A Sermon for the Feast of St. John the Baptist, June 24, 2018
For the Epistle, Isaiah 40:1 – The Gospel, St. Luke 1: 57
The Rt. Rev. Stephen C. Scarlett
I. John the Baptist and prophets in Israel
Today we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist. He was sixth months older than his cousin Jesus, whose birth we celebrate in sixth months on Christmas Day. Unlike the Blessed Virgin Mother of our Lord, the father of John the Baptist, Zacharias, did not believe the angel Gabriel when he announced a miraculous pregnancy—that his wife Elizabeth would give birth to their first child in her old. The consequence was that Zacharias became mute until John was born. He regained his speech when he obeyed Gabriel’s and named the child John.
John the Baptist is the focus of a few old Testament prophecies, one of which is the last two verses of the Old Testament from the Book of Malachi:
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, And the hearts of the children to their fathers, Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.” (Mal. 4:5-6)
Luke 1:17 tells us that John came “in the spirit and power of Elijah” to fulfill this prophesy.
Most people date Malachi somewhere around 450 BC. From the time of Malachi to the appearance of John the Baptist, there was not a recognized prophet in Israel—a gap of roughly 480 years. This prophetic gap is highly significant for our understanding of the Old Testament. From the time that God appeared to Moses, traditionally understood to be about 1450 BC, to the time of Malachi, Israel had prophets, people to whom God spoke. To be sure, there were times when Israel’s disobedience resulted God’s silence for an extended season, but never for 400 years.
The absence of a prophet is the principle characteristic of the intertestamental period, the period between Malachi and John. During this time there was no one in Israel who could say, “Thus says the Lord.” There was no one to whom “the word of the Lord came” (cf. Ezek. 1:3, Jer. 1:4, Hos 1:1, John 1:1). The books of the Apocrypha come from this period. These books help us understand the history of the time between the Old and New Testament. We read them in church. However, we do not prove doctrine by them because they were not written by prophets.
II. The Epistle and the exile
The absence of a recognized prophet in Israel helps us to understand the meaning of the concept of exile. In 586 BC, the Babylonians destroyed Solomon’s temple and Old Testament Israel was taken in exile Babylon. This happened because the people were unfaithful to God’s covenant. God led his people to return to the land and rebuild the temple around 515 BC. The last of the Old Testament prophets, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, prophesied to Israel during the time that the Jew were rebuilding the temple and the city of Jerusalem—up until around 450 BC. Then God did not speak directly to Israel through a prophet until John.
This is one way of saying that Israel’s exile ended, but not completely. The geographical exile from God’s temple in Jerusalem was ended, but the rebuilt community did not enjoy the fullness of the covenant blessings God promised Israel through Moses. The rebuilt temple was a shadow of Solomon’s glorious temple. Israel was under the dominion of foreign rulers, and many Jews never returned to the land. Israel was still waiting for God to come and save the nation.
The epistle lesson from Isaiah 40 is used in all the gospels to describe the ministry of John the Baptist. John is “The voice of one crying, in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” (Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4f., John 1:23). God was returning to Israel. The 480-year gap was over. God was speaking again through John, the last of the Old Covenant prophets. He would prepare the people to receive THE prophet (cf. Deut. 18:15), the Word made flesh.
Isaiah’s highway building imagery is metaphor for cleaning out the sin that separates human beings from God. The valleys that must be filled are the absence of faith and holiness. The mountains and hills are human pride. The crooked road is the people’s perverse way of living. As Isaiah said in another passage, “The Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; Nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; And your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear. (Isa. 59:1-2). The roadwork necessary to prepare the way for God is described by John in one word, “Repent!”
John’s was an egalitarian. He taught that everyone needed to repent, the religious and the irreligious, the rich and poor. John pulled no punches and showed no delicacy. When he sensed the insincerity of the religious leaders he said to “You snakes! … Who told you that you could escape from the punishment God is about to send?” (Luke 3:7, GNB).
John’s taught that genuine repentance results in concrete change. We can’t just say we are sorry. We must “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” We must respond to the needs of the poor. We must be honest and just in the workplace. We must be content with what we have and not complain. For John these were not mere suggestions. As John said, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit in cut down and thrown into the fire.”
III. Prophetic ministry in the church
Someone once observed that John was full of truth, while Jesus is full of grace and truth. We need the truth, but we also need the grace. There is more than John, but John cannot be skipped. We live in a time when teaching about sin is minimized while teaching about God’s love is maximized. Sometimes people falsely assume God’s love for us causes him to ignore our sin. As God said in Jeremiah, “They have healed the hurt of the daughter of My people slightly, Saying, `Peace, peace!’ When there is no peace” (Jer. 8:11).
The gift of the Holy Spirit to all of God’s people on Pentecost and in baptism changed the nature of prophetic ministry. As Moses said to Joshua, “Oh, that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!” (Num. 11:29).
Prophetic ministry in the church is connected to the ministry of the Word as it is proclaimed and read in church, and as the Bible is read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested in Bible reading and study. The Holy Spirit ministers both conviction and grace to each believer. Exile and return from exile are themes of our lives of prayer. When we drift into complacency, bad habits, and actual sin, we need to hear again the voice of John calling us to return, calling us to make room in our hearts for Christ, calling to change our behavior in concrete ways.
Repentance is the means to the end, the telos, that is Christ. John confronts our sin, then introduces us to the answer. His most important words are embedded in our liturgy: “Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who takes away the sins of the world.”