Church of England Diocese in Europe

Sermon in Ankara for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity (27th June 2021) - The Revd Patrick Irwin

On 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.

The bones were placed for veneration in the Cathedral of St Alexander Nevsky and I too duly paid them a visit. My diplomatic status as Apokrisiarios (or Personal Representative) of the Archbishop of Canterbury enabled me to jump the queue. In the cathedral a solemn Liturgy was in progress with seven bishops and a fine choir. As I approached the casket containing the bones the bishop in attendance viewed me with apprehension. As he said to me afterwards he wondered in what language we could communicate. I was wearing a cassock but my lack of beard indicated that I was not a Bulgarian Orthodox priest. Fortunately we found a common language in German. The bishop was pleased that I stayed for the liturgy. All the others who had come to venerate the bones did so and promptly left the building. I enjoyed the service and the excellent singing of the choir. Later in the day President Putin came to pay his respects. The square was cordoned off, the cathedral was closed to other worshippers, and President Putin venerated the bones with only the bishop I had met in attendance and one solitary deacon chanting in the background. I felt that I had got a better deal than President Putin, though that was not how I described the occasion when later I came to present my credentials to the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate in Moscow. 

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.

Luke is keen to emphasise the Jewishness of our Christian origins. In many ways John the Baptist is a connecting hinge between Old and New Testaments, recognisable as a Jewish prophet and yet one bearing witness to the coming Messiah. John’s family is impeccably Jewish. Zechariah is a priest serving in the temple in Jerusalem, and Elizabeth is a descendant of Aaron, the first Jewish priest. 

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.

The story of the naming of John reminds us of the difficulties that one can face in holding to one’s convictions amid the pressure from family and friends to act or believe differently from God’s wishes. We may note that in this case the pressure or temptation was not to do anything evil. The members of the family simply wished to name the child after his father. There was nothing wrong with this in principle. In this case, however, it was contrary to God’s will. In our lives we will certainly encounter such occasions, where we are tempted to do or think something that is not wicked in itself but is the wrong choice in the circumstances. If all temptations were obviously wrong how easy our lives would be!

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.

The Benedictus is full of imagery, but one phrase is particularly striking. “The dawn from on high shall break upon us.” This is a reference to Jesus as the coming Messiah and is a splendid metaphor. The dawn comes from on high, it is God’s gift to us, and it is the coming of light in place of darkness. The freedom that God offers us is a freedom greater even than freedom from our enemies, it is the coming of light to free us from the shadow of death. Perhaps sometimes we get up early, and it would have to be very early in mid-summer, to watch the dawn break and gradually to see the darkness of night transformed to the brightness of day. 

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.

The imagery of the God-given dawn, the “day-spring from on high” as Tyndale more poetically described it, reminds us of the image of light in John’s Gospel, that light that shines in the darkness and is not overcome by it. Christians are men and women who have seen the light, or rather who have had their lives enlightened by this God-given dawn. Our faith is light shining in the darkness, which destroys that darkness as certainly as night is followed by day. In the words of the famous South African hymn, Siyahamb' ekukhanyeni kwenkos. Ons marsjeer nou in die lig van God. We are marching in the light of God.