Patronal Festival St John the Baptist Holland Road
A sermon preached by The Venerable Peter Delaney, MBE at the Patronal Festival of St John the Baptist Holland Road, 6.30pm on Sunday 21 June
All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him. Luke 1. 80
How many Christian figures have inspired an opera by Strauss, ‘Salome’ in which John is beheaded in the most dramatic way and is the centre of this powerful music drama. In art a myriad of descriptions of John occur from Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan in our own National Gallery to Aubrey Beardsley’s erotic illustrations of John and Herod I the Yellow Book.
And in Wikipedia that store of knowledge for the internet user he is shown under five different headings the first running for 17 pages! So this is no ordinary patron saint you have in Holland Road.
Who was this man, John the Baptiser, where did he come from, why is he important? Well Luke’s Gospel the great gentile gospel full of compassion and sympathy for women carries the only reference to John’s birth in the New Testament. There’s plenty about his other appearances but Luke alone tells his birth story. There are 61 references to John the Baptist in the New Testament, so he was clearly a very unique man and his whole calling is centred on the wilderness and a solitary beginning.
He is really important for Christians as he is what is called an intertestamental figure in other words he bridges the gap between the Old and New Testament. As an historical prophet in the Jewish tradition he alone continues the mantel of Isaiah and Jeremiah and as all prophets were seen as instruments of God himself he was to be feared for as he spoke his words he actually brought into being the prophecy itself.
So today you commemorate a character of incredible importance for he was not just seen by some as a ‘weirdo’ living an extreme lifestyle but he was actually a social reformer far ahead of his time warning people of the consequences of their extravagant lifestyles. Now there’s an agenda for St John the Baptist Holland Road for their next decade an agenda of social reform bringing to this part of London the message of repentance and freedom from self.
What would this birth mean today if it happened here in London, and became known to the area? Well it would certainly cause a stir unconventional and radical would upset some! John did not conform to those around him, he stood for something else, and because of this he was respected and not thought of as a crank! The people who followed John were prepared to live out his way of life.
Reflect for a moment that John pulled out of the establishment and would not identify with the great Temple in Jerusalem but spent his time by the River Jordan and amongst a community which many believe corresponds to the Essenes, the monastic group who lived near Quamran and where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. They lived a simple life and ate a form of insects like locusts and a manna which appeared in the desert with the dew of morning. Do you remember how John the Baptist is described in Matthew, “Now John himself had a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist: and his food was locusts and wild honey”
They believed in the importance of cleansing with water with prayer and studying the holy words of prophets and teachers. And remember the importance of water to a nomadic people in the wilderness or desert which is where Jesus migrated to before he began his own ministry. Near to where the Baptism of Jesus took place by the Dead sea in the tributary of the Jordan River.
Your patronal feast is next Wednesday the Nativity of John the Baptist, so our focus should be on the significance of the birth of John. Those of you who have been able to visit the Holy Land will reflect on the fact that a short distance from Jerusalem in the Judean hill county nestling in a small valley is the village of Ein Karim. A small road runs through this verdant village on the one side nesting in the hills a beautiful Franciscan church of the Visitation commemorating the visit of Mary to Elizabeth heralding the news of Johns birth and Jesus and on the other side of the valley another church built over a cave hewn in the rock kept as the place of John’s birth.
Here in this valley the Old and the New Testaments meet in John’s figure the prophet of the new age. His life from the beginning was set apart born of a Temple priest Zachariah and Elisabeth Mary’s cousin and charged from the start with preparing the way for Jesus Christ. It was a tough assignment and meant unpopularity and isolation. John was unacceptable to his own people where his message was change and turn around or repent and to those outside the established Jewish Jerusalem sects an anathema as the words he spoke were seen as blasphemy and sedition against the status quo.
So John moved out of the area and walked to the lowest point on the planet the Dead Sea (a day’s journey from Jerusalem into the desert) and developed his own ministry amongst the barren desert and those other rebels who had escaped into the wilderness to be free of the shackles of strict Orthodox Judaism. This meant that John began to attract those who also felt uncomfortable with traditional Jewish convention and were looking for a new freedom of the spirit.
It was in effect the birth of a new movement in Judaism, not of the Zealots or of the warring classes against Rome but a peaceful revolution about simple living and a sense of identity with nature and the environment. There were a number of new communities growing up around the Dead Sea who practised a simple rule of life, depended upon the deserts provision for food and drink and wanted to return to how Israel had lived early in its history.
We are therefore not surprised that Jesus was drawn to the same area to begin his own ministry and in so doing chose to identify with John and those who gathered by the river Jordan as it entered the Dead Sea. And at this point two eras confront each other the last of the Old Testament Prophets John the Baptist and the promised bringer of the new age, Jesus Christ the first prophet of the New message of hope.
Shortly after Jesus’s baptism he returned to the same place to spend forty days and forty nights to sort himself out as he began his own ministry. But make no mistake about it his friend John the Baptist help shape the thinking of Jesus Christ and Jesus lamented the tragic death of John with the moving words “no greater than John has lived on this earth.”
How does the unique teaching of John the Baptist influence the community of Holland Road? Here in this magnificent Brooks church hidden away between other buildings the gospel has been lived out for over a hundred and twenty six years. Here word and sacrament, forgiveness and hope have been at the core of Christian life. The great symbol of St John Baptist points beyond this church to those it serves in this hidden community.
What I am really asking myself is where do I see the commitment of John to the new way of life in my own life and in the ministry of this church? “Repent and believe the good news” that is the core message. How do we demonstrate that by the way we organize our church life and our home lives? John sought his God by a life style that was different from those around him. I suppose a legitimate question to pose today is repentance central to how you approach each other; forgiving and forgiven! Can people sense when they meet you that you are open to their needs and available to them, judging by my welcome here it certainly begins well how but how is the follow up?
John calls each one of us to repentance and a new life focussed on Jesus, renewed daily. This community of John the Baptist today celebrating its Patronal Festival gives thanks for all those who have gone before in the history of faith, those unknown saints of Holland Road who trail blaze for us and remind us of loyalty to Jesus Christ and that the way ahead is full of hope and forgiveness. So put a smile on your face and praise God who lives in Holland Road - or perhaps you hadn’t noticed?