Preached June 24, 2012
St. Luke 1:57–80
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
In the ordinary sequence of events, today is the Third Sunday after Trinity, and the propers for the day would be 1 St. Peter 5:5–11 and St. Luke 15:1–10. We would be continuing the general theme of Trinitytide, that is, the progression in our personal sanctification. The dominant theme for the Trinity 3 is humility, that is learning to be humble before God. This is, in many respects, the essential basis for our sanctification. Without humility, we cannot hope to develop any of the other personal character traits that will lead to our sanctification. Only in complete humility do we realize our abject unworthiness before the complete and limitless perfection of almighty God. As long as we think that we have some sense of standing in our own right before God, we are hopelessly lost in our sin; we have absolutely nothing without Jesus Christ.
But today is something more than just Trinity 3; it is the Feast of the Nativity of St. John Baptist, with the proper lessons as you have already heard them read earlier. This is truly an unusual day, the only nativity feast celebrated by the entire Church other than the nativity of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, on Christmass. Why is the birth of John the Baptist so uniquely important as to be celebrated in a manner even faintly approaching Christmass? What was the Church thinking in declaring a major feast for the nativity of St. John Baptist?
The beginning of the answer is to be found in our lesson from Isaiah. John is to be the herald prophet, coming ahead to announce the coming of the Saviour. No great personage ever arrived anywhere in the ancient world without sending a herald ahead to announce his coming. It was a matter of looking after one’s own dignity, to be sure that the population was properly put on notice that someone of great importance was about to appear in their midst. Now among men, this was all pure vanity, but when God sent the herald prophet John to announce the coming of His Son, Jesus Christ, into the world, there was not one speck of vanity involved. It was urgently important that the world should know that salvation was coming to them, and it was for this reason that John was sent to carry the message of Christ’s coming. Thus John the Baptist plays an integral role in the plan of salvation for mankind, and his birth is predicted hundreds of years in advance by the prophet Isaiah. He was later to be seen by many as the reincarnation of Elijah.
When we think about the life of St. John Baptist, one of the first things that sticks out in memory occurs even before his birth. Recall the incident when Mary goes to visit Elizabeth and greets her, and Elizabeth says Luke 1:41 And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: This makes it abundantly clear that, even as an unborn child, John the Baptist was responsive to, and excited by the near presence of his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, whom he recognized, even though they were both as yet unborn babes in the womb. This is truly remarkable, but it is indicative of the special nature of John the Baptist, of his sensitivity to and commitment to the Saviour.
We know that as a grown man, St. John Baptist lived a rather unconventional life, living rough in the desert regions around the Jordan River. It was there that the crowds came to hear him preach repentance and to be baptized in the Jordan for the repentance of sins. John had no great church building, no theological degree, and certainly no formal ordination by any recognized church authority, but none of that mattered at all. John received his directions directly from the Holy Ghost, and he preached with power and conviction. He was effective, and many people came out to see him. Many of those that came to see a spectacle were convinced by John’s message, and were baptized by John with water for the forgiveness of sins. But all of this was simply preliminary. John’s primary purpose was to prepare to receive the Messiah, whenever He would appear. John did not know when this would be, or exactly who it would be. He only knew that the Messiah was coming soon, and that his job was to prepare the way.
In this work of preparation, John the Baptist was calling the people back to a more faithful understanding of their religion, and particularly to repentance for sins. It is significant, I think, that in doing his work, John, did not fall in with either the Pharisees or the Sadducees, the established religious parties, but rather stood apart from both of them. In so doing, he implicitly condemned them both, even as Jesus would later do much more directly. It would have been so easy for him to identify with one or the other party and have a comfortable life, but that would have betrayed his divine mission, and John the Baptist never entertained any idea of doing anything of the sort. He is an example of a truly faithful messenger, intent on carrying out his task to the end. As we know, this is exactly what he did, being true to his work until he was beheaded for criticizing the illicit relation between Herod and Herodias, the wife of Philip, brother of Herod. Even in his own extremity, being in jail just prior to the execution, St. John Baptist managed to point his own followers toward Christ by sending them to Him with a question: Luke 7:19 And John calling unto him two of his disciples sent them to Jesus, saying, Art thou he that should come? or look we for another? We may rest assured that by this time St. John Baptist already knew the answer to this question, but he was pointing his followers to Jesus so that they could see for themselves.
Underlying the entire herald ministry of St. John Baptist there was an intense humility that enabled him to be entirely dedicated to the service of the coming of the Messiah. You will recall that I mentioned briefly at the beginning the essential nature of humility in forming our Christian character. We see the clear evidence of this humility in the following passage taken from the Gospel of St. John Evangelist, John 3:26-30 26 And they came unto John, and said unto him, Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan, to whom thou barest witness, behold, the same baptizeth, and all men come to him. 27 John answered and said, A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven. 28 Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him. 29 He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease. In this episode, some of John’s followers are concerned about the fact that Jesus is evidently baptizing, actions which they think intrude upon the dignity of their master, John the Baptist. They are offended that their master’s honor should be thus diminished. The general rule was that a disciple must be at least twelve miles distant from the master before he could presume to teach the precepts of the Law and customs of the Jewish people, which presumably would include actions such as baptizing. Thus Jesus, being closer than twelve miles away, was degrading their master. But notice that St. John Baptist takes it all calmly, pointing out that he never said that he was the Messiah, but only that he was the Forerunner, the herald prophet. Then he uses the beautiful description, 29 He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled. This is an allusion to the Church as the Bride of Christ, although we may marvel at how St. John Baptist could be inspired to use such an allusion, coming well ahead of the time of the Church. But it describes exactly how he must fulfill his role by stepping aside now in all humility; his work is done and it time for Jesus Christ to take center stage. This is, of course exactly what he says in the next verse: 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.
St. John Baptist is a magnificent example of a real human life lived in complete obedience to the will of God. This can only be possible when that life is founded on complete and total humility as the basis for obedience. He was God’s divinely appointed messenger to announce the coming of the Saviour of the world, Jesus Christ, but he serves as a grand example for us to emulate as well. As we think on this divinely inspired life, let us pray again the Collect for today:
Almighty God, by whose providence thy servant John Baptist was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of thy Son our Saviour by preaching repentance; Make us so to follow his doctrine and holy life, that we may truly repent according to his preaching; and after his example constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.