SERMON PREACHED AT CHRIST CHURCH, WHANGAREI
(24th JUNE) 2007
Luke 1.57-66, 80
Somewhere, a few years before the public ministry of Jesus began, an awkward figure made his presence felt on Palestinian soil. John the Baptist was a James K. Baxter figure: the sand in the shoe, the conscience of a nation. He challenged injustice and could not survive in a world whose conscience he irritated, and so was executed at the end of the demonic dance of Salome.
But that was the end of John’s story, and today we celebrate the beginning. Like Jesus his kinsman, tales of the miraculous intervention of God surround his birth. A barren woman conceives: as people well versed in the Hebrew scriptures we should recall another barren and post-menopausal woman, long before, whose obedience to God led to the birth of a nation. This new birth is used by Luke to serve a different end. Luke wants us to see not a beginning but an end of a nation in this new miraculous birth. This is the end of a period in which a people more or less kept faith with God, but is the beginning, too, of the miraculous Christ-event. Now God enters history in an unprecedented and unrepeatable way. This end of an era is not the replacement of an outdated model, but the handing over of the baton of God’s love for humanity: the era of the prophets is over, and the era of Jesus has begun. There is continuity between the eras: this is not out with the old and in with the new, but a God-breathed change of direction, as the gifts of God to the Chosen People are now extended to all creation.
John the Baptist straddles two worlds. He reminds us that obedience to God’s call is a risky business: to speak of the values of God is to risk loss of limb or life. The invitation to follow in the way of God is an invitation to upset comfort zones, wherever comfort zones are oppressive, or where the comfort of a few is won at the cost of the discomfort of many. We only have to look at the economic imbalances of our world (to which I contribute every day) to know that nothing is new under the sun. We can at the very least look deep within our society to see who it is who is speaking unsettling good news to the poor, and see the spark of Christ in discomforting and challenging places.
John the Baptist reminds us that wherever justice is spoken in the name of God, there God is. John stands as a bridge connecting two great faiths based on the fatherhood of Abraham. He reminds us, starkly, that we must never condone atrocities perpetrated on the Hebrew people of God, for the Jewish People’s prophet John is our prophet John. There is no excuse for Christianity’s dreadful treatment of the Hebrews down through the ages. Yet at the same time we are not to confuse our respect for the Hebrew prophet John, or any other Hebrew prophet, with sycophantic adoration of all things done in the name of and by the hand of the modern State of Israel. Many Christian groups have been seduced into a confusion of the political entity whose seat of power is Tel Aviv with the spiritual entity whose heartbeat is Jerusalem, the city of peace. Sometimes the two will overlap, but not always and perhaps not often. John wore a coat of camel hair and a girdle of leather, not flak jackets and a holster.
Perhaps John can remind us that when our cousins in faith the Hebrew people speak justice, there we serve as one in the purposes of God. Where they have been oppressed and all but annihilated, to our shame we have failed to speak. For that we must always remember our guilt. Where they speak oppression, as they have for many years in their attitudes to the Palestinian peoples, we should speak with the voice of their prophetic tradition. By the same token we must learn to listen at times when we have oppressed the peoples and species of God’s earth. We can work together on the extremities of faith and justice, while recognizing historical differences between us, and together celebrating the mutual relationship we have with God the God of Covenant and Cross.
These are however big picture issues, and John speaks not only to the big picture. For John must stand for at least two more prickly challenges within our faith journey. The purpose of John’s ministry, as his namesake John the Evangelist tells us, was to testify to the light. By word and action, by challenging and setting to right injustices, by compassionate and loving action, by caring and more, we must demonstrate that ours are lives invaded by the light. We are not the light, thank God, but have a commission to testify, like John, to the light that invades and transforms our lives and can invade and transform lives around us.
We are not the light, and we often muddy the light, but we are called to tell of the light nevertheless. To that end we must with all our might support initiatives that heal the lives of the broken, transform the lives of the skill-less, and shine light into the lives of the darkened. Through our own lives in the community, and through the work of agencies of compassion, we must testify to the light that is the risen Christ within us. John, in many ways, is us: like him we must allow ourselves to decrease and Christ in us to increase, until with Paul we can eventually say by the grace of God ‘it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’