Sermon: John the Baptist - in birth and death
Preached on 3rd July 2010
by The Reverend Canon Dr David Kennedy
May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts be now and always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
There are two festivals of St John the Baptist in our Calendar, the first and most significant is the Nativity of St John, which we celebrated recently on 24th June and the second is the Beheading of St John the Baptist which we commemorate in August. This is in addition to the attention that we give to the ministry of the Baptist in Advent.
Today’s second lesson includes St Mark’s account of the Baptist’s execution, but I want to begin today with his Nativity. We are enjoying these warm and long summer evenings. While the days are now getting shorter, nevertheless we are still in close proximity to the Summer Solstice. In the ancient world, the four quarter days were reckoned to be the 25th day of the months we call March, June, September and December; the spring equinox, the summer solstice, the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. When early Christian scholars sought to identify the date of Christ’s death, through a variety of sources, they landed on the date the 25th March, the Spring equinox. This, they argued, must also have been the date of his conception, because of the perfection of his divinity. If he was conceived on the 25th March, he must, because of his divinity, have been born on 25th December. So Christ was conceived at the spring equinox and born at the winter solstice.
Now with regard to John the Baptist, taking the reference to the Angel Gabriel’s words in Luke 1, that at the time of the Lord’s conception, Elizabeth was in the sixth month of her pregnancy, John’s birth comes three months later which brings us to the summer solstice, which means that John’s conception must have been the autumnal equinox.
So we celebrate Christ’s conception on Lady Day, 25th March, the spring equinox, and his birth on 25th December, the winter solstice. John’s conception was designated as 25th September, the autumnal equinox, and his birth at the summer solstice – and here there is another nice symbolic touch, not the 25th June but the day before, since John was very much human not divine.
St Augustine saw great significance in this tradition that the Baptist was born at the summer solstice – from then on the days get shorter, and Augustine linked that with the Baptist’s words in St John’s Gospel ‘He (Jesus) must increase and I must decrease’ (John 3.30).
Now this may seem bizarre to us, but it arose from biblical reflection on Christ as the true ‘Sun of Righteousness’ (Malachi 4.2), the ‘Dayspring from on high’ (Luke 1.78), the true ‘Light of the world’ (John 8.12, 9.5). Here Creation was witnessing to redemption. Here creation acknowledges its Lord and bows before him – the eternal Word through whom all things were made (John 1.3’ Colossians 1.16). The point is that Christ is no tribal deity, no local sage, but the universal Lord and Saviour. And this was the testimony of the Baptist, who points to Christ and away from himself. Christ ‘must increase and I must decrease’ (John 3.30). ‘I baptize only with water but Christ is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (Mark 1.8, Matthew 3.11). I baptize as a sign of repentance, but Christ is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (John 1.29), once and for all. I am human, but he is greater than I – I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal (Mark 1.7).
This Patristic symbolism has awakened in me an awareness of the quarter days, as witnessing to God’s gracious initiative in sending the Baptist, but more fundamentally in sending his Son:
Christ, whose glory fills the skies,
Christ the true the only light;
Sun of righteousness, arise,
Triumph o’er the shades of night.
Dayspring from on high, be near,
Daystar in my heart appear.
Hail, thou heav’n born Prince of Peace,
Hail, thou Sun of Righteousness;
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings.
Charles Wesley’s words here witness creation bringing its own commentary to and on redemption.
But let me move on to John’s death as we have it told in Mark’s Gospel. John the Baptist could certainly pull a crowd. And it seems that he could keep a crowd too. There are good scholarly reasons for thinking that at the time St Mark wrote his Gospel, around 60AD, there were still significant groups of John’s disciples around; that is, people who had received his baptism, who had become his disciples, but who had not transferred their allegiance to his cousin, Jesus (see Acts 19.1-5). Part of Mark’s concern therefore in writing his Gospel, is that all people should come to Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, including the remaining bands of John’s disciples.
That is one of the reasons why, I think, we have in Mark quite a full account of John’s death. After all, if you read through Mark’s Gospel, one of the things that strikes us is that in Mark what we would call paragraphs are usually quite short, apart from the long narrative of Christ’s passion. But here we have quite a long account. So John’s death, told in some detail, is clearly very important.
And it begins with a rumour: ‘John the Baptist has been raised from the dead’ (Mark 6.14), placed on the lips of that derelict Herod Antipas. Is this a case of rival courts? Who is/was the true Messiah? Who is the Risen One? Is it John the Baptist or Jesus?
There’s another important aspect. Mark’s is a skilful narrative. The story of John’s death immediately follows, as we heard, Jesus’ sending out of the Twelve to preach and heal (Mark 6.6-13). It was, we are told, a successful mission. But then, there is a warning. John is the great Forerunner, and the account of John’s death reads like a mini Passion narrative. John is unjustly arrested for speaking the truth; he publicly rebukes Herod for entering an illegal marriage with his sister-in-law. John is imprisoned, and unjustly executed because of Herod’s drunken foolishness in his pleasure in a dancing girl. John, too, at least at first, had been successful – he drew a large following. But now the cost of his vocation is apparent and the reality of human sin and folly is writ large. The apostles return to Jesus (Mark 6.30), but they must learn that the same vocation to suffer and to die will be their Master’s and their own vocation. John has set the course, he is the forerunner. This is what people do to the true servants of God.
We don’t often like to think of the cost of discipleship, and yet Jesus was very clear about it; if we are to follow him, we must deny self and take up our cross. It is a costly business, meaning that we subdue ambition, status, and what the world counts as success for the sake of Christ. I have always been struck by a verse in 2 Samuel 24. Araunah provided King David with animals to sacrifice free of charge. But David declined the gift:
‘I will not over burnt offering to the Lord my God that cost me nothing’ (2 Samuel 23.24).
An offering – of money, of worship, of service, of time, of personal giftedness, must cost us something if it is truly an offering and not a mere token. And that is true of our individual and corporate discipleship. If it costs us nothing, are we really and authentically following the Jesus way?
But back to the story, because the point here is John himself. Mark assures us that John is dead. He was beheaded; his head was presented on a dish – a strange offering indeed. His disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb (Mark 6. 29).
They laid it in a tomb – just as in chapter 15, the body of Jesus is laid in tomb; Jesus crucified, dead and buried.
But in Mark 16, the young man in white says to those most persistent of disciples, the deeply grieving Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome: ‘You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth. He has been raised. He is not here. Look, there is the place where they laid him’ (Mark 16.6).
The point is that John is dead, but Jesus lives. And that was the message this Gospel proclaims to the world and to those who still hoped in the Baptist.
John’s Nativity, computed from the Patristic Fathers, is a vivid symbol that creation bows to its Lord, the physical sun witnesses to the true Sun, the uncreated Light, who transfigures mere created light. Born at the summer solstice, he witnesses, saying, ‘He must increase but I must decrease’. John’s execution, his mini-passion narrative, points forward to a greater Passion Narrative, a one that ends in an empty tomb as death and sin are overcome by the power of an indestructible life. John raised from the dead was but rumour and fantasy. Jesus risen from the dead is the truth on which we take our stand. And because he is truth, the Lord of creation and redemption, we gladly bear the cost of being his disciples as we offer our lives in his service.