25th June is celebrated by the church as the Birth of John the Baptist. John is a key figure in the story of salvation. He came to earth as a prophet very much like those in the Old Testament and yet he was actually pointing to the new reality, the inauguration of the Kingdom of God as Jesus came to live as God among us. John belongs in a sort of no-man’s land how things were and how they are now. We can learn from him if we take the trouble.
The readings at the 2pm Thursday service were Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:7-end, Luke 1:57-66,80. My reflection is given below:
In the Cathedral here we have Gareth Janus (aka the Rev Dr Gareth Edwards) leading services. His surname is that of a god in Roman mythology. Janus was the god of gates and doors, beginning and endings. He is reputed to have received the gift of seeing both future and past from the god Saturn in return for hospitality when Saturn was fleeing from Jupiter. The most common depiction of Janus is with two heads which face in different directions, looking to both future and past. Janus often symbolized changes and transitions such as moving from past to future or from one vision to another. He was the patron of beginnings of all sorts and also represented time. He gives us the name of our first month, January, the beginning of the year, the time of resolutions and new starts.
Today we remember the birth of John the Baptist who seems to me to be a Janus-like figure. The Jews had been waiting for John for 400 years. As the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, closes we read Malachi’s final words: ‘Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.’ A little earlier in his book, Malachi had written: ‘Behold, I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.’ And so the days of the prophets ended and the Jewish nation held its breath until the time of John, the time when Joel predicted prophecy would return.
We are familiar with the announcement of John’s arrival by an angel when Zechariah his father was selected to go into the Holy of Holies to offer incense to God. Zechariah was told that the baby to be born was to be set aside specially to serve God, not touching wine or liquor. This probably meant that he was to be a Nazirite as Samson and possibly Samuel were. His name was chosen for him by God – John, meaning ‘The Lord is gracious’. When the time came to name him, Zechariah made sure he gave his son the correct name, to the astonishment of his family and friends. Zechariah may have been too amazed to believe the angel’s announcement but when John was born, this holy priest followed his instructions to the letter.
After this family gathering to celebrate John’s birth, we hear no more about his parents. We might think it strange that God waited until the very last minute to grant the gift of a child to this godly couple but God’s timing is perfect. We’re told that as a child John grew and became strong in spirit, no doubt guided by Zechariah and Elizabeth. I have to wonder if being born to very old parents gave John the freedom he needed to be what God wanted him to be. Normally a son would be expected to look after his parents in their old age but the chances are that Zechariah and Elizabeth died when he was fairly young. This would have left John free to go to live in the wilderness where we see him awaiting his orders from God before beginning his public ministry.
When we next read of John, he was using the words from today’s reading from Isaiah, identifying himself as the messenger who was to prepare the Lord’s way and drawing great crowds to hear him. John was obviously a prophet with the way he dressed being so much like Elijah’s way, and his fiery words so reminiscent of those of the prophets in the past. In this way he looked back to the past. But his message was one of preparation also, looking forward to a new vision. John, like Janus, looked both ways, seeing both past and future at a time of transition.
Jesus said of John: ‘Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he’. John’s calling left him in a no-man’s land between ages. He was like the prophets of old, though separated from them by 400 years, almost an afterthought, God’s final and greatest prophetic word as he closed that chapter of history in anticipation of the age of The Word. He was so much on the edge of the group of prophets due to the passing of time and his great status that he was barely attached to it. At the same time John never had the chance to fully enter the new reality, the kingdom of God or heaven as inaugurated by Jesus. He was a little like Moses who could only look over the Promised Land but couldn’t enter. He didn’t belong to a family, either with his parents or with wife and children; he didn’t belong to the community in general, living as he did out in the wilds. He did at least gather a set of loyal disciples who visited him when he was in prison and stayed together even after his death.
We too may find ourselves in a similar situation to John’s. Carrying God’s message to the people as we are each called to do may leave us not able to belong to society in some ways. Jesus called us to be in the world but not of it, and that’s not an easy calling. We may each find ourselves to be single voices crying in the wilderness of our work, our community, our government, or even our church. Our message may be eagerly embraced by some but rejected by others. We might be thought of as weird, a misfit, someone not quite sane. We might suffer from disadvantages, being passed over for promotion, losing friends and so on. Like John, our priority has to be to stand for the truth rather than to look out for potential advantages in life.
It would be so easy in such circumstances to become ‘holier than thou’ and judgemental, to look down on the ignorance of others while rejoicing that we know the truth. If you read more about John in Luke’s Gospel you will see that he had compassion on the people who came to him in all sincerity. He gave them good advice on how to turn their lives around, how to live in the light of their repentance, to produce the fruit which would show a genuine change of heart. He took a nurturing approach, very much like God’s gentle shepherding of his people as described in the passage from Isaiah.
Let’s not forget that the message we have to share is Good News and portray it as such to those who will listen to us, rather than overburdening them as the Pharisees had a habit of doing. While not watering down the challenge of our message, let’s be compassionate to those who are genuinely seeking God, welcome them with open arms and teach them what they need to know.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor