Sermon for Nativity of St John the Baptist Sunday 24 June 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Nativity of St John the Baptist
This is a Feast day on which sermons were often commanded to be preached – whatever day of the week it fell – from outdoor pulpits such as the one you can see on Holy Trinity Marylebone Road, where the SPCK bookshop used to be. The point of these pulpits was originally to catch the attention of passers-by and to tell them the good news. Things change though, sometimes with odd results. There is still such a sermon from such a pulpit at Magdalen College Oxford, but the outdoor pulpit has ended up being firmly inside the college buildings, the general public can’t now gain entry to Magdalen College, and therefore to the pulpit, without paying, and 24 June is now firmly in vacation, so hardly anyone is in residence this week. What was once an outward-looking piece of evangelism (for which a substantial sum of money was left to pay a preacher in perpetuity) has become a quaint custom, self-regarding and cut of from the busy High Street. There’s a parable there about what we do and why.
I’m sure I’ve been guilty in the past of beginning a sermon on this day by explaining that we celebrate John’s nativity today because it is six months to Christmas, and that this is part of a cycle of events relating to Jesus’ birth and ministry in which John, the Forerunner, literally goes before him (as he does also in his death). I’ve probably also been guilty of recalling that today’s feast comes soon after that of the Visitation (31 May, when we remember Mary visiting her realtive Elizabeth, John’s mother, when Luke tells us that John leapt in his mother’s womb in recognition of the approach of Jesus in Mary’s womb): so we are recalling that, less than a month after that encounter, John’s birth followed, with the events we heard about in today’s gospel.
Those connections often mean more to the few of us who have a professional familiarity with them than they do to most church-goers. And to the wider world, with the loss of regular holidays which are truly holy-days, and wider ignorance about any of the details of this story, such information seems to be simply quaint, like those outdoor pulpits: part of Merrie England.
John the Baptist himself suffers from exactly this backward-looking view of the world, since his very purpose is to disappear, to give way – ‘He must increase but I must decrease’, as he says later and in another gospel [John 3.30]. Like Christmas, this celebration is more about remembering the past than celebrating the present or galvanizing the future; unlike Christmas John’s birth heralds a past which is almost over by the time we hear about it. Christmas is full of potential for the child Jesus; John’s birth signals a life which has as its sole purpose pointing to Jesus: once that is done, he is killed. He does not rise again. He is not the Messiah. So compelling a figure was he, and so hard was his stepping-aside to accept for his followers, that we know there was a rival sect of John-followers (one can’t exactly call them Baptists, for obvious reasons) which did not accept Jesus. It seems to have taken a long time for them to be convinced (or to die out) which is why John the Baptist is such a big figure to the gospel-writers, but can seem a puzzling footnote to us.
Yet he should not be just a footnote. Even the timing of this celebration is attuned to the world outside the faith – though we may no longer be aware of that, because few of us are farmers. John the Baptist’s birthday is kept at the summer solstice, beloved now of Druids and New-Agers, but once highly significant to most people (hence presumbaly those old outdoor sermons). Jesus’ birth is celebrated at the winter solstice. That timing is intended to reflect John’s statement, ‘He must increase but I must decrease’, just as now the days begin to shorten again; after Christmas they are lengthening: a new light is dawning.
Even if most of us are no more connected to the earth’s cycles and rhythms than we are to the seasons of the church year, we do not fail to notice the shortening and lengthening of days, their cooling and warming, the changes of the seasons. A feast like this is intended to help us to recollect how the Christian story unfolds in the same way as the rhythms of our own lives. More careful reading of the bible, more attention to daily prayer, however short, with a prayer book that will remind us of these people and events, more frequent attendance at daily Mass would assist us purposefully to do that.
But the direct application of this celebration to our lives is probably more straightforward than that. In Christian perspective John the Baptist has an important, though limited, role. If we connect that with the role of the clergy it is clear enough that we (I mean I) must also decrease in order that Jesus Christ may be preached, known and praised. But all of us, in our calling to be Christians, our baptismal commissioning or calling, are also encouraged to be people who point away from ourselves and towards Christ. That’s a whole-of-life project, to be attempted in a manner appropriate to who we are.
In other words it is intended by our loving father that we should make the very best of who we are, and also try to express who we are in such a way that Christ and God can be seen and heard by others. It may be by talking, or it may be by being quiet (often more effective, in my opinion). But the point of John the Baptist was his whole life, which was purposefully committed to pointing away from himself and towards Jesus, as God’s saving Messiah and son.
We often hear talk of what gives meaning or purpose to a life: properly understood the Christian faith gives us that purpose: not necessarily to be successful or even good at particular things, but to be the best and most joyous people we can be, so that people will want what we have, so that God’s love can be seen and understood better, out there on the street, where those old pulpits are directed.