Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11; Acts 13: 14-26; Luke 1; 57-66,80
The nights are now drawing in, and we count 183 days to Christmas. Another year gone. As someone said recently, when you are on a bicycle and over the hill, things speed up. The Birth of John the Baptist which we celebrate today was in mediaeval Europe kept as midsummer’s day. People would bring herbs and other greenery to the church to be blessed on this day – you can still see this in parts of Poland, Ukraine, and Russia and we have a relic of this in the plant St John’s wort. It was only when the Gregorian calendar was adopted in in Europe in 1582 that midsummer’s day became associated with the summer solstice 21st June. England only adopted the calendar 200 years after the rest of Europe, so in this, plus ca change. St John the Baptist is known in the Orthodox Church as John the Forerunner, so here we have his birth, six months before that of Jesus Christ whom he foretold. He heralded Christ even in his birth and before, as he leapt in the womb. So let’s look at the prophetic figure of John the Baptist, especially in the prophet’s role of speaking truth to power.
The readings set for today give us the context. First the reading, from the Prophet Isaiah, which gives the content of what prophecy is in the Biblical tradition. The Prophet Isaiah reminds us that this prophetic tradition is public, fearless, and encouraging. One of the synonyms for Prophet ( Nabi) used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures is herald. The image of the herald is actually taken from court ritual of the time, as the one who announced to the Monarch who was about to enter the royal presence. Courtly ritual in our own time and country still functions in this way. In Royal audiences, we see the herald boldly and clearly announcing the person, and in the next snap we see the herald, job finished, standing with bowed head before reversing out of the room. This is the herald who announces and withdraws, job done. He is not the centre of attention. This is the Hebrew prophetic tradition, in which Isaiah stands, announcing “ In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
We see this theme continued by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, where he describes Paul’s understanding of the place of John the Baptist in the prophetic tradition. He links him to his Hebrew, Old Testament forebears, so as to give a pedigree to establish his credibility and legitimacy. There were many ascetic itinerant prophets at the time, and Luke is keen to establish that John the Baptist is not just any old itinerant preacher. Luke puts these words into Paul’s mouth, “As John was finishing his work, he said “Who do you suppose that I am? I am not he” Here we have the prophet as herald, announcing, withdrawing, encouraging.” This is continued by Luke in the Gospel which bears his name. In this, we hear the birth of John to Elizabeth and Zechariah, his mute father. Against Hebrew tradition, he is named John by his mother, and his speechless father can only confirm it in writing, “His name is John." On a personal note, my mother reversed this tradition when she wrote on a piece of paper after the birth of my younger brother, “His name is John.”
John the Baptist is the one who prepares the way of Jesus Christ and points to him. The contemporary icon in the sacrament Chapel has him pointing to Christ. Par excellence he is the one who points us to a greater reality without becoming the centre of attention himself- the mandate of course for all Christians, but especially for clergy. One of the more unfortunate things about some contemporary expressions of Anglicanism is that clergy are placed at the centre of attention in their roles as chief entertainer, the cooler the better, and of course in very long sermons.
Prophets are not comfortable. They are not supposed to be. They speak ahead of their time, with a far-sighted vision, which may not be seen or shared by the society in which he or she is set. All of us could name those we believe to be prophets of our own time, and they have often been given a hard time by the institutional church and by the hierarchy. For example, in the life of the contemporary Church of England and its hierarchy - there are those who believe that the potential for prophetic leadership in the hierarchy has been effectively extinguished by the middle management culture of ecclesiastical beaurocracy, and the need to keep the show on the road. The Prophet would ask- is it worth keeping the show on the road? But sometimes we are given a glimpse of another way. Today we welcome Deacon Milan Kakone, from the persecuted Church of Iraq. The story of persecuted Christians is a prophetic one for all of us. Take our political life and the life of British institutions right now. The Conservative Party is accused of Islamophobia, the Labour party of anti-Semitism, and the Liberals recently got rid of a leader because he was too Christian. All manifest Christianophobia, as do our institutions. Let me give some examples. The recent report on Christian persecution, a growing global phenomenon, criticised the BBC for editing this narrative out. The BBC edited this criticism out. One of the largest public street gatherings in London recently was the Christian celebration of Pentecost in Trafalgar Square. Edited out. When there was an opportunity to question our future Prime Minster recently, the only question about faith which the BBC allowed was from a radical Islamist preacher – nothing from more mainstream representatives of faith, especially Christianity. The recent street demonstrations in Hong Kong, in which 2 million people protested in the street. was facilitated by the Christian Churches in Hong Kong, and the unofficial anthem of the protesters was “ Sing Aleluia to the Lord.” This was edited out by the BBC. Our last census was in 2011, when 60% of the population identified themselves as Christian. So who has given the BCC this hard-line secular mandate? Likewise, in the Home Office, which recently confessed that many of their employees dealing with matters of faith lacked the religious literacy to do so – the initial refusal of the visa for Deacon Milan was just one example. I could go on and on. But the point of this is the prophetic tradition of John the Baptist, and the need to speak up and out. If we remain mute just remember this, from Pastor Martin Niemoller, “ Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out “
Speaking truth to power in undoubtedly a central characteristic of prophecy and it may be costly. John the Baptist payed for his speaking truth to power by being murdered- as do increasing number of prophets in our own time as state murder becomes more and more common – be that of journalists in many countries, clergy who regularly receive death threats, be that in Iraq or in the Philippines, or in our own country where the silent collusion with unelected secular fundamentalism simply edits whole communities out of the narrative and out of the picture, especially Christians. So John the Baptist, as he points us to Christ, gives us a voice, which we do not use at our peril.
So celebrate, and be encouraged by John the Baptist. He comes to herald, to warn, to encourage, and in speaking truth to power, to set us free. Here at St John’s, we have a noble tradition of this, from calling our racism in the 1960’s in the Notting Hill race riots, to today when we break new ground in welcoming a brother in Christ from a persecuted Church. And that maybe that’s the vocation for all of us. And by the way, Happy Christmas in advance. Thanks be to God.