Sermon preached by Fr Tom Hurcombe
on Monday 24th June 2019 (The Birth of John the Baptist)
Acts 13.14b–26; Psalm 85.7–end; Luke 1.57–66,80
On this festival of the Birth of John the Baptist, it needs to be said that John was a particularly precocious child. He seemed to know from the beginning that his role would be to point out the Messiah, who was coming soon.
I am reminded of the Isenheim Altarpiece, which shows a grotesque Christ on the cross, with his fingers grasping the air in agony, and his body marked with signs of ergotism, a dreadful disease caused by a fungus in grain; sufferers of which would come to the Augustinian hospital at Isenheim and pray in front of the image, in the hope of relief from their painful symptoms, and for healing. At the foot of the cross, across from John and the Virgin Mary, is the figure of John the Baptist (who at this point in the narrative is already dead) pointing almost comically at the Christ figure, who is the ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’. (I’ve seen too much Monty Python.)
Once, John’s mother was visited by a relative, and John just knew she was special, so he started jumping about; because he seemed to know that he was in the presence of the Messiah. This was when he was only six months old, as a foetus that is, still in his mother’s womb. I said he was precocious.
The first thing to notice in the birth story is the sheer pleasure, joy, in John’s birth: the ‘shame’ of the ‘barren’ Elizabeth has been taken away, late in life, and, after five months of seclusion (just in case) her time has come, and she gives birth to a son. Was her cousin Mary there? She stayed with Elizabeth for three months after her sixth. And his mother names the child ‘John’. Had Zechariah told her what the angel had said to him, or did she just ‘know’? Whatever, the joy is huge.
It is Luke who tells us of the relatedness of the two mothers of John and Jesus. It is the very last verse of our gospel reading that has captured (distracted) me. The gap between the verses in our reading is the words of the Benedictus, as John’s father, Zechariah, is inspired to prophecy, on the role of his son, as the announcer of salvation to be offered in the coming Messiah.
The last verse of our gospel seems to imply that John was raised in the wilderness, and we’re told that the Essenes adopted children, because some of their men were celibate. Soon after the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered between 1947 and 56, all kinds of connection were made with Christianity and the Dead Sea sect. Especially a relation between John the Baptist and the Essenes – as Joseph Fitzmeyer’s commentary on Luke (1981) suggests was possible. It is 40 years since I looked at these issues properly, and in that time much has changed. Some of the older connections and conspiracy theories have been more or less abandoned; there is now much more caution about connections between the Essenes and Christianity.
Today it is thought that John probably wasn’t raised at Qumran. But they are very much part of a common Jewish heritage. Indeed, under the protection of the Herods, and perhaps the gospel ‘Herodians’, the Essenes are seen as a much more central part of first century Judaism than had been thought.
John is unique, and kept his focus on what Luke suggests he did even before his birth, pointing to Jesus. This is part of our role too. It is our vocation and joy to point people to Jesus, by our teaching and our lives.