Sermon 14th June 2012 – John the Baptist -prophet of the today- the wilderness road.

Isaiah 40:1-11
Galatians 3:23-end
Luke 1:57-66 80

John the Baptist -prophet of the today- the wilderness road.

Today’s readings really bring to life for me the figure of John the Baptist, his ministry and the importance of OT prophecy in interpreting the Gospel.

John’s role was definitely not a comfortable one- being a prophet was not an easy task in OT times – and it didn’t get any easier for John. Those whose task was to foretell the coming of Christ like Isaiah knew they were being given a mission, but they would never see the fruits of their labours, like those who wandered in the wilderness not knowing if they would see the promised land.

John’s task was challenging, and it cost him his life. His ministry was largely in the wilderness, and I wonder if many of his contemporaries would have asked themselves the question- was he getting it right? Was he still being obedient to God, or was he going off the rails?

Although Jesus was his cousin, and we read in Luke of the joy felt by Elizabeth that she and Mary were both going to bear babies who would be special to God. It seems unlikely from the Gospels that they were close after the births of these two babies, only months apart- small geographical distances in rural terrain were difficult. We recall the recognition of John the Baptist in his mother’s womb when she met Mary and Mary’s song of the Magnificat comes out in Luke’s Gospel too- the knowledge of God looking on his servant

Did John know as a young boy that he was special? He must have known how Zechariah and Elizabeth had longed for his birth. Elizabeth may have reminded him as she told him stories of their ancestors Sarah and Abraham, and the birth of another longed-for child. Perhaps there was puzzlement as he grew up that nothing seemed to be happening- et the prophecy of Isaiah must, on some level have been made real by Zechariah and Elizabeth to John. He may have felt under some pressure to find his mission in life- after all, all the neighbours were filled with awe at his miraculous birth and Zechariah’s naming of him as John after being struck dumb.

We don’t know how John may have agonised over his mission which from Isaiah 40 always looked a bit challenging.

What did preparing the way for Jesus mean? Proclaiming a new start, preparing the way for God, proclaiming the way of the God of love, proclaiming liberty, raising the valleys and making the rugged mountains smooth- metaphors for rebirth and the coming of the kingdom.

John was an isolated prophet- how did he feel when Jesus’ ministry started and he chose 12 men around him – I often think this must have been very hard for John- he was sent ahead to prepare the way, yet he was not part of the inner circle of the disciples who enjoyed that closeness to Jesus. How often must he have withdrawn in prayer.

Was this way of life clear for John, or did he spend a lot of his time trying to listen to God his Father, but maybe feeling very unsure what on earth he was there for.- did he ever wonder if he had lost his way? When word came to John of what Jesus was doing, he sent two of his disciples to see what on earth was going on. The message came back:

The blind see the deaf hear, the dead are raised (Luke 7)

This is followed by Jesus’ testimony that John is the greatest prophet, yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.

John had baptised many, including Jesus himself, yet his ministry was that of a prophet- living the ascetic and simple life in the desert, John prepared to go and announce the kingdom. It must have taken a huge step of faith to carry on courageously at a time when he had no support, yet trusting 100% in the calling that he had been given.

I was reminded of those who walk that prophets road when I was down in Oxford recently making a retreat with some Anglican nuns, the All Saints Sisters of the Poor.

Outside the chapel they had a board of prayer intentions-the one that stood out for me was Aung San Suu Kyi someone who has had to trust her own faith and her own path, and walk a lonely road.

Something else that struck me was the ministry of that community- for years they had done the things that many Anglican religious founded in the 1800s -educating girls, caring for the sick, running homes for girls who had got into trouble. They faced the exodus in the 1960s that so many orders faced, and bravely elected their youngest nun as superior. Frances Ritchie, who became Sr Frances Dominica,befriended the family of Helen, a girl who was terminally ill. She came to stay at the convent for respite- and from the life and death of Helen, Helen House was born and a new vision of the community’s ministry with it. This experience helped the community pioneer the care of terminally ill children and young people.

I think too of the example in last week’s Church Times of a 6 year old boy dying in Africa that he set out to do a sponsored run for Tearfund. Because he said “there has to be somewhere for people to live, a proper home, and I want to give them something to eat. Joel’s message hit Twitter, and so far he has raised £500.

This brings me to the Gal3 reading. If I am ever asked which is my favourite verse in the Bible, this is certainly in my top three. My GCSE class is so fond of that verse that they try to get it into any answer that talks about justice or equality.

As those who walk with Jesus Christ, we are called to raise the valleys and level the mountains. Sadly the Church is not always good at proclaiming Galatians 3:28.

As the Church Times last this week put it:

Just which Christians are the Archbishops speaking for when churchgoers awoke last Monday morning to read of their adamant opposition to same -sex marriage? And who do the Archbishops speak for when they amend the women Bishops legislation so that it can perpetuate the theology of taint?

If we take Galatians 3;28 and John the Baptist’s preaching seriously, we will take a deep breath and pray when we have to speak out for justice, recognising at times that this mat make us unpopular with the prevailing worldview, or church worldview. It is often the Christian groups who work with poor and marginalized people who are most aware how the recession is affecting those who are the poorest. It is churches like ours that must be ready to stand with the asylum seekers and the refugees, those excluded for their gender or skin colour, or perhaps a 21st century reading of this should include those excluded for their sexuality and disability as well.

Comment on charities and support for the unglamorous charities school children’s commitment to the unpopular.

Moses coming with Margaret Spooner to speak to them.

I’ll leave you with some words of the very wise Joan Chittister when she told important leaders that the only way to stop Mexicans crossing the Rio Grande was not to shoot them, but to give Texas back!

Maybe Sr Joan did something very prophetic in speaking the truth to power.

Katherine Salmon

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