The Daily Offices

The Daily Offices from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, (Canada 1962), including daily Bible readings and occasional sermons from the Cathedral of the Annunication of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Ottawa

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

On the Death of John the Baptist

[Father Peter Jardine's Sermon on Sunday, August 29, 2004)

Today we commemorate the death of Saint John the Baptist. John was beheaded, which is an emphatically terminal condition, leaving no room for doubt about the end result. Matthew 14, 1-12 describes the events around this death in all the detail we need.

But that passage from Matthew is not what we used in our Gospel reading today; we read verses 57-80 from Luke Ch.1. Asking myself why, I compared the two passages and a very obvious fact quickly emerged.

The description of John’s death speaks volumes about the sorry state of mortal man. It reveals the bitterness, the anger and dark ruthlessness of Herod the Tetrarch’s wife Herodias. It speaks of her thirst for vengeance against John for condemning her union with Herod.

It exposes the immorality and selfishness of Herod, who seduced and took for himself Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. John, in his blunt way, rightly told Herod, …it is not lawful for thee to have her.

It speaks of a royal princess abasing herself through the performance of suggestive dances and conniving in the evil wishes of her mother.

All of these things mark lives separated from God, as Herod, Herodias and Salome undoubtedly were.

John the Baptist lived exactly the opposite kind of life. A life filled with God; a life of total submission to God’s will; a life lived to glorify God. His whole existence had as its purpose pointing people to Jesus Christ. Isaiah foretold of John, saying, The voice of him crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a high-way for our God.

So, benefiting once again from the wisdom underlying our Prayer Book lectionary, we commemorate the death of St. John the Baptist by celebrating his life. The death of John the Baptist did indeed glorify God, but it is in John’s life that we find our God, shining through in the obedient, lifelong submission of His faithful, chosen, servant.

Indeed, St. Luke makes it clear that God was in John’s life from a very, very early stage. In Luke 1.39, we read, And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Judah; and entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth. And it came to pass that when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she spake with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.

God is amazing! Elisabeth and Zacharias, Luke tells us, were well stricken in years. By any normal yardstick she should not have been carrying a child at all. Yet here she was, six months pregnant with a son whose life was to be of great significance in God’s plan. Standing before her is a much younger relative, newly pregnant and about whose pregnancy Elisabeth could have known nothing.

But, on Mary’s visit, Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, who revealed these things to her. More importantly, and even more remarkably, the baby in Elisabeth’s womb was filled with the Holy Spirit, as the Angel Gabriel had declared to Zacharias he would be. Luke 1.15, and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from the womb.

From one womb to another, and in Mary who was in her first month of pregnancy, the Holy Spirit revealed to the baby John, his Lord.

I wonder what a difference it would make if the women who enter abortion clinics, the men who encourage them to go there and the people who earn their tainted living in them, pondered deeply the visit of Mary to Elisabeth.

Elisabeth’s full time came that she should be delivered; and she brought forth a son. There was great rejoicing, in the course of which the friends and relations who gathered began calling the baby Zacharias, after the custom of the people.

Hold the phone, Elisabeth said, he is to be called John, which was the name God had chosen for this baby. Gabriel had informed Zacharias of this name during his visit to the fearful old priest, …thy prayer is heard; the angel said, and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.

Zacharias, we are told, was doubtful about all this. But God has the technology to deal with the silly doubts of men, and Zacharias was struck dumb, until, said Gabriel, the day that these things shall be performed.

Unaware of this and In some consternation, the friends and relations turned to the man of the house. And he asked for a writing table and wrote, saying, His name is John. And his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spake and praised God.

Old Zacharias then gave voice to that most exquisite song of praise, which he must have written on his heart during his nine months of enforced silence. We know it now, of course, as the Benedictus, said every day during Morning Prayer.

The Benedictus brings all our focus back to God. Zacharias, Elisabeth, their child, John, are not about themselves; they are about God. It is God’s purpose in their lives; God’s presence in their lives that we must seek.

Then Luke, in verse 80, abruptly drops John off the radar screen for over two decades, though even his dismissal is God centered, And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit; and was in the desert until the day of his shewing unto Israel. Interestingly, Luke uses the exact same turn of phrase when speaking of the young Jesus in the next chapter. In 2.40, we read, And the child grew and waxed strong in spirit.

This repetition suggests that St. Luke held John the Baptist in very high regard, so high that is also important to note that nowhere does Luke, or any of the other Gospel writers, give us even the slightest of grounds for attributing any element of Divinity to John. And, of course, no such element existed.

So, like so many of God’s chosen, John went off into the desert.

He was separated by God, for God. It is tempting to pity such austerity, but that is wrong. It is much more a matter for rejoicing. His life was devoid of the noise and clutter which so distracts us from our Father, drowning out the quiet voice of Holy Spirit and turning us from our Saviour, God the Son. The noise and clutter which is now so cacophonous that it so easily separates us from God rather than to God.

But there in the desert, something very different happened to John. There, in the austere silence of the desert, he was filled with the Holy Spirit. There, he was set on fire for God. Jesus himself described John this way, He was a burning and a shining light. John 5.35.

The day of his shewing unto Israel came and it was a man consumed by and burning with the fire of God who was revealed.

That fire in his soul gave rise to the utter conviction from which his forthrightness was born. Luke 3.7, Then said John to the multitude that came to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore, fruits worthy of repentance.

What a magnificent, fiery preacher this strange man must have been! And how gloriously his life proclaims total submission to God.

Multitudes came to see him, to hear him, to be baptized by him, day after day. In their adulation, many thought he must be the Christ but through all of it, John never lost sight of who he really was, nor of the task that God had given him. He never lost the Grace of humility, so he could say to those who pressed him, I am not the Christ, but I am sent before him. Later he says, He must increase, but I must decrease. Oh that God would grant us such humility and such wisdom!

But John was not like other men. He was exalted by God, and the words of his father, Zacharias, remain eternally true, And thou, child, shalt be called the Prophet of the Highest, for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways.

Now let us give the last word on John to the Lord for whom he lived and died. To Jesus Christ, for whom John leaped for joy in his mother’s womb. To Jesus, whom John proclaimed to the world on Jordan’s banks, with the words, Behold the lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.

Jesus said, of John, What went ye out into the wilderness for to see? A reed shaken with the wind?
But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.
But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet.
For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.
Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women, there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist;.

Peter Jardine
The Beheading of John the Baptist, August 29th, 2004