[I was asked to preach this coming Sunday and due to a mix-up with the calendar, I ended up preparing two different sermons. Here is a roughish draft of the sermon I would have used had the parish celebrated the feast day for the Birth of St. John the Baptist.]
When I first started attending Grace Church 4.5 years ago, I used to joke with Rachel — the former Associate Priest here — about how disappointing the twenty-first century has been. Growing up in the 1990s, we expected better from this century. We had seen the end of the Cold War, and with it the promise of a New World Order. TV told us we were entering a colour-blind era, where race wasn’t going to be something to hold anyone back. And, while we knew climate change was a problem (even my 1993 Alberta-issued junior high science textbook knew this), the world was showing its resolve to limit greenhouse gas emissions and it was obvious that tackling pollution, environmental degradation, and global warming were in everyone’s interest. So as the twentieth century drew to a close, with its World Wars, chemical warfare, nuclear threat, fascism, Holocausts, Gulags, Sixties Scoops, race riots and Jim Crow laws, and unfettered overconsumption, many of us who then were young said an eager ‘Good riddance.’
But of course history has a long reach and a longer memory. Shockingly, the old, destructive habits of the human heart — envy, greed, lust, anger, selfishness — didn’t disappear with the turn of a calendar page, and the twenty-first century has been much like the last: haunted by Terrorism, and the War on Terrorism, an unprecedented refugee crisis, resurgent xenophobia and protectionism, increased economic inequality and political polarization, ongoing injustice within our criminal justice system, the intransigence of sexism, racism, classism, homophobia and transphobia, and most consequential of all, such inaction on environmental issues as to make what were scientists’ worst-case scenarios now our most-likely scenarios, scenarios whose impact we’re already starting to see. Even that old twentieth-century trope of “Keeping up with the Jones” has found its equally destructive twenty-first-century equivalent in “Fear of missing out.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Indeed, eighteen years later, the dream of the nineties looks as naive and earnest as an After School Special or episode of Touched by an Angel.
But still, when we look at the world around us and read the news it’s easy to long for a do-over.
Can’t we just start again?
It feels more than ever like we need a new beginning. A new day. A new time. A new moment.
Today in our liturgical calendar, the Church remembers just such a new beginning, marked by the birth of the great and holy prophet we know as John the Baptist. To understand the significance of this birth, we have to remember that before John, Israel had been experiencing what was understood to be an age of God’s silence. Whatever work of the Spirit had been involved in the prophetic traditions for centuries had seemingly long ago dried up. Israel was a minor puppet kingdom under the foot of the mighty Roman Empire. Its political class cared more about lining their own pocketbooks than anything else. Its religious leaders were bitterly divided by their sectarian concerns. Revolutionaries came and went, accomplishing nothing but tightening Rome’s grip. The people of God were in need of a new beginning.
And so, in comes John, who would go out in the wilderness and proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God, preparing the way for his cousin and lord, Jesus. After John’s birth, his father Zacharias is himself filled with the Spirit and beautifully prophesies about the significance of all this:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty saviour for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us….
This is a new beginning for the people of God, but one viewed as the perfection and completion of everything that had happened before. In his ecstasy, it’s as though Zacharias can see the strands of time and history — from Abraham through Moses and the prophets until his own day — being woven together toward the coming of Jesus. Then, turning to his newborn son he says, And as for you, my child, you 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.
This language connects John to that old prophetic legacy, to the brave eccentrics like Samuel, Elijah, Hosea and Isaiah, who were called to speak forth the truth of what was happening in the world — not to tell the future but to call the powers that be to account. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, later taken up by our Lord Jesus himself:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me,
Because the Lord has anointed Me
To preach good news to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim freedom to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord,
A new year. A new beginning. A new moment.
John’s own ministry is summarized by another oracle from Isaiah, which was our Old Testament reading today:
The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord;
Make straight in the desert
A highway for our God.”
John proclaimed the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God and a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. I think we often get a bad image in our minds of John and his teaching. We hear “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” and we imagine someone on a soapbox on the street corner screaming “Doom!” and cursing those who pass by. But I don’t think that’s fair. This oracle of Isaiah’s in which we see John’s ministry begins “Comfort, oh Comfort my people! Speak tenderly to Jerusalem!” The heart of the message of the prophets is always that old preacher’s manifesto, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. It is equal parts comfort and challenge. Yes, repentance is a call to mend our ways and make sure the path we’re on is taking us where we want to go. But it’s less about fire and brimstone than it is about washing the eyes of our hearts: to see things as they are, to see the world through God’s eyes, the eyes of compassion, love, and justice — which are one and the same thing.
(Let’s make this clear: There is no justice without mercy; in the beautiful words of our Psalm today, “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” When we forget this, all manor of evil can be done in the name of so-called ‘justice’.)
Seen from the other direction, this repentance is to see past the illusions our egos and passions project onto the world, those illusions that divide it into ‘us’ and ‘them’ and cause us to eat, consume, and lust after more than we need, more than what is ours. And this washing of the eyes of our hearts is what John’s ministry of baptism was all about. Not a get out of jail free card, but a fresh start with eyes and hearts oriented to God and God’s Kingdom.
This is the message of John’s teaching. And this is what we commemorate today. And it’s a good thing to commemorate. But commemorating isn’t enough.
Earlier this year, on the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of that great twentieth century prophet, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Dr. William Barber, a man who has more than anyone else taken up Dr. King’s mantle in our own century, addressed the crowd that had gathered in Memphis. He said, “We don’t need a commemoration, we need a reconsecration.” I’m going to repeat that: “We don’t need a commemoration, we need a reconsecration.” He went on to remind the crowds that “The Bible says woe unto those who love the tombs of the prophets.” Remembering the lives of the saints and prophets like we do today is all well and good. But that isn’t our job. Our job isn’t to commemorate the martyrs, but to continue their work.
And, brothers and sisters, there is so much work to be done. The good news — and I mean the Good News, capital G, capital N — is that the same Spirit that empowered John and all the prophets of old inspires and empowers us too. Of all the New Testament writers, Luke, who wrote both of today’s New Testament readings, is the most passionate about this fact. His Gospel begins with with the ecstatic, prophetic outbursts of Mary, Elizabeth, and Zacharias, and ends with Jesus promising his disciples that they will receive “power from on high.” Then Acts begins with the fulfillment of this promise, when the Holy Spirit fell upon the apostles on the feast of Pentecost and they went out into Jerusalem proclaiming the good news of the resurrection of Jesus in all of the languages of the known world. The rest of Acts marks the progress of this Gospel — and the Holy Spirit — as it spreads from Jerusalem throughout the Empire until it finally reaches Rome. At every step of the way, the Spirit is manifest, as it empowers the apostles and is poured out onto new believers in every town and city.
And so, we believe, this has continued from place to place and generation to generation: the Spirit empowers new apostles, martyrs, and prophets, teachers, servants, healers and intercessors, wherever and whenever it goes. And that means that this same Spirit, who is everywhere present and fills all things, which we received in a new, precious way at baptism, inspires and empowers us too.
And so, like Zacharias we can proclaim the goodness that God has shown us in fulfilling the promises of old. Like, John, we can tell the people in our path of the new beginning of repentance and forgiveness.
Like Isaiah, we can proclaim healing to the brokenhearted, freedom to the captive, and celebrate the new day of God’s favour.
Like Dr. King we can work for God’s Dream of justice, true justice, rolling down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.
And like Dr. Barber today we can reconsecrate ourselves, souls and bodies to fight injustice wherever we find it, even to the very halls of power in our city, province, and country.
And so, brothers and sisters, today as we remember the birth of John the Baptist, let us do more than remember him. Let us dedicate this day — and every day — to living out the promise of God’s new day, and to fulfill the life of the Spirit within us, for the life of the world. Amen.