Is. 40:1-11 / Ps. 85:7-13 / Acts 13:14b-26 / Lk. 1:57-80
Just over 13 months ago, while Br. Timothy and I were chaplains to a group of pilgrims at St. George’s College, Jerusalem, we were taken to visit the village of Ein Kerem, just to the west of the city of Jerusalem. According to tradition this is the village where John the Baptist was born.
The first thing that we saw as we entered the village, at the bottom of a valley, was a low building enclosing the well, or spring, from which John’s mother, Elizabeth, would have drawn water for the household uses of her family.
When we got out of the bus we were taken up a steep path on one side of the valley to visit the Church of the Visitation. This commemorates the visit of Mary to Elizabeth in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. (Lk. 1:39-56) From there, after some reflections by Fr. Kamal, our guide from the College, we were taken to the other side of the valley to see the Church of John the Baptist, where Fr. Kamal gave us further reflections. It didn’t seem to matter that we didn’t see the actual house where John the Baptist was born, or the place where it might have been. That house probably disappeared centuries ago. It only matters that somewhere in this village John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, was born and raised.
I think it may have taken us about an hour to reach Ein Kerem by bus, through Jerusalem traffic and then down the highway. I don’t think any of us were paying attention to time at that point. It must have been a long walk for Zechariah to go to Jerusalem when it was his turn to fulfill his priestly duties at the Temple.
Of the readings for today’s feast it is only the Gospel that tells us anything about the birth of John the Baptist. We know that when the time came for Elizabeth to give birth to her son, her neighbors and relatives rejoiced with her. Eight days later, when those assembled for the circumcision of the child were about to name him Zechariah for his father, Elizabeth insisted, “No, he is to be called John!” (Lk. 1:57-60) Zechariah had been struck dumb for his doubts, after the Archangel Gabriel gave him the tidings that he and his wife were to have a son in their old age. This was while he was beside the altar of incense in the Temple performing his priestly duties. (Lk. 1:20) Now present at the circumcision he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” (v. 63) As soon as he wrote this, he opened his mouth in praise to God and proclaimed the prophecy for his son that we regularly commemorate when we sing the canticle Benedictus at Morning Prayer on Sundays, Wednesdays, and feast days. (Cf. Lk. 1:68-79)
It is only in the last verse of the Gospel for today’s feast that we can find anything relating to John’s childhood and growth to maturity. “The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” (vs. 80)
As I remember, Ein Kerem is a green place with trees and flowers and grass. The wilderness of Judea is all very bleak desert. That is where John prepared for his mission as forerunner for Jesus.
At this Eucharist we heard the prophecy of Isaiah pointing towards the role John the Baptist was to take in preparing the way for Jesus’ ministry and teaching. At Morning Prayer we also had the prophecy of Malachi giving a similar message. (Mal. 3:1-9) In the Book of Acts, recounting the preaching of Paul at Antioch in Pisidia, in Asia Minor, there was a brief reminder of John’s preaching of repentance before Jesus presented himself for baptism, and John’s humility concerning Jesus afterwards, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of the sandals on his feet.” (Acts 13:24-25)
In thinking about the prophecy in Chapter 40 of Isaiah we should avoid taking the words in the first few verses too literally. Much more important than leveling valleys and taking down mountains is the spiritual preparation for the way of salvation by removing obstacles from people’s minds.
The last verses of Isaiah’s prophecy speak with more relevancy to John’s mission of preparing the way for Jesus’ ministry. God is seen at one moment as coming with might, and at the next he is portrayed “feeding his flock like a shepherd,” “gathering the lambs in his arms,” and “gently leading the mother sheep.” (Is. 40:10-11) This truly shows the transition from John’s fiery preaching of repentance to Jesus’ teachings about the importance of love and mercy.
The Psalm that we read as our gradual today can be considered as a cosmic reflection on Isaiah’s prophecy, on John’s preparation for Jesus, and Jesus’ teachings on peace and love. Every time I read Psalm 85 I find in it points to think about and vivid images on which to ponder:
“I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him.” (v.8)
Listening to what God is saying to us in Holy Scripture, in our hearts as we pray and meditate, and as we hear other people speak about God, is important to us as we seek spiritual growth and understanding.
“Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” (v.10)
Mercy and truth are not always found together. Nor do righteousness and peace always go together. Truth can be spoken bluntly and without mercy. Righteousness can be self seeking. It can be upheld narrowly and with harshness by those with legalistic minds. But, freed from narrowness and legalism it can be used in the service of peace, justice, mercy and love.
Going on, we find another image that evokes the mystery of the Incarnation of Jesus: “Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.” (v.11) Truth and righteousness come together in Jesus Christ, along with mercy, peace, and love. There is an example illustrating the Incarnation found somewhere in the writings of the Early Church Fathers. God’s finger reached down to the earth and a drop of water rose up to meet it. I came across this in reading many years ago, unfortunately I did not make note of the source. But we have the words of John the Evangelist which define the Incarnation for us; “The Word became flesh, and lived among us.” (Jn 1:14)
As we consider the mission of John the Baptist preaching repentance in the name of truth and righteousness, the last verse of our Psalm can lead us to a deeper understanding of John’s mission and the ministry of Jesus. “Righteousness shall go before him, and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.” (v.13) These words bring an echo of the Song of Zechariah. John came preaching repentance, and spoke as an ax laid against the root of every tree that did not bear good fruit. There are times when a strong call to repentance is needed. But I think that the Church and the World just now are more in need of the message proclaimed by Zechariah at the name of his son, John.
“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 in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
(Lk. 1:78-79 NRSV)
This, I think, is the message for us on this Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist. AMEN.
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