Friday, June 24, 2011

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist

I preached this morning in the Monastery Chapel on this feast, doubly important to OHC because the Community of St. John the Baptist were our sponsors when Holy Cross was just starting out. It would normally be published in the Holy Cross Monastery sermon blog, but the brothers who maintain our website are away for a bit.

I'll be preaching this Sunday, June 26, at the Church of the Incarnation, Madison Ave., at 35th St. in New York City, at 8:30 and 11:00 am.

The Nativity of John the Baptist
Holy Cross Monastery, June 24, 2011
Adam D. McCoy, OHC

Isaiah 40: 1-11
Acts 13: 14b-26
Luke 1: 57-80

“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matt 11:11) So says our Lord of John the Baptist. John is the forerunner, who calls Israel out to the Jordan to wash themselves clean so that they may join God in making Israel new again. John points the people to a new Exodus, and to a new Moses, who is not John. John is the greatest of the prophets of Israel, for in him come together Samuel, Elijah, Isaiah and Jeremiah, if not all the rest as well. It is the calling of a prophet to point the way and let God bring it in. Every prophet did, and every prophet does. And so does John.

John’s birth is Samuel’s birth: a barren woman close to God; a husband who loves her so much that once his duty is done he recedes from the picture; an infant known to be holy from the moment of his conception; a child dedicated from his first breath to the service of God; a young man who supplants his elders as he proclaims God’s word to the people. And what is the word of this new Samuel? A new day is dawning, the old is passing away. From the shambles of the past God will raise up a new leader for his people, a new David.

John’s life is Elijah’s life: living in the desert, the camel hair garment and leather belt, the locusts and the wild honey. But not just the life-style: John has adopted Elijah’s mission as his own. Israel has gone off the track and must be called back to her Sinai purity. Brood of vipers, he calls them, unworthy of their descent from Abraham. Israel’s leaders are corrupt, beyond corrupt: they are wicked. Ahab’s wife Jezebel’s arrogant, haughty, self absorbed cruelty has only one match in Scripture, and it is Herodias, nursing her own shame at the scorn John the Baptist has for her. Jezebel could not kill Elijah, but the vicious Herodias gets the Baptist, his head served on a platter as a grisly after dinner spectacle. But does she really win?

John’s proclamation is Isaiah’s proclamation: “"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'" (Matt 3:3) Comfort, the prophet proclaims. The end of your imprisonment is coming to an end. All the things of the world die like the grass of the field, but the word of God is forever. God is coming, a fierce warrior who is also a tender shepherd. Fear not, Israel. Return to the Lord, for the time is now.

John’s vocation is Jeremiah’s vocation: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.... today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” (Jer 1:5, 10) Jeremiah announces the end of Israel as they knew it, and so does John. Will they listen to Jeremiah? Some of them, but mostly not. Will they follow? Yes, but only a few. Will it make a difference? The prophet hopes so, but we know better. It is not God’s plan that Israel escape captivity and re-establish political sovereignty, but rather she is to be reshaped as a witness to the world of God’s mercy, justice, law and love, in ways unforeseen by Jeremiah. And so with John. Did they listen? Yes, quite a few. He was noticed. Did any follow? Yes, including some of Jesus’ disciples, and perhaps even Jesus himself. Did it make a difference? In a way, yes: John certainly upset the ruling classes. The historian Josephus wrote about him, which is more secular, outside notice than Jesus got. But was what happened what the prophet John thought would happen? Did he think Israel would be reshaped as a witness to the world of God’s mercy, justice, law and love in ways unforeseen by him?

I think he did. I think he knew the teachings and the history of the prophets of Israel. And this is what made him the greatest of the prophets: He led the people out to the Jordan, to the new Red Sea, to prepare them for the new Exodus, and then watched as a new Moses led them forth. As a new Samuel John prepared a new king for them, as the new Elijah John called them from apostasy, as the new Jeremiah John prepared them for their coming exile from the world they knew, as the new Isaiah John promised them God’s renewed creation.

The whole movement of the prophets, from the earliest times before Israel even knew Yahweh to Herod’s temple in John’s own time, the third to be built atop Mount Zion, the greatest religious building of the ancient world, and so ambivalent a symbol, built by such a crafty collaborator, calling out for renewed prophecy from the Lord.... the whole prophetic history, the whole prophetic identity, is summed up in John the Baptist.

An angel announces him. A miracle conceives him. His father’s voice goes silent while his mother’s voice proclaims her cousin Mary as she bears the greater one: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,” which countless millions say daily with Elizabeth to Mary in praise. The child John’s birth is six months to the day before the Nativity of Jesus, the forerunner in his birth as in his ministry, as in his death.

This child: conceived of the will of God, dedicated to God in the womb, so finely tuned to the Word of God that when still in his mother he leaps for joy when the Word comes near. The prophetic life of Israel, which will reshape the world toward God’s justice and mercy for hundreds, for thousands of years to come, the prophetic life of Israel is now incarnate in this child, whose life will prepare the way of the Lord, preparing Israel, preparing us, to open their eyes, our eyes, so that they, so that we, may see the dawn from on high which is breaking upon us, so that we who have sat in darkness and the shadow of death will see light, and so that at long last our feet may be guided into the way of peace.

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