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The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)
Matins Sunday 24 June 2018
Mal. 3. 1-6 & Luke 3. 1-17
Usually we remember saints on the day that they died, but today we remember the birth of St John the Baptist because it marks the beginning of a new era, a turning point in the revelation of God. St John the Baptist marks the frontier between the Old and the New Testaments. He represents the Old Testament and introduces the New. This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that when he was as yet unborn, he leapt for joy in his mother’s womb when Mary, pregnant with Jesus, came to visit – this has always been interpreted as a sign that his ministry was all about preparing for and celebrating the birth of Jesus.
There are some interesting comparisons when we look at events surrounding the birth of John and the birth of Jesus.
It was while Zechariah was in the Sanctuary of the temple making an offering of incense to God that he was visited by the Angel Gabriel to be told that his old, barren wife would bear a child. We are told that Zechariah was ‘Terrified and fear overwhelmed him’. This terror and fear is clearly taken by the Angel as disbelief because after the angel had spoken to Zechariah for some time, explaining what was going to happen, he was struck dumb as a punishment for his disbelief. So we have a holy priest, doing holy things, in a holy place having an encounter with an angel, responding with disbelief and being struck dumb.
Then, in Luke’s version of this story, the Angel Gabriel appears to a young peasant girl called Mary – the angel explains that, even though she is a virgin, she will conceive and bear a son. We are told that Mary was ‘perplexed’ and ‘pondered’ what the angel was saying. At the end of the encounter Mary says
‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’
Mary then went to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who was already pregnant with John and the baby in her womb leapt for joy. It is then that Mary sang the Magnificat – the greatest hymn of praise in the bible, the hymn of praise we sing at every evensong. The Magnificat is all about the raising up of the lowly, the scattering of the proud, the bringing down of the powerful and the feeding of the hungry. It is a vision of a new world order.
When John was born he was taken to be circumcised and given his name – Elizabeth says his name must be John, and when the people check with the still mute Zechariah, he writes on a writing-tablet, ‘His name is John’ and immediately he gets his voice back and it is only then that he praises God and sings a song of praise, a song we call the Benedictus, which to this day we sing or recite daily at Morning Prayer. The picture Luke paints at this point is of Zechariah holding his precious, new born son and singing a song all about the redemption of the people of Israel, it is about how God has worked through the prophets of old to be true to the ancient covenant God made with Abraham to build up and protect his descendants who would become a mighty nation. Towards the end Zechariah addresses his baby son,
‘And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
The song of Mary essentially looks forward to a vision of our great saviour God working to make a new world order in the future. The song of Zechariah looks back to see how God has always been working to protect and save his people and that it is from his previous acts and promises that this new prophet arises to lead God’s people to a new dawn, from the darkness of the past to a new future filled with light.
These stories and songs are beautiful and dramatic and they provoke challenging questions for us. I must confess that as a priest I am profoundly disturbed by the fact that the priestly character, Zechariah, in a holy place, going about his priestly business is simply terrified, overwhelmed by fear and unbelief when God actually speaks to him through an angel. And yet when an ordinary carpenter is visited by an angel he accepts it and responds immediately and when a young peasant girl is visited by an angel, presumably just in the countryside around Nazareth, despite being perplexed, she also quickly accepts that God is calling her and says ‘let it be to me according to your word’.
This made me think about how I would react if I was just going about my priestly business in a holy place, like this, and I experienced a revelation from God – how would I react? I suspect I would be terrified just like Zechariah rather than receptive and rejoicing like Mary. This is a stark reminder that we cannot confine or constrain God. Certainly God is revealed in holy places and through religious actions and through religious people – but God is also revealed outside all of this, God is also revealed in other settings and to unlikely people. We make a big mistake if we think God only works through religion – we have to be alive to the fact that it’s not only bishops speaking with authority from their Cathedrals or Synods, or priests standing in pulpits, who reveal what God has to say. The poor and the marginalised, the non-religious can also reveal profound truths about God and God’s ways and we must also always be listening to them as well.
Week by week in church we explore the revelation of God to us through scripture and sacrament – we are confronted by a challenge to proclaim God’s love and to live in new ways. Does this terrify and frighten us into silence like it did for Zechariah? Do we stay locked in our churches, and in ourselves, waiting for someone or something to push us out of our comfort zone? Or do we move outward and forward confidently, like Mary, despite being somewhat perplexed, and sing songs of praise and thanksgiving envisioning a new world order?
We walk in the footsteps of St John the Baptist today, we, as individuals and as a church, are the voice God needs to speak his Word. We are the voice that should be speaking God’s eternal Word of forgiveness and mercy. God’s eternal Word of light that shines in darkness, even in the darkness of death. God’s eternal Word guiding us all in the ways of peace.
With the words of the Song of Zechariah and the Song of Mary in our minds, let us pray
Give us, O God, a vision of your world as your love would make it; a world where the weak are protected and none go hungry; a world whose benefits are shared, so that everyone can enjoy them; a world whose different people and cultures live with tolerance and mutual respect; a world where peace is built with justice, and justice is fired with love. Amen
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