Birth of St John the Baptist Sunday 24 June 2012 | All Saints Margaret Street

Sermon for Birth of St John the Baptist Sunday 24 June 2012

Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses

Sunday 24th June, 2012

“And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he would have him called. And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, ‘His name is John.’”   Luke 1. 62-3

Some of you will remember Mary Bishop who died a few years ago. For years one of Mary’s tasks was to clean the votive candle stand. Canon James Robertson described it as the most specialised ministry in the Church of England.  Mary was profoundly deaf, so communication for
her and with her was difficult. If people who came into church asked her
questions, she would produce a card on which she had written “I’m stone deaf, I can’t hear you” and point them to someone who could.

At the parish lunch, her friend Jill Horley would tell her what was being said by writing notes.  Later, when Mary was in a nursing home, Lily Caplin and I would go to visit her and communicate by the same technique. It was slow but effective. Today’s gospel always reminds me of
those visits to Mary.

If we want to know why Zechariah has to resort of a writing tablet, we need to read the whole story in the first chapter of the gospel in which Luke interweaves the accounts of the annunciations and births of John the Baptist and Jesus. 

The first characters to be introduced in the Gospel story are an old married couple: a priest called Zechariah, a name which means “God remembers”, and his wife, Elizabeth. Both belong to the tribe of Aaron, all the male members of which were priests. 

Before he mentions that they are childless, Luke tells us that they are righteous people. He describes them in terms used of the “anawim
Yahweh”
, the faithful remnant of God, to which other characters in Luke’s
story belong: Joseph and Mary, Simeon and Anna.  This avoids the charge that infertility was an affliction which God had visited
on sinners. Both are advanced in years,  which explains why they cannot have children now, but Luke notes that Elizabeth was barren. The couple are doubly incapacitated, and there seems no human ground for hope.

But in the light of the history of Israel, the situation of the couple is not hopeless. Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, the mother of Samson, and Hannah were all barren; but this was no barrier to the promise and plan of God.  Barren wombs and old age become the grounds for new hope and possibility, and for the birth of famous men in the history of Israel.  Luke sets the birth of John in that great tradition. 

There were about 18,000 priests in those days, and they were organised in divisions which took turns, on a rota, to officiate at the daily sacrifices in the Temple.  There were so many of them that it was impossible for them all to preside at these rites, so the decision as to who would have this great –  perhaps once in a lifetime  –   privilege, was made by drawing lots.  Zechariah the priest was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary at the time of sacrifice to offer the incense which symbolised the prayers of the people gathered outside making their petitions.

So this was no ordinary occasion for Zechariah, but it turned out to be more extraordinary than he could have ever imagined. While he was in the sanctuary, out of site of the congregation, the angel Gabriel appeared to him. He is understandably afraid.  The angel tells him not to be, for his prayer has been heard  –  both his personal prayer and his priestly prayer.  His wife Elizabeth, who was not only old like her husband but also barren, was to have a son who was to be called “John”  –  which means “gift of God.” He will be an answer both to his parents’ longings, and to the hopes of Israel.  
He would be a gift of God, not just because they had longed for a child, but because of the role he would be play in response to the prayers of Israel.

”And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth; for he will be great before the Lord, and he shall drink no wine and strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the
Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah , to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just,  to make ready for
the Lord a people prepared.”

This John will lead a movement of conversion to God and prepare the people for the Lord.

Zechariah’s reaction is one of caution. Perhaps he and Elizabeth have known disappointment too often.  He reminds the angel of the
facts of human biology. The angel in turn responds: “I am Gabriel ,
who stand in the presence of God.”
  Zechariah is thinking in human terms, while the angel focuses on the power of God.   Gabriel punishes
Zechariah’s disbelief by striking him dumb.  So just when the priest has something to say, he is unable to say it.

There are times when we wish that God would do this to some of his clergy more often! This is usually of course because they have just gone on too long, rather  than because they have something special to say. But, we sometimes wish this because we would rather not hear things which disturb our comfortable and settled ways; which confront us with the challenge of something new. But we do not come to church in order that we might leave it exactly as we came.

Meanwhile, the people have been waiting anxiously outside; wondering what has happened to delay the priest. When the priest came out of the sanctuary, he was required to bless the people, but when he cannot, they realise that something out of the ordinary has happened  – he must have had a vision.  But after this extraordinary event, Luke then tells us simply that, after his time of duty was over, Zechariah went off home.

Elizabeth does conceive, as the angel had promised, but she hides herself from the public gaze.  They seem an odd couple: a woman
past the age of child-bearing, yet now pregnant and he dumb old husband.  But this is the opening scene on a Gospel in
which Luke will show us the upside –down world of God, where the humanly impossible becomes possible with God.

And so, Elizabeth’s time comes and she gives birth to a son.  Family and neighbours gather, eight days after his birth, to celebrate with them at the ceremony of circumcision.  The naming of the child had come to be linked
with this ritual.

The people seem to expect him to be named after his father.  Elizabeth intervenes to say that the child will be called John: “God’s gracious
gift”.
The child’s name speaks of his origin and his vocation: he comes as
a gift of God, and his life will be a gift to God’s people.

This is clearly a departure from established tradition and practice, and by a mere woman, so the neighbours take it upon themselves to remind her that none of the boy’s relatives have had this name. when she refuses to budge, they appeal to Zechariah by making signs  –  the old priest seems to be deaf as well as dumb. He’s is bound to confirm the rightness of their view.

And so we come to our writing tablet: something he must have had to use quite a lot in the intervening months.  To their surprise, he confirms what his wife has said.  He may have told Elizabeth the name in writing earlier, but Luke seems to suggest that the parents acted with out collusion, under the inspiration of the God.

Gabriel had imposed silence on Zechariah “until the day that these things come to pass”.  Now this had happened and Zechariah’s mouth is opened and his tongue freed.  When he speaks, the neighbours
are afraid   –  the usual response in Luke to a divine intervention. The unusual events of this child’s birth lead those who have witnessed
them to spread the story. We can imagine the gossip spreading through the hill country of Judea. Those who hear it ask themselves: “What then will this child be?”

Zechariah, of course, knows something of what this child’s future will be.

In his accounts of the births of John and Jesus, Luke’s has the actors keep bursting into song, as is it were a Broadway or West End musical: 

  • Mary, when she visits Elizabeth, who greets here as the Mother of the Lord, in the words we now use in the Hail Mary, sings her Magnificat;
  • When Jesus is born, the angels sing the Gloria in excelsis;
  • When he is presented in the Temple , old Simeon sings his Nunc Dimittis;
  • After they have gone, and after our passage has finished, Luke places the Canticle of Zechariah which we call the Benedictus.

All these have been incorporated into the daily worship of the Church:

  • the Gloria in the Eucharist;
  • the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis at Evensong;
  • the Benedictus at Matins, Morning Prayer.   

When Zechariah finds his voice again, he does not use it to complain about the imposed silence which he has suffered. He speaks words of  blessing and praise and prophecy.

God does provide us with words of complaint and lament in the Psalms which we use in our daily worship. We are allowed to complain, to bring our anxieties and frustrations before God, but the Gospel and the Church’s tradition of worship teaches us that we must do this in the wider frame of praise. We offer our prayers for the world’s needs, and our own, in the Eucharist which the Church’s great sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.

In the life of this church, silence is important  –  not just so that we can relax or de-stress  –  “chillax”  –  as the Prime Minister would say
–  but so that that we can hear the word of God which is addressed to us.

Worship is important in the life of the Church, because it is our response to what God says to do us, to what he has done and is doing in our world and in our lives.

Mission in important because it is how we tell others about these things  –  how we talk about them in our equivalent of the hill country of Judea.

The three go together. Any one of them without the others in impoverished.

And now, before the archangel Gabriel strikes me dumb, I will finish.