A sermon for Christ church Lofthouse for the birth of John the Baptist.
“It’s a boy” – said my sister on the phone – “we’re calling him Stanley”…then “hello – are you still there?” I’d been struck dumb at the unexpected name…at least I’d controlled the urge to respond “Stanley?”…As my daughter said, “That’s not a baby name.” The only Stanleys we knew at the time were definitely of mature years.
Of course, 11 years on, we can’t imagine Stan being called anything else…
It’s similar with John the Baptist…great Christian figure…we know his story, we can’t imagine him called anything else. But as we heard in our gospel, the response to Zechariah and Elizabeth’s choice of name was something like “John?”
Today we celebrate his birth. And it seemed to me, as I pondered the readings this week, that birth of John the Baptist is a story of God who always takes us by surprise, who brings hope in unexpected ways, and the story of a call to action.
Hope can seem a difficult thing today. We look at the world – and see violence, hunger, environmental disaster, migrants, refugees…It’s hard to see God’s message of hope as part of those stories.
We look at our communities and see loneliness, debt, young people drawn into violence, indifference. It’s hard to see how God’s message of hope can become part of those stories.
We look at our church and often see declining numbers, aging congregations, expensive buildings. It’s hard to see how we can be the bridge between God and the world around.
But our readings remind us there’s never an easy time to bring hope into the world.
The prophet Isaiah speaks to people in exile, after Jerusalem has fallen to the Babylonians. But still he talks of hope…”See the Lord God comes with might, and he will feed his flock like a shepherd”
Zechariah and Elizabeth have suffered the anguish and shame of being childless for years. But they remain faithful to God – and today we hear Zechariah praising God for the wonderful hope their son brings to their lives.
But neither of these are stories of the hope that if we can hang on long enough, God will come…they are also a call to action.
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God”, the prophet urges.
And for Zechariah and Elizabeth – John is not just a son to enjoy in their old age; he’s a son who belongs to God, who’s already been given a task to do; they don’t even get to choose his name.
At his birth people wondered, “what will this child become?” We know John became one who made a highway between Christ and the people he came to save; one who made it possible for people to approach God and hear his word.
A birth worth celebrating – but what might this story say to us?
That being faithful to God is a good starting point. The prophet listened for, and spoke, the word of the Lord; Zechariah and Elizabeth remained faithful and were ready to do God’s will.
That the prophet’s call is also aimed at us – unlikely as it might seem. I’m sure some who heard of my vocation responded… “Alison?” I certainly did. But God always takes us by surprise.
So I reckon we are called to prepare the way of the Lord…to make straight a highway for our God…even in the wilderness and the desert of a world where problems seem overwhelming and people have forgotten their need of God.
I see from your website that even whilst Mandy’s on sabbatical you have different services every day – from being quiet before God to Messy church. I see you’re supporting a food bank and learning about St George’s crypt. This church clearly is a sign of hope in the wilderness…I’m not sure you could do much more each week without collapsing! Yet, as in every place, many don’t come, many don’t know Christ.
It seems today that we need to build a highway between the world and the church, as Isaiah said, people need the uneven ground between them and God made level.
So for a moment let’s imagine Lofthouse, or Whitkirk church surrounded by uneven, hazardous ground that makes it hard to reach. Let’s imagine God surrounded by obstacles we’ve built up that make him hard to reach.
Let’s think of the people we come across in our daily lives, what are the humps, the obstacles that need making level for them? What’s keeping them from God?
Is it a difficult experience of church, or with a Christian? Have they been left with a picture of God that drives them away? Have they been left with a picture of themselves that makes them feel unfit to come to God?
Is it simply the fact that how ever welcoming we try to be – we’re a group of people in the know about worship? Do we know someone who doesn’t come because they’re afraid to try something new, afraid to look silly because they don’t know the rules?
Is it just that life gets in the way. Do we know people who are so busy juggling home, work, family, that they see church as just one more thing in an overloaded timetable – rather than the one thing that might make sense of the rest?
Is it that they feel fine, they can’t imagine Christ’s story as part of their story, that Christ could make a difference to their lives?
Let’s think about the people we know; let’s think about how we might help to level the ground between them and God.
Lord God, as we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist, help us remember that as Christians we are always called to hope, and that each one of us is called to ‘make straight the way of the Lord.’ Amen.