If John the Baptist came striding down the aisle today, we might recoil in horror and ask the ushers to remove him. Yet the unkempt man we encounter as an adult was once a child, wrapped like Jesus would be, in baby clothes rather than camel skin. What he became looks like the sort of holy person we might meet in India today. What he was at birth was someone who looked a good deal like you and me.
When a baby is brought to the font to be named and baptized, perhaps we contemplate for a moment what she or he may grow up to be. Perhaps this helpless baby may be a bishop or a priest or deacon, a leader, a teacher, a diplomat, or heaven help us, a politician!
The story of Johnâs birth is a bit more dramatic. His father, Zachariah, a priest of the temple in Jerusalem, is told by Godâs Messenger, that his aged wife, Elizabeth, is to give birth. How old Elizabeth was we donât know. Time was measured a good deal less precisely in those days, and a person was counted as aged in their forties. Elizabeth, Saint Maryâs cousin, had reached the age when it was not normal for women to have children. Zachariah the priest is skeptical. Donât think it is just we moderns who have our doubts.
The Messenger deals with Zachariahâs doubts by making it impossible for him to speak, rather like St. Paul after he met the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. Perhaps the shock of the encounter gave the old priest a mild stroke. Who knows?
In the gospel today we discover what happens when the child is born. It was common then, as it is now, for children to be named after a parent. Indeed in some families it is necessary to place a number after the childâs name, rather like a monarch, to denote how many have gone before. It was therefore expected that the baby would be given his fatherâs name, Zachariah. Instead, the old priest defies tradition and writes that the childâs name shall be John, as if to say that this child is special and is chosen by God for a special purpose or mission.
It is a great pity that today the suggestion that a baby may grow up to be a priest is greeted with the sort of horror that might be provoked if it were contemplated that the baby might become a criminal. It is high time we overthrew the tradition that a vocation to ministry is odd. There was a time when a family thought it an enormous honor to have a child called to a vocation as a priest.
And if not a priest, a Christian whose life is dedicated to God and to Godâs church, to tell the Good News and point to Jesus, just as John one day would point and exclaim, âBehold the Lamb of God.â
The birth of John the Baptist is all about dedication to the service of God as the overriding narrative of a life. It reminds us that the calling to be a Christian â for being a Christian is a calling or vocation â is not about having a religious hobby among all the other hobbies of life, down the list from work and family, and competing with time spent on sports and television. One of the reasons why our Episcopal Church has dwindled in size is that so many of us have thought of âchurchâ as an option, a choice rather than thinking of our baptism in terms of a calling that defines who we are and every other part of life.
John the Baptist, as a priestâs son, was a priest himself. The office was hereditary. But we too, through our baptisms, are described in the New Testament as âpriests for God.â We stand as intercessors between God and the human race in this troubled and divided world. Like John, in the context of home, family, friends, work, and recreation, we must pattern a âturned aboutâ life and way of living, and call those we meet to newness of life.
John, as an adult, thundered âRepent!â â turn around, walk in a new way. He was called to this message. So are we.