Fr Paul’s Sermon, 24th June 2018

John the Baptist is one of the few saints who gets two festivals in the Church’s year – today, his birthday, and August 29, the commemoration of his death. Only our Lord himself and his blessed mother have their births commemorated, besides John. John is also prominent in Advent and as the occasion of the Visitation of our Lady to his parents. So why is he so important?

The first reason is that this has always been so. All four Gospels begin the story of our Lord’s public ministry with his baptism by John. Luke begins his whole Gospel with the story of John’s birth, before that of Jesus. Several times in his ministry our Lord disputes with his opponents about the significance of John. All of this reflects the fact that, for the early Church, John was seen as a very significant figure.

We know from the Acts of the Apostles that, some thirty-odd years after his death, there were Jews in Ephesus who knew more about John (and had received his baptism) than about Jesus. Most likely they had been pilgrims to Jerusalem in the hey-day of John’s ministry, but since returning home had heard little about the Christian movement. The Jewish historian Josephus, writing after AD70, has as much to say (though not very much) about John as about Jesus.

So we come back to today’s feast. Nine months before, Zechariah had been offering incense in the Temple, when he was told he would have a son who would be filled with the Holy Spirit, and make ready for the Lord a people prepared (Lk 1.15,17). Now, at his birth, Zechariah cries, “You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.”

All this goes back to the prophecy of Isaiah, “A voice cries, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.’” That prophecy, given during the Exile of the Jews in Babylon, was a promise that God would return to Jerusalem, and to his Temple, to right all wrongs and live again among his people. It was also a reminder that, for this to happen, the people must be made ready. Zechariah, inspired by God, is announcing that the time has now arrived, and that John is the one appointed to prepare the people.

Even more significantly, he is saying (and Luke is saying) that the Lord is returning in the person of Jesus, the unborn child of Mary who has come to visit them hidden in Mary’s womb. Jesus is the Lord, the one who in Hebrew is called Adonai, the word substituted to this day by Jews when reading the Scriptures, for the unspeakable Name of God.

When Jesus began his own public ministry, he was not at all like the Messiah of popular expectation. He commanded no armies, he ate with publicans and sinners, he sat lightly to many traditions that the orthodox thought important. John was much more like the conventional picture of a prophet: fasting, dressed in camel-hair, living in the desert, denouncing sin. He was, if you like, the “warm-up act” for Jesus. Repent, change your lives, turn back to God – because he is coming, and coming very soon.

When Jesus appeared at the Jordan, John pointed him out to his disciples: “Behold, the Lamb of God!” And from then on, he grew less while Jesus took the limelight. And at the end he died in the dungeons of King Herod, showing even by his death that bearing witness to God invites the hostility of worldly powers, and even death. The herald once again showed the way in which the King would have to go.

Thinking about John, I wonder how far the Church of today really confronts the Spirit of the Age. On some things, yes, our bishops speak out boldly enough – but usually when the prevailing liberal opinion is behind them: on refugees, for instance, or homelessness, the environment. But how many stand up for the unborn, or against the erosion and destruction of the Christian ideal of marriage? Why do our bishops seem to support the moral values of the wealthy, white West, rather than those defended by the bishops of (say) Uganda and Nigeria? How often are we ourselves cowed by the weight of popular opinion against Christian values? As the question sometimes seen outside churches asks, If we were arrested for being Christians, would there be enough evidence for conviction? What would John the Baptist say?