Updated: Aug 16, 2019
It’s great to be back in Lakeport again and to be asked to preach today on this, your patronal feast day. This year is particularly special because just last week, Holy Mother Church celebrated the feast of the greatest mystery of our Christian faith—the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity. Seeing as this parish used to be called Trinity Mission back in the late 1800s, it could also be commemorated by this parish as its first or historical patronal feast day. So, like children who are born around Christmas, you may get to celebrate two patronal feasts days one after the other.
But here we are today. Today, we hold with special devotion the nativity of the only saint next to our Blessed Mother Mary and our Savior whose birth the church universally celebrates.
From the time of Jesus to today, John the Baptist exemplifies us, the Church, in her continuous journey towards the Kingdom of God.
John the Baptist occupies an interesting place in the Christian story. John is often seen as a bridge between the Old and the New Testament. In fact, in the Gospel of St. Matthew, Christ Himself not only quotes directly from the Old Testament prophet Malachi but says of John the Baptist, in no uncertain terms, “He is Elijah” (Matthew 11:10,14). Jesus does not say this to support the idea of reincarnation; instead, the “return” of Elijah was thought of at the time as one of the signs which foretold the long awaited Messiah.
John the Baptist is the herald of the great King. He is the sign of the dawning of a new age. He is, as it was traditionally sung, the one who will announce the coming of the “dayspring from on high,” the arrival of Him who will “give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace” (BCP, p. 51).
By the time of Christ’s Baptism in the River Jordan, John was already respected and invoked as a spiritual authority and prophet. For example, in the Gospel of St. Luke, Jesus’ disciples ask Him to “teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1). This is one of the verses where we receive the “Our Father” prayer. In another passage in Luke, John’s authority is used by Jesus to rebuke the questioning of the chief priests and scribes.
John is—as he was in his own time—a prophet who leads us towards finding ourselves in a new Covenant, a new relationship with God given by Jesus Christ to all who believe in Him (BCP, p. 850).
As the last of the great prophets of the Old Covenant, he is born of aged parents. Yet, as the herald of the New Covenant, he leaps in the womb at the presence of our Lord and His Blessed Mother.
Once John is born, his father, Zachariah, who was struck silent while offering prayers in the temple, has his tongue loosened and his voice restored upon the birth of his son. Here Zachariah stands out as a figure of the entire people of God.
Because, before Christ was born, what truth there was was hidden and obscured. It is that world in which John the Baptist is born. But, as it was promised by an angel before his birth, John’s mission will be to turn the people of Israel to the Lord and prepare them for the coming of the Messiah (see Luke 1:16,17).
It is only after Zachariah and Elizabeth confirm on their new baby boy—likely their first and only chance at a son and progeny—the name that was given to him by God, that Zachariah’s voice is restored and Zachariah sings the now famous canticle.
The great canticle we heard this morning in the Gospel of Luke has been prayed by the Church since at least the 4th or 5th century. Indeed, although the Book of Common Prayer provides a schedule of alternative canticles one may pray in Morning Prayer, the ancient tradition of the church has been that the Benedictus, the Canticle of Zachariah, be prayed in the morning.
And why? How is it that this canticle and not others, has become the morning song of the Church?
Again, it all comes back to who John the Baptist really is and what John represents for us Christians today.
This canticle of Zachariah not only connects John the Baptist with the ancient prophets and promises of old, but resounds with hope and joy at the promise of a new day, the dawning of a new age in the history of creation—where God reconciles Himself to humanity. Through His promised Messiah, God frees us from the power of sin, so that with the help of God we may live in harmony with Him, within ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation (see BCP, p. 849).
Like John, this canticle is a bridge between the Old and New Covenant.
This canticle begins as you might expect a Jewish prayer (even today) to begin. In fact, you might notice some similarities with the beginning of this canticle and what the priest will say at the offertory when the gifts of bread and wine are presented at the altar. The priest will offer the gifts of bread and wine by introducing the prayer, “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation...etcetera.” If you look at how many of our Jewish brothers and sisters begin their prayers, you will notice they begin many of their prayers with some form of the phrase, “Blessed are you, God”. Zachariah’s canticle makes a deliberate connection with the Old Testament.
As people of the New Covenant, we are called to remember our origins: the countless years between the foundation of the world, the creation of humanity, our fall, the slavery of Israel, the Exodus, the kings and scribes and mothers and fathers in the long and complicated story of the Jewish people. Their story is our story. We are called to remember, that, even though we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, God still loves us and remains with us and secures to us His promises.
Zachariah rejoices that, with the birth of his new son, now is the moment when, after all the years of waiting for the Savior to arrive, the One who would reveal to us the fullness of Almighty God, is now come. And this child of his, this little John, will be for God’s people His messenger announcing the coming of the new age, preparing the way for Christ’s arrival and final victory over sin and death and hopelessness.
The canticle, however, doesn’t confine itself to narrowly defining the birth of John the Baptist, but is also a call for all of us, to, in our own way, prepare a road and path where the Prince of Peace might roam. When Zachariah says to his son, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people by the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1: 76,77), he could just as easily be talking to us.
Our job as the Church is engage in this active relationship with God.
We are not called to be passive followers of Christ. To be a Christian means to an active follower of Christ. Even the great contemplative monks and nuns who spend most of their day in meditation and prayer are constantly wrestling with God and engaging in an active relationship with Him.
As members of the Body of Christ, we have a solemn duty to believe and trust in God and love our neighbors as ourselves. The Book of Common Prayer reminds us that the “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” and “the Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love” (BCP, p. 855).
By simply being here today, by joining your brothers and sisters in worship, you are doing your part in building up the Kingdom of God. We can build up the Kingdom of God in other ways too. When you greet new members or visitors after Mass with a handshake or invite them to coffee after Mass, it is then you are building up the Kingdom of God. When you volunteer or donate to the parish Thrift Shop and Food Bank, it is also then you are building up the Kingdom of God.
When you listen to your neighbor who is going through a rough patch in her life, it is then you are building up the Kingdom of God. When you pray for a departed family member during the Mass or offer up the Mass in memory of a friend who did not know God during his life, it is also then you are building up the Kingdom of God. When you engage in disagreements with a neighbor or friend with a spirit of charity and truth instead of hate and deception, it is then you are building up the Kingdom of God.
John the Baptist called upon the people of his time to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” so they may better prepare themselves at the coming of the Messiah (Matthew 3:8). If, through our spiritual actions—our prayer, our devotions, our periods of fasting or abstinence—if no fruit appears—if we are not transformed to be bearers of the Good News of Jesus Christ—if we consider ourselves better than others, if we find ourselves condemning others, if we find ourselves putting ourselves in the place of God, then we too will be judged based on our fruits.
John isn’t mincing words or preaching a Gospel of Niceness or the God of Therapy.
John is preaching a real and very serious life-giving Gospel. Even from the grave, John the Baptist calls us to reform our lives, to refocus our energies on putting Christ first in all we do, centering our hearts around Him, and when we do fall, to remember to return to Him, to repent, and reconcile ourselves to God and our neighbor.
John’s preaching in the wilderness is not by accident. The wilderness, is an uncaring, inhospitable land. The wilderness is a dangerous place to be. Yet, as one Biblical commentator reminds us, for the people of Israel, the wilderness is a place of hope, a place of new beginnings. “It was in the wilderness,” writes this author, “that Yahweh had met with Israel and made them into his people when they came out of Egypt. The voice in the wilderness...is followed by the recurrent theme of a new Exodus, a new beginning in the wilderness transformed by the renewing power of Israel’s God” (R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark, p. 57).
We are not called to shy away from the troubles of this world. Even Christ teaches us we are to pray to the Father that His will be done “on Earth as it is in Heaven.” We are called to build up a society where our children can breathe fresh air and drink clean water, where they can live, work, and worship in safety and peace, where they can freely contribute to the building up of the kingdom of God without fear of prejudice or harm or discrimination, where they can build for themselves a family and bear their own children. The whole history of the revival of Catholic order and ritual in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion is based on the tireless work of men and women who devoted themselves to working to improve the lives of those in slums and in dire poverty.
John’s preaching, John’s life, work, and ministry reflects what this Diocese of Northern California states in its mission statement: “Making Disciples, Raising Up Saints and Transforming Communities for Christ.” That is the work for all of us, to be Heralds of the Great King, to prepare the way for the Lord, to make His paths straight, to give knowledge of salvation to His people by the forgiveness of our sins, to prepare the way for Him who will give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death and who will guide our feet into the way of peace.
My brothers and sisters, we are all called to become more and more like John the Baptist. As a congregation, how marvelous that you all have dedicated this church, this congregation, in memory of so blessed a saint. Let us today invoke the memory and intercession of St. John the Baptist but also ask the intercession of those priests and parishioners who have served this church and its mission since it foundation. We remember those we know by name—Father W.S. Neals, the Reverend F.W. Crook, Mrs. Mary Blackwood Collier, Reverend John Partridge, and especially the late Father Leo Joseph—and those whose names have been lost to history. We ask that through their intercessions and prayers, we may prepare the way of the Lord and that he may guide our feet into the way of peace.
Nativity of St. John the Baptist
June 23, 2019
St. John’s Episcopal Church on their Patronal Feast
First reading: Isaiah 40:1-11
Second reading: Acts 13:14b-26
Gospel: Luke 1:57-80
Brother James Nathaniel can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.