Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sermon for the Birthday of John the Baptist, St Matthew's, 2012

I wonder if you like your name.
Do you take pleasure in remembering why it was chosen for you, enjoy the sight of your signature, see it as a good reflection of the person that you are?
Or do you wish your parents had been more creative, less conventional – or maybe the other way round...
I like my name – but DISlike the spelling – though never enough to take decisive action to change it....
and I've discovered through years of asking for details as I book in baptisms, weddings and funerals, that many people feel very strongly about their names ...indeed, they are rarely neutral.
Only yesterday a baptism dad, asked for his full names proclaimed 2 out of 3 loud and clear – then resorted to a mumble, so that I had to ask him to repeat himself twice,til he explained that he really hated his 3rd name, chosen as a compliment to his grandfather.

And no, it wasn't Sisyphus or Ebeneezer!

But we do that, don't we...choose names to honour those whom we love or respect, to maintain a family tradition, perhaps to keep a memory alive.

Or there's another approach to naming – when parents choose a name that reflects their aspirations for their child.
Those virtue names that are firmly back in fashion...Faith, Hope, Prudence, Felicity...
names that carry hopes for the future, that try to shape personality and priority by a daily reminder of some lifetime goals..
Those names can be as hard to live up to as the other sort, which honours the past..
You see, we often expect names to carry a message beyond the immediate task of identification.
There's no denying, whatever Shakespeare would have us believe, that names are significant things.

The neighbours who came flocking to celebrate the birth of a son to Zechariah and hitherto barren Elizabeth had firm expectations -that the boy would be named for his father – and in due course, follow him into the family profession as a priest in the Temple.
Zechariah's name means “Remembered by God” - but when God not only remembered but intervened directly in this family's life, the impact left Zechariah dumbfounded.
In the same way, the guests at the baby's circumcision found their expectations confounded.
They had come to watch a tradition observed, to confirm once more their obedience to the Old Covenant between God and Israel...but found Zechariah silenced, unable to express his pride and joy,literally tongue tied....
And Elizabeth – that older mother who should surely have been proudly celebrating the fact that her husband's line would not, after all, dwindle and die....chose that day set apart by tradition, to turn her back on tradition and name her child John.
The first sign of the new covenant to come...a reminder that, whether we co-operate with him or resist him, bemused or baffled...GOD IS GRACIOUS – for THAT is what John means.

What's in a name?
Quite a lot, it seems, when that name is chosen by God – for, of course, an angel had already told the silenced Zechariah that this was to be his son's name...and had planted that same idea firmly in Elizabeth's mind too.
John – a name suming up not just Elizabeth's own perception of this miracle of belated motherhood
-truly this birth has come about by the grace of God alone, - but also, perhaps, representing a prayer and prophecy about that would happen later in John's life...
John – a child sent to remind us from the outset that God is gracious, for certainly this is no ordinary birth – and no ordinary child.

What, then, will this child become?
wondered the guests as they heard Zechariah speak at last, his tongue freed to confirm his wife's startling decision...
His name is JOHN
What will this child become, what is to be the fruit of this extraordinary birth, what the future for this baby graced by God?

Today's gospel leaves that question unanswered, though our reading from Isaiah gives us at least a clue if we really want to look ahead.
Let's stay with the birthday for a moment longer, though...for it offers one further insight into the coming ministry of John.
Had you realised that, apart from Jesus himself, John's is the only birth day that the Church invites us to celebrate?
John the midsummer saint – his birthday exactly 6 months before Christmas, as a reminder that he quickened, leapt in his mother's womb, when Mary came calling with her tale of a visiting angel and some life changing news.
At that point, his identity as a prophet was made clear – for as he leapt with joy, he recognised that his young aunt carried within in her the hopes of Israel and the Promise of God, pointed the way to the One at whose coming he rejoiced.

John the midsummer saint celebrated at this season of long days and short nights because, just in the same way the days draw in from this point of the year til we reach the winter solstice, so John's own light was to gradually diminish,
His mission was to go before Jesus and prepare the way for Him, and so once Christ's earthly ministry had begun the time came when John had to fade into the background and allow Jesus His place.
He must increase but I must decrease” he said – and in this he is a model for each of us in our journey of faith.

But all that lies ahead does his prophetic ministry, clearing a way in the wilderness, preparing the ground for God...
his challenging, disturbing preaching in the wilderness
his imprisonment and terrible death.
Today we have simply the miracle of his birth
and the way that his tongue-tied father finds his voice again, and bursts out in his own stream of exuberant praise that we know as the Benedictus.
Frustratingly, we don't hear those words this morning – but they are familiar to those who grew up with Matins and they are there to be found just after the gospel we've heard today – in Luke 1 67-79. If you do nothing else in response to my words, go home and read those...and ponder the difference that John the Baptist has made to the world, and what this might mean for us.

What then will this child become?
His father seems quite certain of the answer
And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the most high
For you shall go before the Lord to prepare his way
To give his people knowledge of salvation
By the forgiveness of their sins...”

That sounds like a reasonable job description for one whose very name proclaims that God is gracious...and, unlikely though it may seem, this wild uncomfortable man, is indeed a model
for the Christian life.
Receiving grace, John is called to be a sign of that grace every day, to celebrate it with others, and to help them to see it for themselves.
This is no less the task of the Church...our task.
Receiving grace WE are called to celebrate it with others and to help them to see it for themselves

His midsummer light diminishes as the Christ light burns brighter....but while John lives, his calling is to point others to Jesus, through his words and through his deeds.
While we live, OUR calling is to point others to Jesus, through our words and our deeds.
He must increase, but I must decrease!”
More of Jesus, less of John.
More of Jesus, less of Kathryn, Mathew, Benedict....whatever name your parents gave you, you are here today because, in your life as in John's, God is gracious.
So give thanks and so live that others may see that through God's mercy and compassion the dawn from on high has indeed broken upon us.
Live so that others will come to know that truly God is gracious.
Thanks be to God!

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