The Birth of John the Baptist

When I was teaching history we used to go every year with 200 11-12 year olds to a Tudor manor house in Suffolk called Kentwell. It was in the parish of Long Melford and for a month in the summer they reconstructed a particular year of Tudor history. We, both staff and students, had to dress up as peasants before we left Bromley on the longish coach journey and, once there, we mingled with the gentry, all speaking 16th century English, as we went around the house and grounds. One of the things I remember best was a small room near the kitchen where special sweetmeats were created out of marzipan or marchpane as it was called then and because we usually went on or near today’s date we often found that the marzipan creations showed John the Baptist’s head on a plate with plenty of cochineal colouring added to show the blood!!. You may think that recreating the moment after his beheading was rather an odd way of celebrating his birth but it does show how important this festival was in Tudor times.

I was reminded of this too, the other night, while I was looking up a recipe for walnut wine on the internet to take to France. Almost all the recipes I looked at said that the unripe walnuts should be picked around June 24th, St John the Baptist’s day. Again a reminder that this day, which this year partially eclipses the Fourth Sunday of Trinity, was a very significant festival in the past, coming as it does just after midsummer’s day and as far as possible from the date allotted for the birth of Jesus.

I hope to explore the reasons for this day being significant for us too. But at first sight it’s not easy because John the Baptist seems a world away from us today. You have only to look at Paul’s letter to the Galatians to see the difference just 20 years could make. There, in what is now central Turkey, the Christian gospel had spread outside the confines of Judaism and, alongside the arguments over whether circumcision was necessary for Gentiles or not there is of course this wonderful example in today’s reading of an inclusivity unheard of in 1st century Judaism - and in some parts of the Christian church even today! ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ But Paul goes on to link this new and potentially very radical community with its historic roots, ‘And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.’

John the Baptist is a transitional figure linking the world of Judaism with the new world of the risen Jesus but, like Moses, John had the disadvantage of not quite getting to the promised land, in other words of being a witness to Jesus’ death and resurrection. He had a strong sense that the kingdom of God was close at hand and he knew that Jesus, his cousin, had an important role to play but he was not absolutely certain that he was the promised Messiah. He did what he did and preached what he preached through faith and a calling that had been there since he was in his mother’s womb.

The birth story of John the Baptist shows him within his Jewish family, being circumcised on the eighth day, but his name shows that his parents had been shaken to the core by the events of his birth and were prepared to go against Jewish custom and tradition by giving him a name which was not a family name. John simply means ‘God has been gracious to us’ and is the name announced by Gabriel referring to the amazing nature of his birth, coming long after Elizabeth and Zechariah had expected to bear children.

The Angel Gabriel appeared at the birth of both Jesus and of John the Baptist. We are so familiar with this particular angel that we may assume that he was well attested to in the Jewish scriptures but the only references are in the Book of Daniel, where the angel gives prophetic messages to do with the end time. So the fact that he appears at these births is likely also to show that the end of the beginning had come and the beginning of the end was starting. God was doing a new thing by breaking into history and becoming incarnate in Jesus. By agreeing to the name given by the angel Gabriel Zechariah is healed and freed from his temporary disability of muteness to praise God and pass on these ideas to his son.

We are told that John grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.

It’s not clear whether John actually referred to the prophet Isaiah in his own preaching but it is certainly the case that both Matthew and Luke, most likely using the same source, linked today’s passage from Isaiah with John the Baptist. It seemed absolutely right to the early followers of Jesus that John’s was that voice crying in the wilderness as prophesied by Isaiah,

‘make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.’

John was not in favour of an easy life however. He risked his life publicly rebuking King Herod for marrying his brother’s wife; he did not enjoy parties like Jesus and he wore rough clothes made of camel hair and ate locusts and wild honey. He preached a stern message calling for repentance yet he wanted above all to create a smooth and level road for God to enter the world with his kingdom.

So perhaps the real significance of John the Baptist for us today is that he, like us, was at a point of transition. There had not been a prophet for many centuries when John started to proclaim the kingdom of God, calling people to turn back to God. We too, have grown up, many of us, with a church that has expected us to come to it, expected us to know what Christianity is all about, when in fact we now find ourselves needing to go out, to proclaim the good news of Jesus to people where they are, in language that they understand, because they simply have not heard the gospel. There are a variety of ways of doing this depending on our personalities. What we need to do is to find opportunities to highlight the nature of God’s kingdom so that it may be more easily seen in our world today. God has a rough ride with the pressures of our fast pace of life and growing secularism and materialism but his kingdom is already here! Having glimpses of the kingdom makes us want to repent as we see the difference between our daily lives and those who live closest to God. We, like John the Baptist, like the voice crying in Isaiah’s wilderness, need to make a smooth path and signposts of love, justice and peace so that people may turn to the living God in their own way, in their own time, or, in reality, in God’s time.