Sermon: Sunday 24 June 2012
The Revd Canon Johannes Arens, Canon Precentor
John the Baptist
Dear brothers and sisters,
If I was asked what sort of books I like to read I don’t have to think long. Apart from other things I really like biographies of more or less important people. I find it highly interesting how people lived who were involved in historic moments or what the less public side of very public people was like. Currently I read two books about two politicians: Benito Mussolini, since I have just been to Italy, and without any travel connection a biography of Chairman Mao. Don’t worry, I don’t read the biographies of fascist and communist dictators to model my personal life after theirs.
However, there are biographies I dislike. I don’t like autobiographies and I don’t like to read books about people who are still alive. The latter condition actually includes the former. I prefer to read books about people who are already dead for a very obvious reason: if they are not dead yet their life is not finished yet, thus I would then have to read another book once they have died. Also they might do something in the remaining years of their life which proves everything wrong which is said about them currently. You only can speak properly about somebody’s life when the person is dead and her or his life has been completed. I am aware that Katie Price, alias Jordan, has already published 4 autobiographies in spite of being born in 1978: Being Jordan (2004), A Whole New World (2006), Pushed to the Limit (2008) and You Only Live Once (2010). I am sure No. 5 is in the making but I am definitely not going to read any of those until she has died. Even then, reading about her upper frontal super structure will not be on the top of my reading list. I have seen the pictures, that’ll do.
The day somebody died has always been considered an important day for those who remain. This is the day when nothing can be changed any more, the day of finality. In medieval days there was no greater worry than dying unprepared. In a particularly frightening spirituality everything remained open until the day of one’s death: one major sin could destroy everything people had struggled to achieve over a lifetime. One major lapse could ruin the hope for eternal salvation.
The story we hear and celebrate today is a different one. Today we don’t celebrate the death or blessed dying of John the Baptist, we remember his beheading at the end of August. Today we remember his birth. We may say that we only remember his birthday because we know what he did for the rest of his life and therefore we are safe to celebrate its beginning as well. But the amazing thing is that God does not do that. He is involved in John’s life right from the beginning, from before his birth. Life does not start with death, life starts before birth and today’s feast similarly as through the feasts remembering the conception and birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary we are reminded that God thinks differently about the value of lives: he is involved and rejoices in human life right from the beginning, whatever somebody achieves or not and however long it is going to last.
However, looking at the account of John’s birth it becomes clear that God had a plan for John’s life right from the beginning. The vocation is in his name: John, Johannes or Jehohanan in Hebrew means ‘God is gracious’. The name is important, otherwise he would have been called Zechariah like his father. An angel had decided on the name and the father had to shut up until he accepted and confirmed what God had decided. ‘God is gracious’ means that God favours human beings, that he is mindful of them, offers them space in his heart and has a plan, a vocation for our lives and rejoices in us. God wants something from us, requires our help and service. God decides what happens in somebody’s life: not the parents, not anybody else, not background, race, sexuality or education are supposed to determine us. God is in charge and he alone.
Psalm 118 says:
‘Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place. With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can mortals do to me? The Lord is on my side to help me; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in mortals.’
To have faith means to build one’s life on the one in whose heart we have a place: God is gracious. To have faith means to give less and less power about my feelings, actions and thoughts to others, but to rely on the one in whose strength we stand.
God is gracious.
O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life; whose service is perfect freedom: defend us, thy humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defence, may not fear the power of any adversaries, through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
© Canon Johannes Arens