A sermon preached by the Revd Andrew Gough, Chaplain of Bishop Wordsworth school
Thursday 24 June 2021, 17:30, The Feast of the Birth of John the Baptist
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I’m sure that many of us here were rather hoping that by today we would be four days on from the great opening up; and that we would have made some significant steps back towards normality as we emerged from lockdown. Clearly that has not happened – the gloom of these Covid restrictions is going to be with us for some time to come – as is Covid.
But in fact, the doom, gloom and crises that the media love to focus on are always with us. When working in an old setting like this I always think it helpful to remind ourselves what these stones have witnessed to get our own lives into perspective. So, three very edited highlights – maybe lowlights is a better description – from the history of this Cathedral …
The middle of the 14th century was the Black death – when around half of the population of Europe died of bubonic plague
The Civil war of the 17th century
The second world war of the 20th century
Currently top of the doom, gloom and crisis list for us of course is Covid 19 and climate change.
A very important truth to grasp is that human life will always involve doom, gloom and crisis – human life will always involve suffering – and actually, on the scale of world history, those of us gathered in the Cathedral for this Eucharist this evening are doing rather well.
And into the human condition of suffering, God speaks to us. Our Old Testament reading shows us a time when the word of God was proclaimed to the Jews in Exile in Babylon to give them hope. We move on 600 years for our Gospel and here God is speaking into the Roman occupation of Palestine to give hope there. And God speaks hope to us in a variety of ways.
Our focus in this service is a baby. We are looking at the birth of one baby in the context of the vast sweep of over 2½ thousand years of history from Isaiah and the Jews defeated in Exile – through to today. Now obviously babies don’t do anything – except grow, and eventually end up as people old enough to take a role in the family, in the community, are able to step up to take their responsible place in the world. Those listening to God are able to play their own small part in God’s unfolding of history towards its conclusion.
The question asked at the birth of John the Baptist was ‘What then is this child going to be?’ That question tends to lie at the back of every parent’s mind as we gaze with wonder at our new-born baby. Thousands of babies are born every day. Even so, each one is unique, special, not only to their parents, but especially to God. God has a different plan for each us, which no one else is called to fulfil. For most of us that is nothing like as significant as it was for John. His life – right back to his conception – was filled with promise of being significant in God’s plan. For most of us however, our lives throughout are far more ordinary.
We may not have as big a part in God’s plan as someone like John the Baptist; but that does not mean we do not play our part. I love the title of Spike Milligan’s autobiographical reflections: Adolf Hitler my part in his Downfall. The important point in this title is that Spike Milligan was no more significant than the thousands of other men in military service at the time; or than plenty of the people back in UK steadily plodding on keeping everything going. He made lots of apparently insignificant individual contributions which when combined with lots of other similar individual contributions produced the downfall of Hitler and the liberation of Europe from the rule by Nazi Germany.
OK, back to John … John is a pivotal figure. He is very much in the line of the Old Testament prophets of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos … calling the people to read the signs of the times, to repent, and turn back to God. And John is very much a product of that Old Testament Jewish world of the Temple. His father was a priest, his mother the daughter of a priest, the announcement of his birth to his father takes place in the Temple. John is from parents who embody the highest piety of the Old Testament period.
We see God rooting his new work very firmly within the context of the old. It is out of that old that the new is developed: What God is doing is not a year zero in the sense of sweeping away everything that is of the old. The old is taken into the new; it is revised, reshaped, renewed: brought to be what it was ultimately created to be. There was a sense amongst the Jews that God had been silent for centuries. That period following the close of the collection of writings we know as the Old Testament. So when John appeared there was a sense of excitement that God was speaking again to his people – could this be Elijah returned to call the people back to God?
The yearning of the Jews was not in the expectation of someone who will come and just hand them lives of rainbows and puppies and ice cream – but for someone whose preparation will be uncomfortable. There will be a reshaping as mountains are flattened and valleys raised up. This is looking forward to the reign of God – desirable; but not necessarily comfortable. And for us, the process of getting from where we are now as individuals and as communities, to where God wants us to be will require some radical transformations which will not be a comfortable process.
John was set aside for a special purpose before he was born. We have a very important idea given to us by Jeremiah presenting God saying: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you”. This was about the prophet Jeremiah, but it could just as easily apply to John the Baptist as well. And very importantly, this also applies to all of us even if not in such an impressive way. God knew us before we were born.
So back to that new born baby thought: “What will this child become?” For adults it is a question worth reflecting on – or more correctly a modified question: What have we become? No matter what our stage in life it is not too late to be asking the question: “To what has God called us?” A great question to get ourselves back on course no matter how far we may have gone astray. After all, repentance was a central part of the preaching of John the Baptist.