The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness,
Prepare ye the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God…
The voice said, Cry.
And he said, What shall I cry?
All flesh is grass,
and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field:
the grass withereth, the flower fadeth:
because the spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it:
surely the people is grass.
The grass withereth, the flower fadeth:
but the word of our God shall stand for ever.
(Isaiah xl. 3, 6-8)
Today we celebrate the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. John the Baptist was six months older than Jesus and was born to prepare the way for Christ’s birth. Of course, technically, being in June, we are six months away from Christmas, so the Church in her wisdom has got it chronologically set his Feast Day for June the Twenty-Fourth.
Every year, we celebrate John Baptist’s birth in Trinity Tide, our season of continual acclimation to the life of God the Holy Trinity. In this season, we are called to be as the Father is, and to know through the Son’s Wisdom and Word by the operation of the Holy Ghost’s Will and Love. True life is found in our confession of the true faith, acknowledging the glory of the eternal Trinity in the power of the Divine Majesty to worship the unity. (Collect, Trinity Sunday) True life for redeemed Christians is found in steadfast faith and defended from all adversities that threaten our union with God the Holy Trinity. In Trinity Tide, you and I are called to die to our old sinful selves and to come alive to the Father, through Jesus the Son by the Holy Ghost.
Thus, it is fitting that the Feast of John Baptist should fall in this sacred season. For John Baptist’s difficult and short life gives us a good introduction to our habituation to the life of the Trinity. John was not unlike you or me. His understanding of himself is a perfect paradigm for our approach to God the Holy Trinity. John Baptist is the precursor and forerunner of all men who would know themselves as needing God the Father’s Son and Word through the Holy Ghost. Let us therefore see if we can prepare ourselves to welcome the Father’s Word of Love into our souls.
John’s conception and birth were unusual, to say the least. So too is the conception and birth of God’s Word in any man’s soul! His father was
a priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia, and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years. (St. Luke i. 5-7)
John’s parents were unable to conceive a child. Those who prepare to welcome Christ the Word’s coming into the world cannot conceive it either. Grace is essential. John’s conception was miraculous. So we read that Zacharias was visited by the Angel of the Lord, as he was ministering [alone] in the temple, and he was and when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. (Ibid, 12) The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov. ix. 10) and the wisdom to be born in John Baptist is sired by those who fear God with awesome wonder and reverence. The Angel informed the aged Zacharias that he and Elizabeth would give birth to a son in their old age. For with God nothing shall be impossible. (St. Luke i. 37) Zacharias doubted, And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years. (Ibid, 18) Because of his doubt, he was struck dumb until the birth of the child. He was told that the child’s name would be John. John means Graced by God in the Hebrew.
John’s conception and birth were unusual and his life would be even more so. He was called to be a Nazarite, of the sect of Jews whose lives were given to total abstinence, mortification, and fasting.
For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb. And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. (Ibid, 15-17)
John was called to take up the mantle of Elijah the Prophet in order to prepare the Jewish People for the coming of Christ. The extreme conditions of his calling were necessary to focus solely and whole-heartedly on the Advent of his cousin, Jesus.
John began his mission by quoting Isaiah. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight. (Is. xl. 3) John was gifted by God’s Grace to know that he lived in a wasteland and wilderness, barren of all goodness, full of evil, ridden with pride, envy, malice, and deceit. He is alone like so many who pray and wait for the coming of the Lord. He is a faithful Jew as you and I are trying to be faithful Christians. Yet, at the same time, like all of us, he believed that places bereft of God’s goodness are always ripe and ready for the coming of the Lord. All earthly comforts were inimical to John, all vanity and vexation of spirit were dangerous. John knew that the world must be stripped of mammon’s niceties if man would prepare for the coming of Christ into his soul. Nothing in this world can match John’s hunger and thirst for righteousness. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain shall be made low. (Idem) The valley of humility, unselfing, lowliness, and spiritual poverty is a necessary spiritual home for the coming of Christ. The high mountain of pride, envy, wrath, and covetousness must be crushed. All self-absorption and narcissism amounted to nothing for John. He believed that the One for whom he prepared was the Saviour and Redeemer of the world. He lives for Christ’s coming and this alone. All else is reduced to the meaningless nothing in comparison to what he awaited. So, John was clothed in camel’s hair and ate locusts and wild honey. (St. Matthew iii. 4-6)
From his position of austerity and self-denial, John Baptist cried Repent ye for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. (St. Matthew iii. 2) The way of repentance leads us to abhor that which is evil and cleave to that which is good. (Romans xii. 9) John’s cried out to the men of every age that they might know their sin and what it ruination it brings. Repentance is a self-conscious admission of sin and sorrow over it. It requires that humbling of the self that knows that sin has offended God who is all good and deserving of all our love. Repentance is spiritual cleansing that moves us to admit, claim, and confess how our sins have run clean contrary to God’s will for us and others. In John Baptist, you and I can identify with one who is clearing the human slate of all that stands in the way of Christ’s coming into the world and our souls. Clinging to ourselves is the chief obstacle to Christ’s Incarnation and Mission of Salvation for us.
No doubt, it is difficult for us to imagine being as John Baptist was. We are so encumbered by a world of senseless noise, beastly ways, no fear of God, and not so much as any acknowledgment that we have souls, let alone bodies, that need Christ and His coming! John Baptist knew better. We might not be able to embrace the austerity of his life and complete possession with the coming of his Lord. But here a little and there a little, we might be able to make those changes that secure our hearts for Christ and His coming to us in this Trinity Tide. Perhaps, we need that consciousness of our sin that leads us into deeper prayer for God’s mercy in His Son through the Holy Ghost. With John, we ought to make time for prayer, beginning with repentance, to begin to become unselfed as he was. When we repent, we pray for the death of our old sinful selves and a deeper longing for what Christ longs to become in us.
John Baptist ended his days in prison, awaiting execution by beheading in King Herod’s prison. He had no rights under the Romans and was an alien to Caesar’s privileges. He was left alone, unable to follow his cousin Jesus and to witness what wonders He was working in the world. Perhaps John Baptist’s last state is mirrored in our own. With John, we find that our abstinence and self-mortification seem senseless and meaningless in a world that has abandoned Christ’s coming from the Father through the love of the Holy Ghost.
John’s life was cut short, but perhaps our spirits can identify with his. Our spirits have been beaten down by forces of evil that John never imagined possible. John would lose his earthly life prematurely, but our spiritual lives too have been cut down by Satan with what feels like death. All around us we find sadness, self-loathing, and self-hatred that amount to death. But in John’s death, you and I can find hope. In his darkest hour, John remembered his father Zacharias’ prophesy.
And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; to give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the day-spring from on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
(St. Luke, i. 76-79)
As John Baptist was about to die, Christ was being made alive. As we die to sin, Christ longs to live in us. Christ too would be executed on His Cross, without any just cause or reason. But Christ would die, to make all men alive. This is our hope. John Baptist’s death was taken up into the Day-spring on high that visited [him], to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Idem) John said, Christ must increase, and I must decrease. (St. John iii. 30) The evil of this world is no excuse for despair.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: