We tend to associate John the Baptist with winter time. He crops up in our readings and service themes on the third Sunday of Advent, at Christmas (especially at the carol service) and on the Sunday after the Epiphany which is the Baptism of Christ and is very often the coldest day of January. We cannot be further from Christmas at the moment: it is midsummer and we have the weather to prove it, but that is when the church celebrates the birth of John the Baptist – on the 24th June. We read about the remarkable event in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel. John’s father was a priest who served in the temple in Jerusalem – the very centre of Jewish worship. Occasionally he was allowed into the sanctuary, the most sacred part of that great edifice, and it was while he was there alone that an angel appeared and told him that his wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son and that he should call him John. This boy “Will be great in the eyes of the Lord” said the angel and he said that he would be a forerunner, preparing the people for the coming of the Lord. John rather doubted this because Elizabeth was “Well on in years”. Consequently, the angel made him lose his power of speech until the boy was born – something which surprised and disturbed the people waiting outside. Elizabeth duly conceived and, while pregnant, received a visit from her cousin, Mary the mother of Jesus who was herself carrying a child – the unborn Jesus Christ. (This event is known as the Visitation and was the occasion when Mary sang the song we have come to call the Magnificat). Elizabeth gave birth to a boy and eight days later he was to be circumcised and named. Everyone expected him to be named after his father as that was the custom, but Elizabeth insisted that he should be called John. The people then tried to ask Zechariah, who was still speechless, and he wrote on a tablet “His name is John”. At once Zechariah began to speak, praising God and telling everyone what had happened.
These events show us that John was, and was always intended to be, a very special person. His life was akin to that of the Old Testament prophets because from an early age he dedicated his life to encouraging others to turn back to God and live lives worthy of their calling. He lived in the desert, ate meagre rations and wore very simple clothing, but people flocked to him. He had some harsh words for the religious establishment and urged everyone to repent and show their repentance by means of baptism – immersion in the waters of the river Jordan. He seems to have built up a number of dedicated followers. However, he differed from the traditional prophets in that he always said that he was there to prepare the way for Jesus. He called on people to get ready for the coming of God into the world in a new and very particular way – as a human being. John was not the saviour, he was the forerunner, the herald, the proclaimer. And when Jesus came to be baptised by John, John recognized precisely who he was. All four Gospels declare John to be the forerunner in this way.
We too are called to be proclaimers and heralds, rather like John. Our situation is different of course because we now live in the time after Jesus’s death and resurrection and our role is to proclaim that amazing truth – that salvation has come and we are fully reconciled to God through what Jesus did. John no doubt anticipated this and spent his time getting people ready for it. We can do the same. Not in exactly the manner that John did (few of us are called to a lone ministry in the desert) but by our lives and in our words we demonstrate to the world the love of God shown in Christ Jesus. People took notice of John – let us pray that people will take notice of us too.
Almighty God, by whose providence your servant John Baptist was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Saviour by the preaching of repentance: lead us to repent according to his preaching and, after his example, constantly to speak the truth, boldly to rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake; through Jesus Christ your Son, our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.