Nativity of John the Baptist (A,B,C) – 2013

Determining the significance of a prophet

June 24, 2013

Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85 or 85:7-13; Acts 13:14b-26; Luke 1:57-80

People old enough to have been adults during the turbulent ’60s will remember how controversial Martin Luther King, Jr., was at the time. It was said that he and his people had no right to stir things up with all his confrontational tactics. In the South they said he didn’t understand the negro’s place, nor the way Southern society had to be structured. But in 1966 – toward the end of his career – when he led a March in Cicero, just outside of Chicago, he ran into a maelstrom of white hatred every bit as angry and violent, and he got just about nowhere. Even clergy in Northern churches were very hesitant to speak favorably of King. His “Letters from a Birmingham Jail” were meant to win them over.

In those days it would have brought on laughter and derision among most Americans to be told that King would become the greatest Christian prophet of 20th century America, and that a national holiday would be declared in his name.

Obviously, we’ve gone through a national period of reflection and re-evaluation; many minds have been changed as well as the social structure and culture of this county because of Martin Luther King.

This change of heart and culture toward King is a useful example regarding the man whose birth we observe today: John the Baptist, someone who appeared strangely out of the wilderness wearing something woven out of camel’s hair, living on a diet mostly of bugs and wild honey.

And John the Baptist must have had a big voice and a powerful message about the Kingdom, because we are told that Jerusalem and all Judea emptied out and came to hear him: large crowds getting themselves baptized with a baptism of repentance. And he wasn’t afraid to speak out, calling soldiers and tax collectors not to abuse their offices, calling the more pious people – scribes and Pharisees – a “brood of vipers,” for a false religiosity, and noisily embarrassing King Herod for marrying Herodias, the divorced wife of Herod’s half brother. John the Baptist was put in prison for that, and Herodias saw to it that John lost his head.

Jesus’ public ministry doesn’t really begin until after John’s martyrdom. And when the crowds begin to follow Jesus for his teaching and healing powers, before long Herod gets wind of it, and feels thunderstruck that maybe this guy is John brought back from the dead, a prophet that not even the king can suppress.

Reading between the lines, one can form the strong suspicion that what we have in John the Baptist is a very powerful and commanding figure, one who – like Martin Luther King – requires some time and reflection to sort out his true significance.

Indeed, he may have seemed – for a time – a rival to Jesus’ own ministry. John had followers who persisted with his ministry. We are told in the Book of Acts that Paul ran into a group of people out on a mission in Asia Minor who had been baptized into repentance, but had no knowledge of baptism by the Holy Spirit. Among them was a figure of considerable esteem who knew the Bible and could speak very persuasively of his faith. Once baptized in the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ name, he was a powerful advocate and apostle for Christ.

Thus we see a kind of merging or reeling in of what might have become a different offshoot of Judaism, a religion founded on John the Baptist. This reeling in occurs, for example, when some disciples of John, loosely wondering after John’s martyrdom, come up to Jesus and ask, “Are you the One, or should be wait for another?”

But before seeing how Jesus answers this point-blank question “Are you the one?” suppose we pause and reflect on the example of how it was that we managed eventually to appreciate the full stature and significance of Martin Luther King. It took some time, some reflection on his speeches, his writings, his nonviolent strategies, the real changes that came cascading forth in our society, and the hope for things yet to come, because of him.

Yes, Jesus was baptized by John, and John witnessed to Jesus’ stature as not being worthy even to tie Jesus’ shoes. But it appears that John’s magnetic force was so powerful his followers couldn’t see beyond him to his real significance.

Jesus answers the question “Are you the one?” in an operational way:

“Go tell John what you see and hear: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up and the poor have the good news preached to them.”

He then goes on to speak of that rough-hewn man in the wilderness they all went out to see: a prophet and more than a prophet, a forerunner. And Jesus quotes from Malachi using the very last sentence of our Old Testament: “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.”

It is the prophetic expectation of Elijah come back to prepare the way for the Messiah.

But the final appreciation for the significance of John the Baptist comes from the portrait given us by the Gospel of Luke. Here we find John comes from a priestly family. The angel Gabriel appears to the father, Zechariah, saying that Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, though advanced beyond child-bearing years, will have a son whose destiny is to play the role of the forerunner Elijah. Zechariah, being doubtful about this, is struck speechless until the child is circumcised. Then he speaks the words of the hymn we know as the Benedictus Dominus Deus, very likely a hymn of the primitive church to express their veneration of John. The hymn closely follows the Magnificat of Mary, expressing the promise that the covenant of God with his people is carried forward by John with the promise of salvation of the lowly and protection from enemies, offering forgiveness of sins, light from darkness and the guidance of holiness of righteousness.

Furthermore, we are told in Luke that Mary and Elizabeth were kinswomen, related, and rejoiced in companionship over their pregnancies.

In this way, by couching it in his birth, the gospel of Luke brings to full fruition the stature and significance of John the Baptist.

 

— The Rev. Armand Larive is a retired priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane and the author of “After Sunday: A Theology of Work” (Bloomsburt Academic, 2004).

St. John the Baptist (B) – June 25, 2012

John as spiritual massage therapist

Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85 or 85:7-13; Acts 13:14b-26; Luke 1:57-80

Today we celebrate the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist. John the Baptist was many things. He was a first-century apocalyptic Jew. He was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He was the forerunner of Christ. But today, on his feast day, let’s think of John as a spiritual massage therapist.

An Episcopal priest tells a story about the first time he got a message. It was a gift from his wife, who thought it would be a nice thing to help him relax and get ready for the holiday season, which was just about to begin. He was a bit nervous. It was a new experience, and as he says, he grew up in a neighborhood in New Jersey where guys don’t get massages.

But he went and was met by a well-scrubbed, middle-aged woman who said she was going to be his “massage therapist.” He turned that phrase over in his mind: massage therapist, massage therapy. It had an interesting, almost clinical ring. It couldn’t be too bad, he told himself.

Then his massage therapist told him to go into the room, to take off all of his clothes, and to lie face down on the table. And he got really nervous. Taking off all your clothes and lying on a table, even when you are modestly covered by a sheet, causes a little anxiety. But he said to himself, I’m a priest, and this is nothing that a little faith can’t handle. We are made in the image and likeness of God! We praise God because we are fearfully and wonderfully made! Our bodies are temples of the Holy Ghost! Theology to the rescue! Right?

Wrong! It didn’t work. The fact of the matter was that he was lying face down on a table covered by a sheet. He felt uncomfortable and awkward and vulnerable.

The massage therapist came in and got to work. At first, she seemed to be doing some exploratory work. She seemed to know how to find those places where muscles were knotted and tense, places that he didn’t even know were knotted and tense. Not too bad. Kind of nice. Sort of relaxing. But then, after this initial exploratory phase, this nice, well-scrubbed, middle-aged woman somehow changed, and she began to hurt the priest. She dug her strong fingers into knotted and stressed-out muscles, and pain shot through his body. In a soothing voice she said things like, “It feels like you’re a little tight here,” and then she dug deeper into the knot. The pain was both excruciating and exquisite, and for the better part of an hour she subjected the priest’s stressed-out and tensed body to massage therapy.

He describes the experience this way. First of all, it really did hurt. When she dug her fingers into a knotted muscle, pain seared through his body. But mixed in with this experience of pain, there was the deeper experience of muscles loosening and becoming unknotted. As he was lying there, with his massage therapist boring into his muscles, he found his body relaxing and being released from the grip of tensed and stressed-out muscles. At the same time he was saying ouch from the pain, he was also experiencing sweet relief from tortured and twisted muscle fibers. By the end of the massage, he felt wonderful. It was a painful process to endure, but in the end, seized-up and knotted muscles were relaxed and unknotted, and the priest felt like a new person.

On her way out, the massage therapist told the priest to drink a lot of water during the next twenty-four hours in order to flush the toxins out of his system. “Yuck,” thought the priest. Decades of toxins being released into his system. Not the most pleasant of thoughts. He drank gallons of water that day!

John the Baptist is like that massage therapist.

Consider John’s message to us: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” To prepare the way of the Lord is a serious spiritual undertaking. How can we prepare the way of the Lord in our world and in our hearts today? If God is love, then what are those things that are keeping God’s love at bay? If God’s spirit is the spirit of truth and goodness and beauty, what are those things that get in the way of God’s spirit in the world? If God desires human beings to live in harmony and peace, then what are those things that keep frustrating these desires?

And when we ask these questions, there is John the Baptist waiting to greet us, saying, “Hello, I’m John, and I’ll be your spiritual massage therapist. Take off your clothes, wade into the water, and feel yourself naked before the very eye of God. I’ll be right in, and we’ll get to work. And we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

And there are his rough, prophet’s hands, ready to dig into the twisted and knotted fibers in our spiritual lives. Under the Baptist’s hands, we feel the pain of having the spiritual knots in our communal and individual lives identified and worked on.

Has anger over some past injury got your soul in knots? Has malicious gossip torn the spiritual tissue that connects us one to another? Are you still nursing an old grudge against someone that is causing you to cramp up? Has consumerism got you feeling spiritually stressed out? Have fear and prejudice caused knots of hatred and intolerance to form in the body politic?

The strong hands of the Baptist are ready to perform a deep-tissue massage on all the things that are blocking the coming of the Lord. It is a painful, but necessary process.

Yet, even in the midst of the pain, in the midst of the searing in our souls, there is the sense in which we are being relieved, released from the tensed and twisted fibers of our anger and our fear and our prejudice. As we undergo spiritual massage therapy, the toxins that were polluting our system are being flushed out in the waters of baptism.

There are many things that are still blocking the ways of peace and compassion in our hearts and in our world today. Things like anger and fear and injustice. To prepare the way of the Lord, to make straight his paths, we may all need to undergo a little spiritual massage therapy.

We are invited to lay down on John the Baptist’s spiritual message table, and to undergo his treatment. It is difficult to undergo, but in the midst of it, we may experience this process as sweet relief, and we may feel like we are being transformed into new men and women.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Maryland.

 

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist (A,B,C) – 2011

June 24, 2011

Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85 or 85:7-13; Acts 13:14b-26; Luke 1:57-80

Much has been made in the popular press in recent years of so-called “helicopter parents.”

Never heard of them?

Well, they, of course, have nothing to do with flying machines. The term refers instead to parents who seem to “hover” over their children constantly, making many of life’s decisions for them – sometimes giving them no room to make their own mistakes or, for that matter, to soar on their own to heights which the parents themselves might never have dreamed possible.

Whether this is a recent phenomenon or has always been a part of the parental and societal impulse to protect children we can leave to the experts to decide. Far too many parents are blamed – or take responsibility upon themselves – for developments in their children’s lives that are more or less out of their control anyway, no matter how much they hover. Even under the best of circumstances, parenting is not an exact science and probably never will be. In every generation, there are sure to be a lot of parents who quite understandably want their children to be like those of Garrison Keillor’s mythic Lake Wobegone – “above average, every last one of them.”

In our gospel text today, the people of the “the entire hill country of Judea” ponder the birth and naming of the child John – hovering closely over him and his parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah. “What then will this child become?” they ask in amazement mixed perhaps with some confusion. It is a question of course that parents and family members have asked for millennia at the birth of every child, whether in ancient Judea or contemporary New Jersey or Nebraska. For the birth of any child is a reaffirmation of life itself and its mystery. No one can hold a small child and not wonder – perhaps sometimes even fear for – what the future has in store.

There may not have been helicopters in the ancient Holy Land but, it seems, parents and relatives do not much change over time either. It is perhaps reassuring to learn from scripture that a child’s birth could stir an entire community and get them thinking and involved. Sometimes, it does indeed take a village – or an “entire hill country” – to raise a child. And Zechariah’s words are a profound declaration of one parent’s faith as he, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” begins to speak in prophecy to his own son. “You, my child,” he says tenderly and perhaps even with a parent’s pride, “shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.”

“What then will this child become?” This is the answer. This is what John will become. As we know well from our Christian perspective, he will become the last of the great prophets, the one to baptize our Lord and prepare his way.

But in some larger sense, the infant John – and every child – is already a “prophet of the Most High” because every child is paradoxically an image of the loving Father who sent to us not only John, but his very own Son Jesus, whose ministry John will grow to affirm. After all, “the child is father to the man,” as the poet Wordsworth reminded us. The Father knows well that only a child is truly capable of calling us back to the simplicity and fullness of divine love. John did not need to grow to manhood to prepare the Lord’s way. And the Lord did not need to hover. The child himself prepares the Lord’s way; and it is from John, and every child, that we must learn.

Yet sadly, it is exactly the child that our world today too often forgets. We read with horror of the abuse of children in our own country and elsewhere. Their images haunt us in scenes of famine and war in faraway lands, situations from which not even the most obsessive helicopter parent could rescue them. On the other hand, in some quarters of our contemporary consumer society, children seem to have become little more than nonessential commodities – neither profit centers nor revenue enhancers – perhaps at best parental status symbols and fashion accessories.

All children are in themselves signs of the abundance and bounty of a loving God. Zechariah knew this instinctively. It is a lesson that each generation of children teaches us anew. That is, if we are willing to understand. Our gospel text today ends ominously enough with John “in the wilderness,” surely not a place Zechariah – much less any self-respecting helicopter parent – could ever have wished his child to be. There was to be no Ivy League for John, no high-paying job in software development or finance. But what John learned in the wasteland, he proclaimed at the Jordan. And it is the most valuable lesson of all. It is the very thing Zechariah foresaw at John’s birth: that the Lord “has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.”

And it is a lesson learned from the child.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary, www.anglicanbudapest.com.