Isaiah 49:1-6; Acts 13:22-26; Psalm 139; Luke 1:57-66,80
Being raised in the Methodist Church I grew up with a very simplified and impoverished view of the Christian year, mostly, depending on the pastor, we celebrated Christmas and Easter, and that was it. Oddly enough we did have Sundays honoring De Molay, Job’s Daughters, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and, I think, UNICEF. But no days for Our Lady, other events in Our Lord’s life, the Saints, Martyrs or the person we honor today, John the Forerunner. Therefore, I was surprised to learn that next to Our Lord and Our Lady, he is celebrated with more days on the Calendar than any other Saint.
We are celebrating today, though the actual feast was on Friday, the Nativity of The Holy Glorious Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist John. He even has more titles than any other Saint. Why is John so important? The Eastern Church even dedicates every Tuesday to him, with special songs and prayers.
To begin with he was the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth; Zechariah was a priest at the temple, and was serving as high priest when, according to the Gospel of Luke, “ …they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years.” Like Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, and Anna the mother of the Virgin Mary, Elizabeth’s temporary barrenness served God’s plan of salvation. Unlike the Virgin Mary the announcement of John’s coming was not to his mother but to his father, “…while he was serving as priest before God…an angel of the Lord appeared to him…the angel said to him, ‘…your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.’” Because Zechariah doubted Gabriel’s words he was struck mute. This serves as proof that the angel’s announcement is true but also, according to the Orthodox Study Bible, “The silencing of the high priest reveals a deeper mystery. The Messiah was expected to fulfill three crucial roles by various people in the OT: prophet, priest and king. Only Jesus Christ can be said to have fulfilled all three offices perfectly…In preparation for Christ’s coming, God had silenced the prophets for many years, and also permitted an illegitimate usurper to occupy the position of king of Judea. Here, in the last days before Christ’s coming, the high priest is also silenced.” The Gospel of Luke goes on to say that after she conceived Elizabeth hid herself away for five months, again from the Orthodox Study Bible, “Since the time of Malachi, God had not sent a great prophet to Israel. This silencing of the prophets served to heighten the anticipation of the Messiah and to make it all the more evident when he came. As John the Baptist was the prophet preparing the way for Christ, he was kept hidden until Christ was conceived. Once Christ was conceived, John was revealed through the prophetic act of leaping in Elizabeth’s womb.” Even before he was born John was called to be the herald of the Lord, and even before he was born he accepted and acted on that calling. To us, who live in a society that expects so little from children, to some extent not even to grow up, this seems miraculous. And it is, but…this kind of thing should not be all that unusual, and in the history of our faith is not. Many saints were holy and extraordinary people from birth, and even before, and certainly many from very early childhood. Even in the secular realm in earlier centuries there are those like Mozart, who was composing at age three. As teachers, parents and pastors, we need to challenge the children in our care to take as their example those who dedicated themselves to the highest calling of faith, service and sacrifice.
The birth of John the Forerunner is a pivot point in the history of salvation. He is called the Seal of the Prophets – he is the last prophet of the Old Covenant and the Herald of the New Covenant in Christ. It was from his followers that the first disciples of Christ were called, and when the Apostles met to replace Judas they chose Matthias, who had also been a follower of John. John was also not out to win any popularity contests, he call the Pharisees and Sadducees a brood of vipers, and his chastising of King Herod on his marriage to his brother’s wife, got him imprisoned and ultimately beheaded. But even here he served Our Lord as herald, Orthodox tradition states that in Hades, the realm of the dead, John proclaimed the coming of the Messiah, so that when Christ himself came after his Crucifixion, the faithful dead were ready to follow him. John is the first Martyr for Christ, a witness both to the living and to the dead. A witness to us - in our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul says, “As John’s career was coming to an end, he would say, ‘What you suppose me to be I am not. Rather, look for the one who comes after me. I am not worthy to unfasten the sandals on his feet.’ My brothers, children of the family of Abraham and you others who reverence our God, it was to us that this message of salvation was sent forth.”
Even to us, here and now, John is proclaiming in the wilderness of our modern world – Prepare the way of the Lord.
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