Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the Second Sunday after Trinity 2017
Start Date 25th Jun 2017 10:00am

The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence

Yesterday the Church commemorated the birth of St John the Baptist, the precursor or forerunner of Jesus, as a witness to the light of Christ.

This has always been an important feast day for the church, and in a mildly bizarre way, its reflected in the fact that throughout the world many places claim to hold possession of the same part of his body, as holy relics.

His head is alleged to be in the Umayyad Mosque in the old city of Damascus, as well as in the church of San Silvestro in Capite, the Basilica of St Sylvester the First, in Rome. Amiens Cathedral has a head brought back from the fourth crusade, and there are reports of various bits and pieces in Antioch, southern France, Serbia, Istanbul, Egypt.

Usually the Church observes the day of a saint's death as their feast day, because that day marks their entrance into heaven. However there are two notable exceptions to this rule: the birthdays of The Blessed Virgin Mary and that of St. John the Baptist.

St. Augustine explains how this came about: ‘Apart from the most holy solemnity commemorating our Saviour's birth, the Church keeps the birthday of no other person except that of John the Baptist. At that time the feasts of the Immaculate Conception and of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin had not yet been introduced’.

The reason for honouring John the Baptist, is of course, that he announced the Lord’s coming he prepared the way of the Lord.

If we pause and reflect on this for a moment, we see that John the Baptist couldn’t really have been born at any other time and for any other purpose apart from the time of our Messiah. No wonder then he leapt for joy when Mary the Mother of our Lord greeted her mother (Luke 1:41).

He was called to prepare the way, to make the paths strait for the Lord of light. This may seem rather strange to us, but it all came about from biblical reflections on Christ as the true ‘Sun of Righteousness’ (Malachi 4.2), the ‘Dayspring from on high’ (Luke 1.78), the true ‘Light of the world’ (John 8.12, 9.5). Here Creation was witnessing to redemption.

In St John’s Gospel (John 1.29) we hear that John baptises as a sign of repentance, but its Christ the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. John is human, but Christ is greater; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal (Mark 1.7).

Not only is the celebration of his birth exactly six months before (or after) Christmas, but both festivals coincide with the summer and winter solstices. This timing is partly due to the Church’s having taken over two pagan Roman festivals. Last week it fell on an extraordinarily hot and bright day!

But it also has a deep theological significance. On the one hand we have Christ, in the depths of winter, the rising sun that lights up the world. On the other hand we have John as a burning and a shining light in the heat of summer, decreasing as he leads us towards the light of Christ.

He must increase, I must decrease. He came as a witness, to bear witness to the light, so that everyone might believe through him. In many ways he was the greatest of all the Hebrew Testament prophets.

The Eucharistic preface for the feast describes this by saying: ‘Alone of all the prophets, John hailed the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world’, reflecting that it was he, who in John’s gospel, points out Jesus to his disciples as the “Lamb of God”.

But apart from preaching a message of repentance and conversion to the large number of people who came to hear him, he baptised Christ.

He’s presented as a man of total honesty and integrity, and perhaps it was this which attracted so many to come and hear him. And because of this he ultimately lost his life when he denounced King Herod who had married his brother’s wife. He was ‘found worthy of a martyr’s death, his last and greatest act of witness to your Son’.

John the Baptist’s life has a special meaning for all of us. We are, through our baptism, also called to be precursors of the Lord. Our baptism gives us an obligation to share our faith and to witness to Christ through our lives.

There is no other way by which we can come to know and experience the love of Christ. Its well put by St Paul, writing to the church at Rome all those years ago:

‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?
And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ (Romans 10:13-15)

In that sense, we are all called to communicate the faith. Our lives both individually and collectively are meant to send out a message and an invitation: ‘Come and join us and share our experience of faith, love and fellowship’.

If we are honest, we know that we do not do that nearly enough and often give an opposite message altogether. As the unbeliever Nietzsche said, ‘If they want me to be Christian they will have to look as if they are saved’.

The signals we send out as individuals and as a church, are really the only way that people, who are searching for meaning in their lives, may be led to find that meaning in the Gospel.

Let us then ask John the Baptist to help us by the way we live our lives, to clear a path which will draw people closer to knowing and experiencing Christ.

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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