Saint John Baptist’s Day


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(June 24) 

Almighty God, by whose providence Thy servant John Baptist was wonderfully born,…
For the Epistle
Isaiah 40:1-11
Luke 1:57-80

The opening passage of the Third Isaiah is one of the richest and most suggestive in the whole of the Old Testament. Many prophets were downright pessimistic only slightly redeemed by more optimistic closing passages, some of which were added for effect by redactors, but the whole tenor of Isaiah 40-66 is hopeful. No wonder it caught the imagination of the Messianic-oriented Jews in the centuries before Jesus. All the Evangelists saw this passage as the key to the witness of John Baptist and the arrival of Jesus (Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4-6; John 1:23); the Synoptics quote the key passage but John puts it into the mouth of John Baptist, explicitly affirming that he knows that he is the forerunner of the Messiah. The passage also contains the memorable metaphor of flesh as grass which forms a powerful opening to 1 Peter and the almost obligatory reference to prophets as shepherds.

In reading the Gospel we must remember that at the point where John’s story is taken up, Zechariah is dumb as a rebuke for not believing he would be a father and Elizabeth has just enjoyed a visit from Mary during which the two must have exchanged confidences about their recent, remarkable experiences; Elizabeth certainly knew the future of Mary’s child and it is difficult to imagine that Mary did not know about Elisabeth’s, a future made specific by Zechariah’s prophesy (which is referred to as the Venite Canticle in the Service of Matins).

Zechariah is specific; John is to be the forerunner of someone who will be greater, a realisation which John himself makes explicit (John 1:6-34; 5:36). John gathered disciples around him and began to preach a baptism of repentance for sin; he baptised Jesus (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22) but there was later rivalry between the two sets of followers (John 3:25-36) even though John was clear that his influence would wane as that of Jesus waxed (John 3:30). John was killed by Herod although the grisly account of his decapitation ostensibly as the reward for a dance but actually because he condemned Herod’s unlawful marriage to his brother’s wife, (Matthew 14:6-12; Mark 6:17-29) is almost certainly allegorical. Some scholars believe that Jesus was actually a disciple of John until his death when he took over the leadership of John’s disciples.

John’s distinctness as a prophet arises out of his specific mission to act as the forerunner of the Messiah. Whereas previous prophets claim to speak on behalf of God and some of the later ones foreshadow the coming of a Messiah, John’s link with the promised event is explicit in its antecedents and lived out in his mission. Yet in spite of their closeness (Luke 2:36) there was always an element of tension, not least in the quite extraordinary account of John questioning whether indeed Jesus was the Messiah (Luke 7:18-23). Clearly, matters were not straightforward and John’s influence far outlived him, being cited in Acts ([passage=Acts 1:5; Acts 1:22; Acts 10:37; Acts 11:16; Acts 13:24). Whatever the doubts about the details of the narratives about John’s life, he was the unique combination of Jewish prophet and Christian martyr, the last, the strongest and the shortest bridge between the Old and New Covenants, a status underlined in the construction of the Venite whose first half refers to the beginning of the Jewish tradition and whose second half promises a Messianic future heralded by John.

There are some who would relate the two readings by saying that Isaiah “foretold” the birth of Jesus whereas others would say that the reality of the Messianic Incarnation grew out of prophetic soil, most markedly in the case of Isaiah. The difference is significant in our understanding of the nature of Scripture but it does not affect our belief in the seamless continuity of the Testaments and, paradoxically, the discontinuity of the Incarnation.

John Baptist’s status as a precursor should not obscure his radicalism. He was, in the line of his prophet predecessors, an anti establishment figure who would certainly be viewed with great suspicion by the vast majority of Churchwardens! His dress was scruffy and scanty, his diet outlandish, his language salty; like all Nazarites he never shaved nor cut his hair. He challenged authority and told the religious leaders who came to see him that their practices fell short. It is easy to exaggerate comparisons between different ages but the religious establishment John confronted was both comfortable in its authority and deeply divided over some aspects of theology; John pointedly questioned the comfort but seemed uninterested in theological niceties. Later Jesus quizzed the Pharisees about their scepticism over John’s baptism (Matthew 21:23; Mark 11:28; Luke 20:2). It had clearly caused a stir and created an atmosphere of self criticism and debate helpful to Jesus’ subsequent preaching. Yet perhaps the overall message of John about repentance lacks the roundness and optimism of Jesus who always tells people why they need to repent and what will happen if they do. Perhaps these were not assertions that John felt himself able to make which is in itself evidence of the relative status of the two. Yet for all its limitations, John’s role can still inspire us today: in an age of increasing uniformity the lone voice of the radical prophet is invaluable; and the bravery of the ‘first mover’ who risks articulating something still only half formed may make it possible for those who follow to give form to a deeper truth, a new way of starting and a new way of seeing, that changes the way we think of the world, ourselves and our relationship with God.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. Discuss the relationship between Jesus and John
  2. In what way did Isaiah “foretell” the coming of John and then Jesus?
  3. Prepare a meditation on the Venite
  4. What characteristics did John share with his predecessor Prophets and with Jesus for whom he prepared the ground?
  5. How would a person like John be received in today’s church?

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