Sermon in the Octave of the Nativity of John the Baptist – Sunday 25 June 2017 – St John the Baptist Felixstowe
(Delivered on the day after the priestly ordination of Penny Brinkley at a service where she was the president)
Text: They began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him (Luke 1v62)
God give you peace my sisters and brothers.
They began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him.
If you were to ask someone who knew about these things, perhaps our curate the newly priested Revd Penny Brinkley (our Diocesan Chaplain to the deaf community) I am sure we may find that there are many examples in the Scriptures where sign language is used.
However it is a fortunate and blessed circumstance that this verse about sign language is given to us by the lectionary not only on the day when Penny was ordained priest – for the correct date of the Feast we are keeping today, was yesterday – but also on the day when we gather to celebrate the patronal festival of this church of St John the Baptist.
If we look carefully we may even see something from the life of our patron saint which will tell of God’s presence in the Baptist’s life, give inspiration for Penny as her ministry deepens and matures, and encourage each one of us to look more closely for the ‘Signs of God’ amongst us?
There are three things that come to my mind:
The Baptist’s birth was ‘welcome yet unexpected’
The Baptist’s call was ‘familiar yet different’
The Baptist’s life was ‘great yet small’
Our first sign is a ‘welcome yet unexpected’ birth.
The birth that they never thought would happen. Barren Elizabeth and faithful Zechariah had longed for a child and everyone had given up. Even Zachariah didn’t believe it would happen – one of the reasons why, when it did happen, he became mute. The moral of the story being never get into an argument with an archangel!
Elizabeth and Zechariah did not expect to end up where they did. I know Penny, and her husband Robert, after so many years of being faithful residents of Felixstowe and members of the church community in Old Felixstowe did not expect to end up either with Penny becoming a priest, or her working in the parish next door! If Robert appears a little more mute than usual do not be surprised! God does indeed work in mysterious ways!
So it is to be with each of us. None of us, regardless of how empty, confused, or hopeless we may feel, is ever truly barren in the eyes of God. God is always ready to bring new things to birth in the world if we but have the faith, patience, and persistence to allow God to work in our lives.
We want things to change. We would love it if things were better in our own lives, in our life as the family of God, in the communities in which we live. But are we ready for the unexpected? Our first ‘sign of God’ is to learn to welcome the unexpected, for these may be miracles in the making.
The ministry of John the Baptist was ‘familiar yet different’.
The children of Israel were used to God sending them prophets. Since the return from exile they were the life-blood of their faith. These were the ones who, each time God’s people began to wander, called them back to their first love and presented to them again and again the picture of a God who wanted to woo them all over again.
So John the Baptist, a prophet in the desert, was a not unfamiliar figure. But he is not your regular kind of prophet. Wearing camel’s skin and eating locusts and wild honey, what kind of prophet is that? You may as well have a new priest with rainbow-streaked hair, eating pots of prawns and drinking an occasional pint of Adnam’s Bitter!
This second Sign of God reminds us that when the ‘welcome yet unexpected’ comes amongst us it will be ‘familiar yet different’. We should not be surprised when God does new things amongst us that they do not work in the same way as the old things did. Else they wouldn’t be very new would they?
Penny, together with the others who were made priest yesterday and the whole of our ministry team, know well the foolhardiness of presuming we know what God will do with our lives. Every one of us needs to learn to expect the unexpected and allow God to work differently in our lives.
If we do not, we run the risk of the epitaph on the grave of our lives and over the ruins of this parish becoming ‘ we never did it that way’. Which is the ultimate sadness for faithful people whose sole desire is to do all that God asks of them.
To follow the second ‘sign of God’ we must be prepared, like Princess Elsa in the Disney cartoon Frozen, to ‘Let it go’ and let God lead us wherever God will.
The final ‘sign of God’ is perhaps the hardest to be ‘great yet small’.
John the Baptist was the first to show us how to be ‘great yet small’. Earlier in this chapter of Luke the angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that his son will be ‘great in the sight of the Lord’. (Luke 1v15)
Jesus himself says of his cousin;
‘Among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist;’
But he also says;
‘Yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he’.
John himself says of his task, once Jesus has been baptised
‘He must increase, but I must decrease’. (John 3.30)
And having been the herald of the King, he steps back into the shadows
This third sign will lead us into challenging and dark places. It will take us away from the limelight to those parts of life where no one wants to go. The challenge of priesthood, and though some of us are called to the office of priesthood we must never forget that we are called to be a priestly people, is to remember that we are always to serve God above ourselves.
To be ‘great yet small’ is perhaps the hardest of these three signs of God to see. It means we must stop looking at ourselves and start looking at God. It means we must stop talking about our needs and desires and start proclaiming God’s reign over all creation. It means that we must stop doing things ‘my way’ and start to follow ‘The Way’.
I don’t always mange to see this final sign of God, though if I am honest I always know exactly were to find it. It is a hard to own these words, ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’. However I have come to know it is the only way to ever answer the call that God has laid on my life. Penny has come to learn this as well, as have others in the ministry team, and many many members of our church family.
I know why I don’t look for this sign of God. In the church calendar John the Baptist has two festivals. Today’s feast is the nice cuddly one, his nativity, after all everyone loves a baby. Then, not many weeks hence, the more challenging feast which marks his beheading. I really do want to give everything away in God’s service but I am never quite certain that I want to lose my head over it….
Dietrich Bonhoeffer says of our vocation, ‘when Christ calls us he bids us come and die’. And that, in a phrase, is the whole of the Gospel.
As we follow these three signs of God we will find ourselves becoming a fourth.
We can manage ‘welcome yet unexpected’,
we can cope with the ‘familiar yet different’.
and may even become ‘great yet small’,
we ourselves will, however, only become a ‘sign of God’ when we finally learn the glorious truth that it is only by ‘dying that we live’.
To paraphrase the title of a TV programme, I invite each of us to share in this meal of God’s love and ‘Come Die With Me’.