On the Nativity of St. John the Baptist
Sermon preached by Fr. Seraphim Solof at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Central Square, Cambridge on Sunday, June 24, 2018.
Transcript as delivered:
It's the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist today being June 24th and it actually completes something that we commemorated almost nine months ago. On September 23rd we celebrated the conception of St. John the Baptist. So, nine months plus a day we celebrate the Nativity of St. John, his birth. It's interesting when we celebrate the conception of the Virgin Mary on December 9th and then she's born on September 8th, it's 9 months less a day. So, St. John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary are both off in their gestations by one day. Only Jesus is perfect So, he's conceived on the Feast of the Annunciation - March 25th - and he's born exactly nine months later on Christmas. So, there we go, a little fun fact for you.
So, St. John is in fact the bridge between the Old Testament and the New Testament. He is the last of the Old Testament prophets, and you can tell this from his appearance. He's dressed in camel's hair, and he wears a leather belt. The last one famous for dressing like that was the Prophet Elias. So when people saw him, I'm sure Elias came to mind - the prophet Elijah. In fact there are many references to John being Elijah. Some thought he had come back from the dead. Even Jesus himself said that John was fulfilling Elijah's ministry, and that ministry was to appear before the Messiah and to make his way straight. We'll get to that in a second.
He was out in the wilderness eating locusts and wild honey - a very prophet thing to do. I could live with the wild honey, but the locusts don't sound very good. If you were at Vespers last night or read the service the Old Testament readings were fascinating, and very much in tune with the story of the Nativity and birth of St. John. The first reading last night at Vespers was when the angel or angels of the Lord - the three. Here's the icon above the royal doors - it's called the hospitality of Abraham - it's when the three angels came and visited Abraham and Sarah at the Oaks of Mamre and the angel told first Abraham and Sarah the Sarah was going to bear a child. Sarah was so old that she laughed, and Abraham laughed too. That's why the child is named Isaac. I don't know Hebrew but apparently that's the etymology of Isaac. They both laughed at these words of the angel.
In the same way, Zechariah, when the Archangel Gabriel gives him the news at the conception of Saint John the Baptist that he was going to have a son, he said how can this be? By that time, Gabriel was old and cranky and kind of lost his temper and said okay you don't believe me so you're gonna be mute until he have this the child and that will be the proof to you that I know what I'm doing. He actually did the same thing with the elder Simeon and we hear the story in February: Simeon was one of the translators of the Septuagint. Simeon's part was translating," and a virgin shall conceive and bear a child and you shall call his name Emmanuel." Simeon, as he was translating, said "how can this be?" and he started to scratch out the word virgin and Gabriel showed up and said, "no, no, you are gonna live until you see the fulfillment of this prophecy," and that's why Simeon is so bloody old by the time Mary and Joseph bring the child Jesus to the temple on the fortieth day for his birth to do the things prescribed by the law. In any case, that was the first
reading last night.
The second one talks about the parents, but it doesn't talk about the Prophet who they were describing. It was the prophet Samson. You remember the story of Samson and Delilah, you couldn't cut Samson's hair and it wasn't until Delilah used her womanly wiles on him and cut his hair and he lost all his power then the Philistines were able to kill him. What had happened or what Samson was was called a Nazarite - someone in ancient Israel who had taken special vows and especially dedicated themselves to God. And the rules of the Nazarite law were, among other things, you couldn't cut your hair, and you couldn't drink wine or strong drink. Now, they don't mention anything in this morning's Gospel about the hairpiece, although if you see an icon of St. John the Baptist, obviously he didn't get his hair cut very often. In any case, it's very clear that the angel told Zechariah he shall have no strong drink in other words he's dedicated to God in the way of a Nazarite in the way of the Prophet Samson in the Old Testament.
Finally the third reading last night was from the prophecy of Isaiah. It's kind of that the tagline of the ministry of St. John the Baptist - "a voice crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord." So we hear that passage from Isaiah last night. So through all of these things you know the appearance of John the Baptist and certainly these readings that help us prepare tell us that he's a prophet and in fact a great prophet. But a point of fact, he is the last and greatest of all the prophets. If you think about all of the prophets in the Old Testament, they could only talk about the Messiah, the Promised One, the Anointed One of God coming far in the future. If you remember the prophecy of Balaam and he wasn't even in Israelite but God made him prophesy. He said, I see him but but not here. I perceived him, but far away off. All of the prophets could only speak to what was way out in the distance way out in time, but not John the Baptist.
What was John the Baptist's message? it's "behold, the lamb of God." He's right over there. That guy. It was that immediate. It was that real. This was it. He was the last prophet. He was completing the work of all the prophets, which was, on the one hand, proclaiming the Word of God, and on the other hand leading people to God, pointing people to God. He was in fact so effective at this that the first disciples of Jesus were in fact disciples of John. John said basically, no, this is the guy. Andrew the first-called and Peter, his brother, and Nathaniel, all of these first disciples of Jesus started out as disciples of John, who at John's direction went and followed the one that John had prophesied that John was pointing out now. It's interesting John was baptizing, and he baptizes Jesus and we know about that at Theophany. But then, John is still baptizing and then Jesus shows up and Jesus starts baptizing him and the Jews went out to him and to John and they were very confused and they said, "that guy that you baptized, he's set up shop right down the road he's
baptizing - what gives?"
It's very interesting. John at that point describes the fulfillment of his ministry he says, "Now my joy is complete." He says, I'm like the friend of the bridegroom, but when the bridegroom shows up, my work is done. I got him here for the wedding. He's here with his bride, and he says these words which should be guidance for all of us, and this is I think what we take away from the celebration of St. John's birth today. He says, "now he must increase and I must decrease."
So if we are to carry on the work of the prophet the work of John the Baptist who was above all the servant of God, his friend and his servant - all of us want to be the friends and the servants of God, we have to do what he did. We have to speak the Word of God and we have to point people to God and the only way that we can do that is if we let Him - Jesus - increase and us decrease. Because, if I want to kind of keep myself going if I want to make it all about me if all my words are about me well I mean that's just it it's all about me; I'm not speaking the Word of God, I'm speaking the word of Seraphim, and who needs to listen to that? If all I'm pointing to is me you know - me me, me, me - that's very exciting for me, you know, but then I'm not doing my job which is to point people to God. So, we today as we hear these words as we remember this story and emulate the life and ministry of St. John the Baptist, have to keep this in mind. God has to increase. We have to decrease so that we can do our job, so that we can do what we are called to do.
Now, ultimately this cost St. John everything. He continued to proclaim the Word of God and he spoke the truth and power in in a very real way, and got his head chopped off for a kind of thanks. As sad as that might sound, think about it, we're 2,000 years later celebrating his birthday. In September we celebrate his conception. My family celebrates my birthday, but nobody celebrates my conception. When St. John was killed we not only celebrate the day that he died - which is my son's birthday which is too bad because it's always a strict fast day. By the way, in the Russian church not only do they strictly fast, you can't eat anything round and even cut with a knife or anything served on a platter. They take the beheading seriously - ask a Russian. They take the beheading of St. John the Baptist kind of that seriously. We celebrate his conception, his birth, his beheading on August 29th, and then the first, second, and third findings of his head! So, if you want to talk about a paradox, John is the one who points everyone to Jesus. He steps aside, he becomes less so that Jesus can become more. Now, he's glorified, you know, all throughout the year, all throughout the world. This is how it's done, and by the way, this is what God does for his friends. You do His will, you put Him first, you speak His word, you get out of His way, and then you're golden. So I'll leave you with that. Happy Feast Day and Happy Birthday John the Baptist!