Milborne and Dewlish
Sunday 24th June 2018
Galatians 3.23-39; Luke 1.57-66, 80
Today is unusual – for we are remembering the birth of a saint rather than his death. Some churches do commemorate John’s death – on 29th August – but for the Church of England calendar, his birth date has a more important status than that of his death. Only two other births are celebrated in our Church’s year: that of Jesus and of his mother Mary, so this shows with what importance John the Baptist is held.
Strange perhaps to think that an outsider who wore camel’s hair, ate locusts and honey, and ended up being beheaded by the ruling authorities is one of the people most revered in our faith.
Only strange when we look at John’s life against the values of the world; when we view it with God’s eyes we see an entirely different picture, a complete living-out of the upside-down values of God’s kingdom.
Though, even as I write that, I bring myself up short and think it should be the other way around – that God’s kingdom has it right, and it is our world that has got it upside-down.
If we look at today’s Gospel reading, we find the things of God shot through it. There are three things in particular I want to draw attention to today.
First, when they heard that God had blessed Elizabeth with a healthy son, they rejoiced with her.
Remember that Elizabeth was old and had been barren. We don’t know her exact age, but Zechariah’s disbelief that she could become pregnant reveals that she was past normal child-bearing age. That’s why he was struck dumb – because he hadn’t believed the message from God.
They rejoiced in God’s blessing.
Zechariah and Elisabeth put aside family tradition and their culture and opt for obedience to God.
How often so we do that? It is all too easy to know in our hearts what is right and then follow the traditions and customs of society.
I wonder whether we would be slower to do that, if we knew God would strike us dumb as a result of disobedience. I’m not sure there would be many speaking people left in the world.
Now, of course, God doesn’t strike us down like that: Zechariah’s is a very particular story, but it does leave us with the question of how often we are obedient to God and how often we fall off the pathway of discipleship.
Let’s think for a moment about whether there is an area in our lives where we know we are compromising our obedience to God. Are we grieving his heart by our disobedience? How can we get back on track?
Third, when I look at this story, I think about John and his calling. “What then will this child become?”
At that point, the people around don’t realise what John’s vocation is. They have no idea that he will fulfil the role of the prophets and act as the forerunner to Christ.
I wonder how old John was when he realised that that was his life’s calling? Did he know from childhood? When was that moment, he said to his parents – Sorry guys, time to go – God needs me in the wilderness. Who knows?
But we know that by the time Jesus meets him at the Jordan, he is very clear what his vocation is – calling people to repentance, baptising and proclaiming that a greater one was coming after him.
It was obvious from the start that God was with John. The story of his naming spread through all the hill country of Judea. It was evident to the people that God was with John.
Today some people are very clear in the vocation and role. But for many others trying to find out what God wants of them and where God wants them to be is much harder.
Most of us don’t hear clear voices, telling us what job to take, which place to live in, how to cope with difficult situations and so on. Sometimes we long to hear God’s voice clearly – though I wonder if we did whether we would be so keen! Zechariah, after all, ended up speechless, because he heard the voice of God and couldn’t trust what he’d heard.
How do we cope when we don’t hear God’s voice clearly telling us what to do and where out ministry lies?
In fact, it’s very simple.
We are called to be the best Christians we can be, to put God first in our lives, to shape our priorities around those of God. That is all.
If we stay as close to God as we are able, our lives will be shaped by God’s outlook and priorities, not the upside-down ones of the world. The more time we spend being aware of God, praying, reading Scripture, listening to other Christians, standing up for justice, speaking out against the evils of this world, cultivating our relationship with Jesus and being shaped by the Holy Spirit, the more our vocation will become clear.
And don’t miss it because you are waiting for a bolt out of the blue. For many of us our vocation is to follow Christ where we find ourselves, to live each day in his way, to step out each morning on his pathway, and to recognise and repent when we have wandered off.
Yes – some are called to great things; many others are called to do small things exceedingly well in the strength and through the grace of God. Maybe you’re one of those.
For all the Christians throughout history of whom we have heard and whom we still remember, there are many thousands, millions, who have led holy lives that we will never know about. But God does, and God knows where our hearts are – that’s something we can never hide.
That could be scary – it could lead us living life with a fearful “he’s-out-to-get-you-if-you-step-out-of-line” attitude. But it doesn’t need to be, because the gift of repentance brings forgiveness, freedom from what we have done and its effects.
John lived in an age of twisted values as much as we do – there were rich folk exploiting poor ones back then, there were governments ruling with an iron fist, there was discrimination, people who were different were seen as outcasts, the sick often abandoned, hatred and cruelty, people living with the upside-down morals of humanity.
Those who are clothed with Christ know that we are all one – there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female.
Above all else, John the Baptist lived with integrity. He never tried to be something other than what he was. He didn’t court popularity by changing his message. He died for speaking truth to power. He had his vocation and he followed it.
How well do we live out our calling to be the people of God? Are we cowed when we should speak out because we are fearful of what they might say? Are we tight with our resources because we are fearful of losing out? Are we slow to share our love because we think it will run out? Are we loathe to give time to God in prayer because we think other things are more important to fill our diaries with?
Let’s hold our thoughts there, and consider how well we respond to our calling by God to live as disciples of Jesus.
Rejoicing, obedience and calling.
These three are intertwined – when we recognise and rejoice at all that God has done for us, we will be open to the transformation that will enable us to be more obedient to his will, and thus fulfil our calling to the people of God in the world right now.