Sermon: Birth of John the Baptist

Text: Luke 1:57-66; 80

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Before putting on this stole, as many of you know, I spent more than a decade and a half caring for others as a Registered Nurse, specializing in the sickest of the sick in Intensive Care and in the complex, high-tech but essentially personal direct nursing of Coronary Care, caring for those in the midst and the aftermath of a heart attack. For all that technology, what matters most in those environments is skilled nursing, human contact and the spiritual and emotional care of the patient and their family at this critical time.

How strange, therefore, to be on the receiving end of such medical intervention. It’s a pity that Lou isn’t around to hear this sermon this morning, as it is more accurate to say that it was Lou who was really on the receiving end; but at least I was close by. All three of our children have been born quickly, and with Zoë, it was a bit quicker than we would have liked – a lovely home birth (Emma was also a home birth) on the verge of going awry which necessitated some rapid intervention and a fast transfer to hospital with the crash team.

…and how far is it from Mirfield to Dewsbury General Hospital, you may ask? Ten Our Fathers is the reply! It was a dramatic climax and a tribute to the skills of the midwife who managed Zoë’s birth. At the birth of each of our three children, I was left speechless by the awe and wonder of the miracle of childbirth.

I was still speechless when they came in and I’m sure if someone had given me a piece of paper, I could have written in the glimmer of the early morning light, her name is Zoë – a Greek word which means “Life”. It was truly an intense moment of Joy, of rejoicing.

Our gospel reading today begins with a birth – and like all births there is an element of the miraculous, but especially so in this case. For Elizabeth and Zechariah were getting on in years and they had had no children for Elizabeth we are told was barren. So when the birth is announced there is rejoicing that God has been merciful. For us, this birth is the beginning, the first glimmer, the first chapter in the unfolding of a much greater story.

Today we sense the intense and private joy of Elizabeth whose barrenness has been removed and the public expectation that there is more to come, that this baby is special because he will prepare the way for Jesus.

But in this reading the focus is not on Jesus or even John but on the person of Zechariah. Earlier on in Luke’s Gospel we heard that Zechariah has been struck dumb through his failure to believe the message of an angel that his wife would bear a Son. Zechariah’s power of speech only returns when after his wife has given birth he writes on a tablet ‘His name is John’. And his first words, words which feature in every service of morning prayer as the Benedictus are words of praise, filled with the Holy Spirit he interrupts the fear and the commotion around him to say:

‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them’

The movement from silence to speech takes all of us right back to our beginnings. The well worn cliché of every TV birth is that interminable wait from the moment of birth to the first cries, the first screams of the new baby as the lungs give voice to this new reality. That journey from silence to speech stays with us throughout our lives. And for many of us it is a difficult decision to think how best to break the silence. Sometimes the silence seems like it will continue into eternity. We feel battered by the humdrum nature of our lives or lost in the deep sadness of bereavement or just the general meaninglessness of human life that sometimes overtakes us like an all enveloping cloak. You know that silence that starts when you wake up and is still with you when you get out the door and finally have to speak with someone. The truth is we are all human, all caught somewhere between silence and speech.

What is maybe more important than these particular moments or pain or of Joy is that ultimately our speech is in some way about praise, about blessing and about rejoicing. It cannot always be so, but I do believe that all of us are called at some point and in some way to speak blessing, to give voice to praise.

Here in England we are not very good at making praise our first priority. We tend to be practiced at cynicism and sarcasm. Our humour has a pessimistic turn to it which we like to think keeps us more in touch with the sometimes ugly reality of human life. And in response to this the church is often guilty of perpetuating a state of semi-permanent niceness, as if everything will be OK as long as we say please and thank you and smile at the neighbours.

But the loosening of Zechariah’s tongue is about much more than that. It is the baby John who has come from the sealed silence of the womb to the circus of light and colour in which we live and breath, it is this baby who will grow up to call us to return to the source of all our blessings. It is that birth which gives Zechariah voice. For with this birth comes the first glimmers of the morning, the dawn for which we wait.

A new birth is not the end of our pain, the end of periods of darkness but it is an affirmation of the hope which gives voice to thankfulness and praise. And in eight days time when my children come crashing through the door of my bedroom, bursting with the celebrations surrounding another birth, I too will give voice to a shout of praise. Amen.

(original sermon idea from Fr. Phil Ritchie)