A Homily for the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, a mighty Savior raised up for us from the House of David. Amen.
What can we say about John the Baptist, that wild man of the wilderness? He who ate locusts and wild honey, wearing ragged clothes?
It’s a bit unusual to encounter outside of Advent and Christmas – our lectionary cycle usually gives him a Sunday or two in December as the forerunner of the Messiah and then a few weeks later, on the first Sunday after Epiphany, we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, recalling when John baptized his younger cousin in the river Jordan. But why now, almost exactly six months away?
In the third chapter of Saint John’s Gospel, John – the Baptizer, not the author – testifies that Christ is the one he has been waiting for. “He must increase, but I must decrease,” the nomadic preacher says. And so, today, a few days after the summer solstice – as the light begins to fade and the days begin to grow just a little shorter each day – we remember the herald who has come into the world, looking forward with him to the fulfillment of all things, even Christ our Lord who brings with him at his birth – just a few days after the winter solstice – new light, longer days, and shorter nights.
And John’s testimony to the coming Messiah has already begun. At his birth, his father sings, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people,” but already this newborn prophet has announced the coming of the Savior: just weeks ago, when the Church marked the visit of the Blessed Virgin Mary to her kinswoman, Elizabeth – both at the time with child – John “leapt for joy” in his mother’s womb.
But there’s more to the life of John the Baptist than seasonal holy days and cute depictions of leaping babies.
Going before the Lord to prepare the way is risky business. Calling the political and religious leaders a “brood of vipers” is risky business. Opposing the puppet king of a violent empire is risky business.
What am I saying? Risky business is an understatement. It’s the shortest route from “preaching in the wilderness” to “imprisoned before being beheaded.”
At his birth, his father Zechariah rejoiced, for “the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace,” but John’s ministry brought him precisely into the shadow of death, guiding his feet to a violent end.
Over the past few Sundays, we’ve been reading Christ’s words of warning to the disciples: that proclaiming the Kingdom of God will undoubtedly bring his followers into conflict with the powers of this world. They’ll be hauled before tribunals, synagogue leaders, governors, courts. They’ll be beaten, flogged, beheaded. Following Christ means confronting the cross and death.
And John the Baptist prepared the way, traveling it before his greater kinsman.
What then of God’s tender mercy, of the promised salvation?
Our hope is only this: that Christ will increase. That as the days grow shorter, as the world continues under the powers of sin and death for a time, as false kings and emperors impose their violent will for a while longer, someone else is coming: one who will fulfill the oath made to Abraham and Sarah to bless the entire world through their family.
And so, children, prepare the way of the Lord.