Thoughts on the Birth of John the Baptist from Revd Ian Tattum

A warning to begin with. Be careful not to get your Herod’s muddled up. The King Herod who was responsible for the slaughter of the innocents was a client king of Rome who governed the province of Judea from 34 BC until close to the time Jesus was born. The Herod who had John the Baptist killed was one of his sons, Herod Antipas, who was put in charge of the province of Galilee by the Romans after his father’s death.

I know these things can be confusing – Herod Antipas had two brothers, who were also called Herod!

If you hear the name John the Baptist, I wonder what immediately springs to mind. Is it the scene where he plunges Jesus into the river of Jordan, even as he declares he is not worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals, or his eccentric diet or clothing – locusts and wild honey and camel hide? Certainly, when I was a child, it was that horrific image of his head being served up on a platter at one of Herod Antipas’ feasts.

John the Baptist was a forerunner of Christ, a prophet who divested himself of the trappings of civilization and status to be better placed to point to the failings of his powerful contemporaries, and eventually he became a martyr. There is testimony from outside the Gospels to his character and his fate in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus, but Josephus is coy about why Herod Antipas had John killed, beyond saying that he feared his preaching might lead to a rebellion. So our richest sources of evidence are the Gospels themselves, but it is sometimes forgotten, not only how many details they give us, but more significantly, in my opinion, where they begin.

It is St Luke who tells us the most about the very beginning. The reading today is about John’s birth and naming, and the church festival we are celebrating is called the Birth of John the Baptist, but St Luke begins John’s story even before that.

If you were to open your Bible at the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel and read, the first thing you would come across is the author explaining that what you are about read is an orderly account, relying on eyewitnesses, but it doesn’t say, intriguingly of what. But then it plunges into the narrative, not in Nazareth, and without any mention of Mary or Joseph. Instead we read: ‘In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah.’ And he is a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem.

If that beginning has jogged your memory, then you might remember what happens next. An angel of the Lord appears to him, right next to the altar of incense. Just like other characters we know better because of the Christmas story, he is terrified and filled with fear. He is the first person, even before Mary herself, who is told by an angel – one we later hear is the angel Gabriel himself – ‘Do not be afraid.’

Zechariah hears how he is going to have a son who will be amazing and holy and filled with the Holy Spirit – how he will change the hearts of many. But because he does not believe this is possible, on account of his and his wife’s great age, he is struck dumb, but with the assurance that when his son is born he will get his voice back.

Something that leaps out at me about this account is that the overlap between what John the Baptist will do and what Jesus does is much greater than we always might notice. John the Baptist not only points the way and prepares the ground for Jesus, he covers the same territory.

A little historical mystery underlines this. When, in the famous meeting that later happens between the two pregnant women – Elizabeth, John’s mother to be, and Mary, Jesus’ mother to be – Elizabeth describes her son as leaping within her, and Mary responds by saying the words of the Magnificat. But in some early church writings these are described as Elizabeth’s words. You can see why there might have been the confusion.

Bringing down the powerful from their thrones and lifting the humble to their feet was something that both John and Jesus talked about and did. They both were challenging enough to the high and mighty to earn their murderous attention.

However, the distinction is always maintained. When Zechariah can speak again, and agrees to the naming of his son John, he too becomes a prophet who sees what is to be. John will prepare the ground, but it is Christ who will bring salvation by forgiveness. These are such beautiful words, with which Zechariah concludes his hymn:

By the tender mercy of our God,
    the dawn from on high will break upon us,
    to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
    and guide our feet into the way of peace.

The fact that St Luke wrote both the Gospel with his name and the Book of Acts is not always given the attention it deserves. Otherwise we might notice the great themes that link the two parts. The story of salvation begins in the Temple in Jerusalem but it ends in Rome with Paul’s teaching. The Gospel begins small and provincial but flowers to the ends of the earth.

But more vitally to us, the Gospel relies on questioning and flawed human beings, who can struggle with belief – people like Zechariah, who literally had no words at one point, and St Paul, who is rarely short of them but describes himself as having a thorn in his flesh. We are called as we are, forgiven as we are, as we seek to embody the Gospel in our loves in response to that loving action of God.

Amen.

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