Sermon 24 June 2018 – Birth of John the Baptist

Todays readings for the Baptism of John the Baptist
Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:26-36
Romans 8:22-27
John 15:26-27,16:4b-15

Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Anne Kennedy. 

Converting a Bear
A rabbi, priest, and a preacher meet every Monday in a coffee shop to talk things over about their spiritual life. One day, the priest makes a bet with the other guys that he could convert a bear in the woods over to his religion. The others nod and say “Yeah, I’ll bet we could do it quicker than you could!” So they all agree that the next time they meet, they’ll share stories about how they were able to convert a bear.

They all end up in the hospital, but the priest is in the best shape of all of them. They decide to meet in the rabbi’s room. The priest has his arm in a sling and says, “Yeah, it was tough at first, but I was able to dash it with some holy water. The next thing I know, it started saying Hail Mary. He’s coming to mass this Sunday.”

The other two clergymen nod in approval, and the preacher goes next. The preacher is in pretty bad shape. He’s in a wheel chair, and he has a concussion, a broken leg, and a broken arm. He says “Well, when I finally happened upon it, I wrestled that thing to the ground and started beating its head with a Bible. So he lunges at me and we tumble down this hill into the river where I dunked him seven times. Finally, he came to the faith. He’ll be coming to church next Sunday.”

Both men turn to the rabbi to hear his story. The rabbi looks like he got the worst of it. He’s in a body cast and there’s no way he’s getting out of bed any time soon. He looks at both men and says “Well, I probably should’ve started with something different than circumcision….”

(Jokeshared by Beliefnet member ShinwaNate—Converting-a-Bear-/2011041815 accessed 22/5/2018)

In the Jewish faith, circumcision is a very important part of a baby boy’s acceptance into the faith of his family, and today, our Gospel reading talks about the birth of John the Baptist and the cultural religious ritual that surrounded it including his circumcision and his naming.

There are a lot of unusual birth stories in the bible.  The birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary – the birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah in their very old age, the wonderful passages in Genesis 5 and onwards that recount the vast ages of Adam’s descendants as they procreated family down to the birth of Noah and on to Abraham.  The New Testament begins with a whole chapter listing the descendants of Abraham through to Joseph, the husband of Mary, Jesus’ mother.  Lineage was very important to the Jewish people, and it was important to name the people who played a part in their history.

Even today, people are placing great importance on their heritage –millions of people all trying to piece together their family history, trying to find what ties them to this earth in a particular time and a particular place.  How many of us have tinkered with our family trees to see which branch we sit on?

We don’t know much about Jesus’ family tree – although I saw in a book many years ago, an image of Jesus family – Anna and Joachim (Mary’s parents), Mary and Joseph, Mary’s two sisters, called Mary Salome and Mary Cleopas with their husbands, and their various children including Jesus, with James his brother and their other siblings, John the Baptist his cousin – it was a lovely, happy scene, but I think the product of a wishful imagination.

But we do know a bit about John the Baptiser, and his birth.  We know his parents were very old, and yearning for a child to carry on the name of his father.  In those days, honour and shame in the family were very important, and the shame of childlessness that Zechariah and Elizabeth bore was very heavy.

Step into the 21stCentury – We see families today of various shapes and sizes  and still there is a sense of expectation that a couple will bring children into the world – when they don’t, there are questions asked up front, and behind backs.  If children aren’t forthcoming in the expected time – well, there’s always assisted reproduction, so don’t worry.

But for some people, there will be no offspring.  For them it could be a joint decision not to have children;  for others it is a fact of life that they can accept;  for others it can be an ongoing burden of sadness.

Our daughter and son-in-law tried for 5 years to have a child and faced all the questions about “when are you going to have kids?” as friends gathered their second and third children around them. They were even left off the invitation list of the 1stbirthday party for one of their close friends first child.  When they asked why, the answer was “Oh, you don’t have any children, and everyone else has. We thought you’d be bored”.

I wonder if Elizabeth and Zechariah had that sort of experience?

Previously in Luke’s Gospel, we have discovered that while on duty at the temple, Zechariah has a vision of an angel telling him he is to be a father of a boy called John, who will be great in the sight of the Lord and will be filled by the Holy Spirit even before he is born.  He will change the lives of many people as he leads people to God.  Zechariah challenges the angel, – and what a gracious man he is “I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years”.  He doesn’t call Elizabeth old, but suggests that this is a situation that is not going to have a positive outcome!  The angel was not happy with his response and Zechariah was made speechless because he had not believed this messenger from God.

This really was a message from God – and it lasted the whole pregnancy!

We do know that Mary, the mother of our Lord, was a cousin of Elizabeth, and that when she received the message of her pregnancy, she set off to visit Elizabeth, who was already into her sixth month.  But Mary wasn’t there for the birth of John the Baptist – she had returned to her home to await the arrival of her own baby.

Everyone was delighted that Elizabeth and Zechariah had been blessed with a son in their advanced age.

This is not always the case – I remember sitting on the floor at Box Hill Hospital at an anti-natal class. You chat to other mothers as you roll around the exercise mats trying not to give the impression of a pod of beached whales.  I said to the lady beside me “Is this your first?” (Usual question!)  “No, it’s my fourth” she replied.  “Oh, how old are your other children?” I asked naively. “Twenty-four, twenty-three and nineteen!” she said firmly.  Our conversation stalled at that point.

But for Elizabeth and Zechariah, the birth of their son would have been bliss.   They and all the community would have known that the hand of God had been on this pregnancy, so they were excited about what the birth of this child could mean.

It’s Jewish custom that names are not announced immediately – eight days after the birth the baby boys are taken to the Synagogue for circumcision and only then is their name is announced.

Well, everyone gathered around, naturally expecting the name to be announced as Zechariah.  But Zechariah was unable to say what he thought, still being mute through the action of God.  So it was his Mother, Elizabeth, who announced the boy would be called John. “But no one in your family is called by that name” they said!  “Quick, give his father a tablet so that he can write down the child’s name!”   He writes, probably in large letters– “His name is John!”

Suddenly Zechariah tongue is loosened, and the power of speech returns – and he begins to speak, praising God, and putting great fear into the hearts of those around him.   The birth of John the Baptist became the talk of the entire hill country of Judea.  With such a beginning – what would this child become?

Well, we know what he became.  The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.  (Luke 1:80)

And God had given him an incredible job – to prepare the way of the Lord – the Messiah – for whom Israel had been waiting for so long.  John, the prophet, proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins – awakening the hearts of those who had given up hope of the coming of the Messiah, pleading with those who had ceased doing God’s will, begging them to return to a life right with God, and awakening those whose lives had been without direction or hope.  “Wake up! The Messiah is coming!”

I wonder how you would react if I rushed into church crying out “Wake up!  The Messiah is on his way – I just saw him at Harwell Station, and he’s coming up the hill!

Would you laugh and brush me off? Would you even turn and look behind you?

John had known all his life that Jesus was the Messiah.  He also knew that he had been born to fulfil the words of the prophets – in the words of Zechariah when he reclaimed his voice – “You my child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.”   (Luke 1:76-77)

Isn’t this our calling today?  We might not be dressed in animal skins and live in the wilderness like John, but we are in a world where the wilderness is the lack of community, the selfishness of people, and the rejection of God and his son Jesus Christ.

We are the ones called to pave the way for people to come into contact with Jesus, so that their lives might be filled with hope and peace.  As we join in the Dismissal at the end of the service, let’s really mean what we say in response to the bidding “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord”,  “In the name of Christ!  Amen!

Rev’d Anne Kennedy 22/6/2018