Tag Archives: Christmas

John the Baptist: God’s herald of grace

A sermon preached at St Paul’s Cathedral by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Feast of the Birth of St John the Baptist, 2015:


‘What then will this child become?’ the neighbours and relatives of Zechariah and Elizabeth wondered when they came to celebrate the naming of John, whose birth we commemorate today. It had been a most unusual naming ceremony, our gospel reading tells. In accordance with Jewish custom, every male child was to be named and dedicated to God eight days after his birth. And so the temple priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth presented the child to be marked with the sign of the Jewish covenant, and to be named. And the name the child received was a most unexpected break with tradition in more ways than one. It was his mother who named him, and not the father. It was Elizabeth who named her child, a break with Jewish custom. And then Elizabeth astounded all by confirming that her son would not receive a traditional family name, but would be called by a new name altogether.

‘No; he is to be called John’, Elizabeth told the astonished relatives, who objected to the choice and pleaded with her to see reason: ‘none of your relatives has this name’ (Luke 1.60). Not only was the name given to the child a break with a family tradition, but the way in which the child received his name, from his mother, was a break with religious tradition by which the father would name the child. The fact that the child’s father, who had been struck dumb at the news of his birth had to resort to confirming his wife’s choice of name in writing, made this a most unusual naming. The fact that Zechariah regained his voice—immediately after he had confirmed by writing, ‘His name is John’—made John’s naming ceremony even more memorable. From the very beginning of his story, John was marked out to be extraordinary. No wonder the neighbours and relatives asked themselves: ‘what then will this child become?’ (Luke 1.66).

‘His name is John’ (Luke 1.63). The child’s name was given to Zechariah by the angel who caused him to be dumbfounded. Gabriel, the same messenger who announced to the Virgin Mary that she was to conceive a child, announced to Zechariah that his wife would conceive a child who was to be called John. The angel prophesied: ‘the child will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him’ (Luke. 1.14-17). Unlike Mary, who immediately assented to the angel’s message with joy and obedience, Zechariah received the angel’s prophetic word with unbelief: his advanced age, their previous inability to conceive, all these made this impossible, Zechariah told the angel. And Gabriel rebuked him for his disobedience and unbelief: ‘Because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur’ (Luke 1.20). And so, at the child’s naming, Zechariah had to resort to writing the name of his newborn son: ‘His name is John’, he confirmed.

‘His name is John’ (Luke 1.63). There had been no John in Zechariah’s family, the priestly order of Abijah, which traced its roots back to Moses’ brother Aaron. Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s son is given a new name, because God is beginning a new thing. The tradition of calling their newborn son by the name of the family of Aaron is interrupted: John was not born to perpetuate a priestly order that dated back to time when God gave Moses the tablets of law. John was born to fulfil God’s new plan that for his people. Even before his birth, we read in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, John was richly filled with the Holy Spirit. Even before his birth, we are told that John would ‘turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God’ (Luke 1.16). Even before his birth we are told that the child would be filled ‘with the spirit and power of Elijah’, that the child would be greater than the greatest prophet in Israel (Luke 1.17). Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s child is given a new name because by John’s birth God is heralding a new age: John’s birth means that God heralds for his people a new covenant, a new beginning.

‘His name is John’ (Luke 1.63). The Hebrew name ‘John’ literally means ‘God is gracious’, or ‘God’s graciousness’. The new name given to Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s son confirms that the birth of John marks a new beginning: the time when God will again be looking on his people with grace and love. ‘His name is God’s graciousness’ means: God is about to bring in a covenant of grace; a new covenant that will stand alongside the covenant of the law given to Moses. In the person of John two ages meet: John is the last descendant of the recipients of God’s covenant of law, Moses and Aaron, is the last firstborn male in the line of the priestly order of Aaron. At the same time, John is the first to proclaim the arrival of God’s covenant of grace. In Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s child, God is raising up the herald of his new covenant: John is to be the One who will make known to the world the coming of God’s agent of grace, ‘will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God’ (Luke 1.16). The newborn son will the One who will prepare God’s people for the coming of the Messiah, will make the world ready for another newborn Son: the birth of Mary’s child, Jesus Christ.

‘His name is God’s graciousness’. Beginning with the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, God will bring in a law of grace to replace his elder law, John’s unusual naming confirms. God will bestow his grace in place of a law that, as our patron St Paul put it, only ever taught people about sin: ‘if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin’, Paul knew (Romans 7.7). God’s covenant of law was impossible to keep, made people slaves, both to the ‘law of God … and to the law of sin’ (Romans 7.25). Certainly, John’s mother Elizabeth saw the arrival of her child in terms of grace: for her the first signs of the child of whose name means ‘God’s graciousness’ in her own life, was also the first sign of God’s graciousness to all people. God ‘looked favourably on me, and taken away his humiliation’, Elizabeth reflected (Luke 1.25). With John’s birth God had taken away her humiliation of being childless, Elizabeth felt: the fear of not being able to continue the line of Aaron the lawgiver. With John’s birth, God also had taken away the humiliation of his law and heralded the arrival of a new covenant of grace and love, Elizabeth knew. A new beginning that gave her the grace of an unexpected child, and the world the grace of Jesus Christ, the long-expected Saviour.

‘His name is God’s graciousness’. It is the priest Zechariah who, a few verses after our gospel reading, puts into words the hopes of a new gracious beginning for his people through his own son’s witness to Mary’s son, Jesus. In Zechariah’s song, which has become the church’s daily morning hymn of praise, he sings with joy, ‘Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel, who has come to his people and set them free. He has raised up for us a mighty Saviour, born of the house of his servant David. Through his holy prophets God promised of old to save us from our enemies, from the hands of all that hate us, to show mercy to our ancestors, and to remember his holy covenant. This was the oath God swore to our father Abraham: to set us free from the hands of our enemies, Free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life’ (Luke 1.68-72). And sang about his hope for his son, ‘You, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the of their sins’ (Luke 1.76-77). The one whose name means God’s graciousness will be the bearer of God’s ‘tender compassion that will break on us, shining on those in darkness and the shadow of death, and guiding our feet into the way of peace’ (Luke 1.77-79).

‘What then will this child become?’ This extraordinary child, herald of God’s graciousness, became the forerunner, showing forth the way by which God would save the world: his call to repentance prepared the people of Israel for Christ’s call to return to God and repent. His baptism in the river Jordan prepared the people of Israel for Christ’s invitation that all nations receive his baptism, be washed from their sins, and born again by water and the Holy Spirit. His challenging witness before Herod and his martyrdom at the king’s hand foreshadowed Christ’s own witness before the authorities of his own day and his death on the cross so that God’s new covenant of graciousness might be shown forth to all nations. And so, John called and prophesied, and Jesus came and confirmed: God is gracious, and seeks all people to come to him to receive the ‘knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins … to give light to those who live in darkness and the shadow of death and guiding their feet into the way of peace’ (Luke 1.77-79).

Let us pray:

God for whom we watch and wait, you sent John the Baptist to prepare the way of your Son: give us courage to make known the good news of God’s grace in our own generation and, by words of hope and works of loving service, make ready a people prepared for the return of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

© Text: Andreas Loewe, Photography: Carsten Murawski 2015

Summer in winter: the light of the Baptist’s witness

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist 2014, in the presence of members of the Victorian Sub-Priory of the Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem:

Cross of Glory

Welcome, all Wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span.
Summer to winter, day in night,
Heaven in earth, and God in man.
Great little One! Whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.

Words the Baroque poet Richard Crawshaw (1613-49) put into the mouths of the shepherds of Bethlehem, gathered to watch their flocks by night, surprised by an angel in the dead of night. The birth of the child of Bethlehem brought the warm light of summer to the chilly Judean hills, made the sun of midday illumine the midnight sky. The birth of Jesus brought ‘heaven in earth, and God in man’, ‘lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth’, Crawshaw’s very literary shepherds sing.

For us in the Southern hempishere, of course, the seasons are reversed, and so what holds true for the Bethlehem celebration of the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord, holds true here for the nativity of his messenger, St John the Baptist. Because the celebration of the Birth of John the Baptist takes place exactly half a year before Christmas, it is in the midst of our winter, that the message of the herald of good tidings brings light in darkness, brings a ray of summer to winter. Three days after the shortest day of the year, on 24 June, we celebrate the birth of the ‘forerunner’, the messenger who came to ‘prepare the way before him’, who told people of Judah and Jerusalem that the ‘Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple’ (Malachi 3.1).

He was the one who baptised Jesus in the Jordan, who witnessed the Holy Spirit descend on him, the one who first testified that Jesus was the Son of God. The one who knew Jesus to be ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1.29), and pointed him out to his own disciples who promptly left him and began to follow Jesus instead (John 1.36). Having accomplished this mission of preparing others for the arrival of Jesus, John was arrested for his outspoken critique of the life and morals of King Herod, and finds himself in prison. And it is there, in the dungeons of King Herod, that he is beset with doubts that led John to question his erstwhile mission: was the One whom he pointed out really the promised ‘Lord whom you seek’, or had John’s prophesy and his setting apart in baptism of his kinsman Jesus been in error (Malachi 3.1).

And so the messenger sent by God to prepare the way for God’s final envoy, himself sends messengers from prison to Jesus, to ask Jesus: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ (Luke 7.19). And for his witness, Jesus points to the works he has accomplished, telling John’s disciples that God’s kingdom had indeed come close: ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them’ (Luke 7.22). The signs of the kingdom, of which Jesus had himself spoken when he first proclaimed God’s word in the synagogue of his hometown Nazareth (Luke 4.16-21), are there for all to see, ‘and blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me’ (Luke 7.23).

The signs of God’s kingdom, Jesus tells those who asked whether they had to continue watching and waiting, are reflected in lives that have been changed by grace and mercy. Lives that have been made whole by God’s power. It was the promotion of the same signs—healing those living with disease, tending the dying and bringing relief to the poor—that in the eleventh century led crusader knights to establish a hospital in the heart of the Holy City of Jerusalem, close to the place of the resurrection. There, a stone’s throw from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where that new life in all its fulness was so powerfully proclaimed on the first Easter Morning, a Christian hospital was established with a community that bore the name of the one who first asked Christ about those signs of the kingdom: the Hospital of St John the Baptist. Staffed by brothers infirmarians and chaplains, at its height the hospital served up to 2,000 patients. And because these were dangerous times for the Christian community in a foreign land, the community was supported by a group of military brothers who were entrusted with the care of escorting pilgrims to and from the port of Jaffa. As a sign of their allegiance to Christ and the cause of promoting signs of his kingdom, these military knights wore black surcoats with white crosses over their armour, the symbolic mantle still worn by the some members of the Venerable Order of St John of Jerusalem today.

Today, the Order that bears the name of St John the Baptist is a world-wide charity with an estimated 300,000 volunteers, many of whom are engaged in the work of tending the sick, and healing the blind. Through the work of the St John’s Ambulance Brigade they offer emergency support to those in need, and through the work of the St John’s Eye Hospital in Jerusalem, they provide much needed ophthalmic care and other urgent medical care in the city where the order was first founded some 900 years ago. In particular through its work in the Holy Land, the Order succeeds in—literally—bringing light to people living with the darkness of blindness and retinal disease, providing more than 40,000 patients a year on its East Jerusalem site, and many more through its outpatients’ clinics in Gaza, Hebron and Anabta—areas of continued conflict—and its mobile clinics that serve the entire West Bank. As in the days when it was first established, when the hospital of St John provided kosher kitchens to serve its non-Christian patients, today also the order serves the people of the Holy Land regardless of their faith or, indeed, their ability to pay for their operations. The signs of the kingdom, which convinced the imprisoned John the Baptist that the Messiah, the Christ, was truly among them, continue to flourish through the often selfless giving of members of the Order that is named for him.

At the end of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus affirms the importance of John, as he questions the crowds who had overheard his conversation with John’s messengers about the kingdom of God. ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?’, Jesus asks those who had made their journey to the Jordan to see John baptise: ‘A reed shaken by the wind, a royal person, a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet’ (Luke 7.27). John was the prophet foretold in countless prophecies of old. He was the one who would prepare God’s way before him by his insistent preaching: urging people to turn from their selfish ways to God, to be attentive to God’s word; especially the Word of God made flesh, Jesus Christ. People who literally turned their lives around and emerged from John’s baptism of water washed from all that had burdened them, refreshed in their own relationship with God. Indeed, there was no one greater born of women among the people of Israel than John the Baptist, God’s messenger to the generation that would witness the coming of the Messiah (Luke 7.28). Yet even this greatest of all Jewish prophets is counted less than the ‘least in the kingdom of God’, Jesus remarks (Luke 7.28).

We need to turn to our second reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, in order to make fully sense of Jesus’ assertion that the least in God’s family—the newest Christian, the weakest Christian—is greater than the greatest of all prophets. In our reading, we meet the Apostle Paul on a missionary journey to Corinth, where he encounters some of those who had also made the journey to the Jordan to hear John, and received his baptism. Because they had not yet received the gift of the Holy Spirit, Paul explained that ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus’ (Acts 19.4). John was the one who ‘purified the descendants of Levi’, just as the prophecy we heard as our first reading foretold, preparing a people for the coming of the Lord, Paul suggests (Malachi 3.3). John’s baptism was a sign of contrition to prepare for the coming of God. A God who became human so that we might become more like him; a God whose lowly birth in a humble stable foreshadowed the self-giving love he would show forth on the cross, dying so that all might have life. And the life that God shared with those who believe in the Son he sent to die is far greater than any sign of human contrition, Paul tells, and therefore the least in the kingdom of God, the least who accepts that life, is greater than the messenger of that kingdom (Luke 7.28).

Today, you and I are invited to become the messengers of that life-changing news, become people who enter into the footsteps of that first forerunner ourselves. We are invited to become people who share the good news of a God who loved the human race so much that he gave himself, as the vulnerable child of the manger, as the man of sorrows on the cross, to bring life and light to all the world.

If you already are a Christian, God calls us to look out for Jesus in this world, and to become people who—like the members of the Order of St John—find that it is in loving and serving one another that we can serve the Christ in our midst. And if you are still pondering whether faith in Jesus Christ is right and good for you, it is my prayer for you that you may find a forerunner with whom you can explore the Good News, someone to whom you can turn for your own baptism, and begin your journey of faith.

As we celebrate again the miracle of Christmas in winter, the birth of the forerunner who prepared others for the coming among them of the God whose birth ‘lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth’, I invite you give thanks for the life of John the Baptist. And I pray that by following in his footsteps, we too may come to find the ‘great little One! Whose all-embracing birth/ Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth’, Jesus, ‘the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1.29). Amen.