Birth of St John the Baptist, Sunday 24 June 2018
What phrase I am describing? It was mentioned in Stephen Hawking’s memorial service the other week; it is probably inscribed on the £2 coin in your purse or pocket; it was misquoted by the band Oasis in the title of an album, quoted correctly and most famously by Sir Isaac Newton, and may date back to the 12th century philosopher monk Bernard of Chartres. The phrase? ‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’.
Today we remember someone who will do that. John the Baptist will be the latest in the line of prophetic giants. He will dress in camel skins, like the great prophet Elijah; and, as the towering prophecy of Isaiah puts it, he will be a voice crying in the wilderness to prepare the way for someone more gigantic still. But all that, together with his mass baptisms in the river Jordan, lies ahead. Today John is born.
There are only two saints whose births we celebrate: our patron saint the Blessed Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist. The story of John’s birth has echoes everywhere of the Old Testament: father-to-be Zechariah struck dumb like Daniel (his speech comes back this morning), Elizabeth giving birth to John in her old age, like the mothers of Isaac and Samuel, John himself growing and becoming ‘strong in spirit’, like Samson. These too are shoulders John will stand upon. But that lies ahead. Today he is born.
When you mark someone’s death, as we shall remember John’s violent end in August, it is an invitation to consider their life as a done deed. Celebrate their birth and it’s all about promise, potential. ‘What will this child become?’ the neighbours ask this morning.
Yes indeed, what will this child become? In a biography I am always drawn to the pictures of the person in childhood. Look into the face of the young Hitler or Stalin, the young Millicent Fawcett or Margaret Thatcher, the young Tanni Grey Thompson or Harry Kane (yes, there is already a biography out) and you ask: What might this child have become? Could they have become something different? Could that bright promise have been thwarted, or the flaws made good? Could the future evil have been headed off?
Today, though, our interests are not just biography but autobiography. The heart of Christian faith is to be like Jesus, to let his life story shape ours, so how will marking the birth of John the Baptist help us?
As Luke’s story of John’s birth gathers up all those Old Testament themes we see that God takes history seriously, and takes you and me seriously as people in history, as creatures of time: people who ourselves stand on others’ shoulders, whose present has been brought to birth out of the past, made possible by deeds done long ago; and people who will conceive the future of those who come after us. In the ebbs and flows of the Brexit votes last week, one MP said that for him the test was whether ‘I [can] look my children in the eye and honestly say that I did my best for them’. Edmund Burke went further when he described the state as ‘a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.’ How much does that partnership matter to us as we conceive a future that will outlive us? But back to the birth business.
When a child is born, the family may see huge possibilities in that bundle of joy, but not much has actually happened. Gradually, that cloud of promise begins to crystallise and certain possibilities narrow, even disappear, as each year that passes sees roads not taken, chances seized, achievements and mistakes, meetings and partings. It has to be so. The moment you start to become something you can no longer be just anything.
And one reason we keep birthdays is to mark that process. Your birthday is an annual opportunity to add up the score: Twelve months on, who am I? What has made me the person I am now? What has my life added up to, so far? And what promise is there still that the future might hold?
Now, in seventy-seven days our new Dean will arrive, on the weekend we celebrate the birth of our patron saint - our Cathedral’s birthday, in a way - a good and necessary time to ask those birthday questions about ourselves, the people of God in this place: about our past, whose shoulders we stand on; about who we are now; and about the promise of our future.
In our first reading, the synagogue officials ask Paul and his team if they have any thoughts to share. What if Dean Nick asks you that, as he well might? It would take a crack cathedral guide to give the history lesson Paul reels off, but wouldn’t it be good if each of us had something to say?
First, about whose shoulders we stand on. What is the past work done here that you want to celebrate and build upon?
Second, about who we are. According to Paul, John turns round the neighbours’ question when he was born - What will this child become? - and asks, Who do you suppose that I am? He is clear that it is not about him but the one who comes after him. So who do people suppose that we are, honestly? Do we point to Jesus, the human face of God? Do we look like we are part of a movement, not just an institution?
Third, about what we might become, what promise there is here. John, says Paul, called a whole nation to a new start in the waters of baptism. We have a great font, but what other signs are there that we share God’s longings for our world to be cleansed and refreshed? Some examples.
- Is there an empty seat on your row? How do you feel about that?
- We have an Eco Church Silver Award, a small sign about caring for God’s earth. How keen are you that we get Gold?
- We have been successful in sharing Les Colombes and filling our city with doves, symbols of peace and hope [see both here]. What energies might you want to bring to see our City of Doves becoming a City of Sanctuary, somewhere known as a place of peace and hope for people fleeing violence and persecution?
These are my examples, suggested by John’s message of repentance and justice. You will have your own.
What will this child become? the neighbours of baby John’s family asked. As a younger or newer worshipper you may identify with that moment of total promise. Or you may think that you and this place have been around far too long for that. But Luke also says that they rejoiced with Elizabeth who became a mother at a great age; because in God’s great mercy a long history and passage of years are no bar to new birth.