The Rt Revd Michael Doe; St John the Baptist Patronal
Holland Road Birth of John the Baptist 2019
Is 40:1-11 & Acts 13:14b-26 & Luke 1:57-66&80
You might remember this as the Laryngitis Sermon!
The story of the birth of John the Baptist, and the readings we’ve just
heard, seem to me to be about people losing and finding their voice.
What voices can you hear this evening?
The people around you as they pray and sing – for it’s good to come
together for a festival like this, to celebrate your belonging together in
this parish and in this Benefice.
And maybe voices from the past, for a Patronal Festival also
connects us with those who have worshipped and served here over the
years. You have inherited this building and this community from them,
and it’s your responsibility to hand these things over to the next
generation. So we join our voices with those from years past, as part of the community of saints.
In the story of the birth of John the Baptist his father, Zechariah, loses
his voice. It’s not laryngitis but the result of him not believing what the
angel told him about his wife having a baby, because both he and his
wife Elizabeth were both, as St Luke politely puts it, “getting on in years”.
So Elizabeth has to put up with not only the pregnancy but her husband at home doing sign language for “pass me the salt”. If you’ve ever been on a silent retreat you’ll know what it’s like, but she had to put up
with it for five months!
Zechariah gets his voice back when the baby is born and he announces
that the child is not to be named after him but is to be called “John”.
And then, as if to make up for lost time, he raises his voice and proclaims what we have come to call the Benedictus. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel” – we sang it in hymn form just now – “for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them”.
Luke’s Gospel, which records all of this, is full of left-behind people finding their voice. There’s Mary, the mother of Jesus, and what we call the Magnificat. There’s Simeon, waiting in the Temple, and the Nunc Dimittis: “Lord now lettest thou they servant depart in peace...” And here’s Zechariah, praising God that a new day is coming, “the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace”.
And it is John, his son John, who will prepare the way. He will be like
the one whom we heard the prophet Isaiah foretell: it’s a Voice again, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God”.
When he grew up John, who became known as John the Baptizer, took on this task with relish. With directness and great courage he proclaimed the good news. Now I’m not suggesting that you, in this parish, should follow all his evangelistic methods, either in dress or in speech: greeting people with “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the judgement which is to come” is probably not the best way of commending the Gospel in Shepherd’s Bush! John, executed in his thirties by King Herod, would never have won “young salesman of the year”. But still we might learn some things from him.
He was the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Few of God’s messengers have been popular, few became an overnight success. We can sometimes get despondent, seeking to live out and share the Gospel in a culture which often turns its back on the more important and deeper questions of life. The world can sometimes feel like a wilderness. But we are called to be faithful, not successful.
You are called to be the Church here, in this place. To be the kind of community which people might want to join. To offer the kind of worship that might lift people’s spirits. To be the kind of people in daily life where others might stop and ask, what makes them different? And in all of this you are called to sow seeds, and leave the harvest up to God.
And what we might also learn from John, your patron saint, is that there are times when we need to come out against the world. The people who came to see him got it full in the face. They were left in no doubt that they had to change. When they asked to be baptised, he told them what they needed to do. Justice – indeed, Economics – was to be at the centre. He told them: if you have two shirts, share with one who has none, and the same with food. He told soldiers, don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely. Even tax collectors turned up, and, as Jesus would go on and do, John welcomed these despised and irreligious people, but he also told them to change their ways and stop acting unjustly.
I find there a word for our society at this time. There is so much in our culture, and in the way we organise our world, that needs such challenge. Brexit, whether you want it or not, has resulted in a move towards division and self-interest. It’s sometimes called Populism, and defended as those who have been ignored finding their voice to speak out. That, in itself, can’t be bad. But it becomes dangerous when it becomes one group over and against another, and even more when it’s one elite using the justifiable complaints of others for its own advantage. There is now a jostling for leadership and power in more than one political party. I can’t help thinking that John the Baptist would give them all a good dressing-down and seeing-off.
So tonight, let us like Zachariah find a voice to sing God’s praise.
Let us, like his son John, give voice to God’s call to repent, not just personally, individually, but in how we live together in this world.
Let us in this Eucharist join our voices with angels and archangels in awe at the holiness of God and in blessing the one, Jesus Christ, who comes into our world.
And let’s go out, from tomorrow, to change that world into the kind of world of which Zachariah dreamed and for which John the Baptist so forcefully challenges us. Amen