BIRTH OF JOHN THE BAPTIST
Readings: Isaiah 40: 1-11; Galatians 3:23-end; 1:57-66, 80.
The OT passage is the prologue to that part of Isaiah that we call Deutero (or Second) Isaiah. It was written later by a a different prophet from the earlier chapters. It movingly expresses this Isaiah's basic message which is the proclamation of an imminent restoration for exiled Israel. Thus we can date the writing as being about 550 BC.. It was meant to be an assurance to these exiles that God had not forgotten them, nor had he been overwhelmed by the gods of Babylon. The writer identifies himself with the exiles and his message reveals the concern of God for the people.
Like many other prophets he is somewhat reluctant at the beginning. A voice says 'Cry out!' And I said, 'What shall I cry?' All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades ... surely the people are grass'. But then he realizes, ... but the word of our God will stand for ever. This foreshadows one of his most significant insights near the close of his part of the book at chapter 55: For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, ... so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it. So, at the commencement of this prologue, God says: Comfort, O Comfort my people ... Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, .... her penalty is paid. ... In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight a way in the desert, a highway for our God. ... Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed. When God speaks, it is as good as done! His word is a guarantee of action to follow. God has come in many ways over the ages in deliverance of his people.
The Exodus from Egypt in preparation for entry into the Promised Land under the leadership of Moses was one such. The return from exile in Babylon and the restoration of Jerusalem to which this OT passage today points was another. The coming of God himself in the person of Jesus Christ, to whom John the Baptist points was supremely the act of God. And again the words of this prophetic reading point towards this event also. Every time of God's coming is an act of his saving grace. But salvation involves judgment. Every act of God's forgiving love, or gift of love, in a personal sense too, is a coming of God, an act of God's grace. And there is a final coming, commonly referred to as the Second Coming, or the Parousia, or the Day of the Lord. The time of this event we do not know, indeed we are not meant to know. This will be the final judgment, and the establishment of God's kingdom, God's kingly rule, for which we pray every time we say 'Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.'
The people of God are constantly trespassing, constantly forgiven. Constantly exiled to unknown lands, and constantly restored, sometimes by way of the desert, brought back to their own land, sometimes literally, certainly spiritually. S. Paul tells us too that we have been saved and delivered ? delivered from the bondage of race, status and gender. Through baptism we are all equally one in Christ. In Christ we are all children of the one God and Father. At the birth of John the Baptist the question was asked, What then shall this child become? It was of course a rhetorical question ? the sort of question we may well have asked ourselves as we gazed in awe and wonder at our new born offspring. The proud father sees his little baby boy kicking his feet in his pram and thinks perhaps that he could become an All Black, or in another country, that he may play for Manchester United. At 2.00 a.m. when he is crying loudly one wonders if he is developing the lungs of an opera singer.
One never knows, although there are parents who try to push their children rather too hard in the direction of their own self-fulfilment. It was the circumstances surrounding this birth that led to the question being asked on this occasion. There had been an angelic proclamation, and the birth was unusual when one considers the age of the mother. And there was the father who was made speechless (and as he was a priest, that was unusual), and then the insistence on a name never before used in this family, and the father's regaining of the use of his voice at the naming of the child, and speaking out prophetic words. A child of promise indeed. Of course all children are children of promise ? although not all fulfil it. We can increase the possibility by bringing up our children in homes where our faith is lived out in daily life, giving the children an example worthy of emulation. We can baptize them, and then live and worship together with them as part of the Lord's family.
These are the values that count. They are more important than the school, the neighbourhood or the extent of the family finances. And even if we feel that perhaps we did not do as good a job as we should have ourselves, it is not too late to encourage others. John's was in fact a strange destiny. On the one hand a fierce intolerance of the things of this world. He shall drink neither wine or any strong drink. And can you imagine a Christian conference centre receiving John's application form, and under the heading 'any special dietary requirements' reading, 'locusts, lightly grilled, with a side dish of wild honey.' ? But, hand in hand with this life of strict austerity, there existed an intense spiritual joy and excitement. Twice in his recorded life he trembled with joy: first while still in Elizabeth's womb when she met with her cousin Mary, the mother of the Lord; and then when as an adult during his prophetic ministry, he meets Jesus, and points to him as the Anointed of God.
Until this dramatic point he had been simply, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, that region of spiritual warfare between a fallen world and the kingdom which is about to break in. In the harsh desert areas around the Jordan, John rose up in the power and spirit of Elijah as a powerful preacher of judgment. His fame grew rapidly; here was a message that was in tune with the hopes of the times. The crowds flocked to him in such numbers that the religious authorities became alarmed and sent out a deputation to see for themselves what was happening. With burning words and a form of baptism for repentance in the river Jordan, he was preparing God's people for a return to the Covenant and the 'Day of the Lord'. He was in fact the last in a great line of prophets who sought to restoration for God's people before the Lord's first coming. But, over and above all that, John appears as the friend who brings the bride to the bridegroom, and then retires quietly. He led God's people to their destiny, he pointed them to Jesus, and then, in order to let Jesus increase, he chose to fade from the scene, his work accomplished. This is the holy passion which reveals the depth and extent of his faith and love for God. There was no hint of self-hood and self glory in this. Perhaps this, even more than his proclamation and his achievements, can be his example to us in our walk with God.
St Maargaret's, Budapest
Rev'd Canon Denis Moss
edited by Simon Harding