Sermon in Ankara for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity (27th June 2021) - The Revd Patrick IrwinOn Thursday we celebrated the birthday of John the Baptist. John shares with Jesus and Mary alone the honour of having a special birthday celebration in the church calendar! In the Canadian province of Quebec the day is a national holiday and celebrated with great enthusiasm. I once found myself in Quebec beside the mighty river St Lawrence, on the feast of St Lawrence, which happens to be my birthday. I had gone to attend Mass at a church which had advertised a service on that day, only to find the church locked and deserted. I crossed the road to visit the local depanneur or grocery store and discovered that there would certainly be no Mass as the priest was on holiday. I told the shopkeeper that I had wished to celebrated the feast of St Lawrence and he replied, "Why do you wish to celebrate St Lawrence? Here we celebrate St John the Baptist."
The Armenian monastery of St John on Carpanak island in Lake Van, now a bird sanctuary, once housed a hand of John the Baptist which is now venerated in the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem. The saint's remains have made other appearances. Some years ago Bulgarian archaeologists discovered bones believed to be those of John the Baptist when excavating a church in the Black Sea. They were found in a reliquary under the altar of a fifth century basilica on the island of Sveti Ivan, St John's island. One of these bones has been tested at Oxford University and shown to belong to an early first century A.D. male from the Middle East. Such tests cannot identify the individual, but they do lend support to the tradition that the bones are those of St John. The bones were brought to Sofia and President Putin came to visit them. It was never entirely clear if President Putin had come to Sofia to visit the bones or the bones had come to to Sofia to visit President Putin.
Now we will return to John the Baptist! Luke describes how the priest Zechariah was told by the angel Gabriel that his wife would bear him a son, who was to be called John. When Zechariah did not believe him, Gabriel struck him dumb, or, as we would say today, muted him. He remained dumb until his son was named and circumcised. The family wanted to name the boy after his father but the baby's mother Elizabeth insisted that he be named John. The mute Zechariah was handed a writing tablet and wrote on it, "His name is John". Immediately he regained his power of speech and burst into a hymn of praise to God.
As we would expect from such a couple they follow the law and have their son circumcised on the eighth day. Zechariah, the name of the father that his family thought he would give his son, means “God remembers”, which would have been quite appropriate as God had remembered Zechariah and Elizabeth in their old age and given them a son. The name supplied by the angel Gabriel to Zechariah and confirmed by both parents was John, short for Johanan or Jehohanan, neaning “God shows favour” or “God has been gracious”, an equally appropriate name for the child.
Zechariah had been literally struck dumb by the angel Gabriel who visited him in the temple to inform him of the coming birth of his son, because Zechariah did not believe the astonishing news and asked for a confirmatory sign. There is an interesting contrast in Luke’s account between the priest Zechariah who questioned God’s plans as announced by Gabriel and was struck dumb for his pains, and the young girl Mary, a person one might suppose to be less prepared for divine intervention than a priest serving in the Temple, who quietly accepted Gabriel’s account of what God had in store for her.
As for Zechariah, now that the child has been named as God desired, his voice is restored, and he uses it to praise God in the familiar words of the Benedictus, used for centuries as a canticle in Morning Prayer, which we read earlier in this service. The hymn of praise thanks God for coming to set his people free. It is interesting to note that here the goal of freedom is religious rather than political. God has indeed promised to set his people free from their enemies, but he has done so in order that they make use of this freedom in worshipping God in holiness and righteousness of life. Luke has indeed provided an elegant illustration of this in the example of Zechariah himself, who celebrates his liberation from muteness by proclaiming a hymn of praise to God.
The Benedictus reminds us of the positive aspects of salvation. We may speak of “being saved” and think of being saved from the consequences of our sinfulness, and from the punishment that we deserve, but we are also being saved for a purpose, so that we may worship God in holiness and righteousness. So we are saved for something just as much as we are saved from something, and it this positive aspect of salvation that brings vitality to our lives and worship.
This gift of light in place of darkness has encouraged Christians down the ages, particularly when they are suffering persecution or oppression, and it is a gift to encourage us today. History has shown us that political freedom may take its time in coming, and enemies may remain dangerous to the Christian community, yet the new day has dawned. By the light of this new day we will see God, ourselves, and others more clearly, just as we see vague shapes transformed at dawn into recognisable objects, but it is light that shines for a purpose, that we may worship God in holiness and righteousness.