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:
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.