Today we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist, a man whose extraordinary life lived out God’s plans for him and all creation; and whose example has shaped our own lives and response to God. He was a man who had his life’s purpose proclaimed prophetically to the world, whose vocation was clear to everyone around him and whose parents depended on God for its realisation.
So there is much about John in Luke’s Gospel (1:57-80) we need to hear concerning God’s purposes, our own parental expectations of our children, and how we individually work out our own identity and vocation, responding to God.
I remember when I was 7, I decided I was going to be a nurse. I had talked to God about it and was sure this was my vocation. However, at 21 and again at 31 my father asked me if I was going to be a priest, even before women were allowed to be ordained. And as a child, and in early adulthood I remember being encouraged and supported in imagining what might be my life’s purpose and journey.
We do it for ourselves, for our children and for those we care about. We imagine bright futures for them. Bright futures often include becoming a well-paid professional, a lawyer, doctor, banker, with a successful family and the right partner, economic abundance and ensuring all the risks are minimised for the future with possessions, superannuation, and good connections.
We try for the best schools, university courses, networks, the right patron and the appropriate image and reputation. When this can’t be done, we perhaps feel a little hard done by for ourselves and our children. We leave nothing to chance.
We leave nothing to God. Yet God’s plans are shaped by our relationship with God.
Zechariah is silenced by God for his disbelief. For nine months he has no voice. His wife Elizabeth in the meantime grows large with child, like her cousin Mary and she keeps her own counsel, trusting God. Mary’s visit with her own pregnancy must have been an extraordinary time, for both women. God’s purposes for both women were being brought to life, literally.
However, God’s plans for John and his parents have nothing to do with how we imagine and aspire to successful lives. John’s call and vocation from God was to be a prophetic witness for the coming Messiah. The continual act of faith of living into such a life and for his parents provides a profound reflection for us.
As Zechariah affirms the name ‘John’, which was a common diminutive of a male name among Jews meaning ‘God has been gracious’ (1 Chr.26:3; Ezra 10:6), Zechariah’s voice is restored and he praises God richly, joyously. He is a proud father celebrating the miracle of new life. His joyful song of thanks to God for this child, his son, bursts out. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel… (Luke 1:68) and it is all about God’s saving grace, God’s salvation.
And what is extraordinary in this song of absolute delight, is a description of salvation which is very different to the one normally sung by Israel; one of power and might returning to the Jews, of authority and victory over others and their oppressors.
Instead Zechariah says salvation is made possible by giving “the knowledge of salvation to his [God’s] people by the forgiveness of their sins” (1:77).
Zechariah points to this as John’s message from God.
Zechariah’s words are extraordinary. The implication is that Israel’s sinfulness lies in imagining salvation comes only through the use of human power and violence, whereas this child’s vocation will be to point to something completely different.
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 (1:78-79).
The messianic time has arrived, as nothing short of real faith in God has ever succeeded in weaning Israel or ourselves from belief in worldly powers and redirecting us back to serve God. We need to hear this.
And should such a radical change occur for us, we will not be able to claim it for ourselves, sitting as we do “in darkness and in the shadow of death.”
Everything it seems, turns on this child accepting his vocation and calling from God, whom Luke tells us:
Grew and became strong in spirit and was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel (1:80).”
John as prophet, proclaimed the coming of the Messiah and foreshadowed God’s message of salvation. It is because of John that we must think about how much or little we as individuals and as a faith community trust and rely on God rather than on idols, such as the stock market, wealth, the right government to be in power, or the right job and connections; and rather, whether we are willing to accept our true vocations from God.
And then I want us to think about what does such reliance on God have to do with how we imagine salvation today?
Salvation today is easily relegated to personal piety. It is good to be in right relationship with God, to be saved from the numerous ways we separate ourselves from God’s love.
However, personal salvation is not what Zechariah, or John are proclaiming! Zechariah speaks of God’s salvation moving through the community, transforming the world through our shared trust in God.
Zechariah shows salvation is a personal call to individuals only if they are involved in the transformation of God’s community, including all of creation. The call is to follow as God “guides our feet into the way of peace”, making us people of “light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (1:79).
This call challenges our contemporary ideas of personal salvation – as long as I’m saved, all will be well……God calls us to salvation as physically, politically, and economically we show forth God’s justice and love in our relationships with family, our global society and with the natural world, as all is God’s creation.
Zechariah’s song reinforces God’s salvation story throughout history, revealing salvation to ordinary men and women, the poor, the faithful, the lost and the rejected. God is calling all to spread this good news. John’s faith and message clearly had very strong support and love from his parents. Utterly relying on God, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Mary and Joseph proclaim God is on the move.
I think its very easy for us to focus only on the accepted view of a successful life, of seeing our vocation as being of and in this world, while carefully ignoring God’s calling and vocation for us in God’s kingdom.
Our unwillingness to hear God’s voice in the centre of our lives, means we are unprepared to be utterly changed and live out God’s plans for us as unique human beings, as we heard in the psalm today.
O lord you have searched me out and known me: You discern my path … you have encompassed me behind and before: and have laid your hand upon me… (Psalm 139 1, 2,4).
We may never want to believe God has plans for us individually, like God did for John, because in today’s world it is not likely to include a big job, wealth or status. God’s plans for us instead invite us to proclaim a different message in our lives, the message freely given by Jesus.
Our vocation from God is unique to each of us and is lifelong, discerned and shaped throughout our lives. So, while sharing social membership in the church club and community may simply be a resting place on our journey of discernment; it may also be a profound avoidance and hiding from God and others in plain sight, determinedly resisting God’s call because it is too uncomfortable, too inconvenient, too frightening and upsets our comfortable plans and our comfortable lives.
Our vocation as Jesus’ followers is to guide others into the ways of peace; rejecting violence, war, greed and hypocrisy, by the example of our lives, and in how we encourage others to live, having faith and trusting God.
As I think back to God’s gift to us of the birth and life of John the Baptist, it is worth noting in the second-century ‘Protevangelium of James’, Zechariah dies a martyr’s death when he resists Herod’s efforts to find his son and pre-empt the advent of the prophesied Messiah.
How our lives turn out is not up to us, but up to God. Will you, like John accept God’s plans and your vocation?
The Lord be with you.