life, and I see through the mist very vaguely, every now and then, signs of that splendour.
And in that splendour he found hope and power for living.