Sermons from St Faith's

Fr Neil Kelley: St John the Baptist, June 2007


Today the Church celebrates the Feast of John the Baptist. With two exceptions, whenever the church celebrates a Saint’s Day it remembers the day on which the person died, or was martyred, recalling their birthday into heaven. But there are two exceptions; The Feast of the Birthday of Mary on September 8th and today’s feast. John the Baptist also has a feast day on Aug 29th, the Beheading, but the Church gives today’s feast prominence in the life of John the Baptist.

Each year in Advent we focus for one of the four Sundays on the ministry of John the Baptist – his is usually the third of the Advent candles lit. Hence the singing of the hymn today “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry...”

Focussing on John the Baptist today reminds us that all share in the task of preparing the way of the Lord. For that was John’s message: he preached a message of repentance to those who would hear, and his ministry was devoted to preparing his people to receive the message and the person of Jesus. The little we are told about him in the Gospel tells us that John was something of an individual character. The Bible tells us that he came into all the country about the Jordan, preaching, clothed not in the soft garments of a courtier but in those "of camel's hair, and a leather girdle about his loins"; and "his meat" - he looked as if he came neither eating nor drinking (Matthew 11:18; Luke 7:33) - "was locusts and wild honey"

So if the term existed at the time he was probably a “trendly-lefty” or a “hippy”, dressed not in a smart tailored cassock from Rome but simple garments, enjoying a rather simple life of vegetarian fair rather than rump steak and claret.

And of course John’s demeanour and simple way of life was nothing compared to the simplicity of the One nailed to the cross. A reminder that God’s glory and his ways are to be found more in the simple than the grand.

Many of us will be present at the ordination service of Martin Jones next week and will witness 5 men and 6 women committing themselves to a particular service in the church. It is a public event and increasingly in ministry there are high levels of accountability. Priests and deacons are called to be stewards of the gifts entrusted to them, and the greatest gift is God’s people.

Martin, from next Sunday life will never be the same again. How can it be? You will be anointed by God’s Holy Spirit for a particular service. From that there is no turning back.

But that public commitment is not the only way to serve the Lord. Each one of us, by virtue of our baptism, is called to love and serve the Lord and his world. Each and every one of us is called to a ministry within the Church.

How would you fare if you had to give an account of your ministry to the Lord today? For we believe that at the end of our lives we will be judged by the Lord, fashionable or not, and we must be prepared to give an account of how we have served him as Christian disciples.

How does God call? In one sense that’s a very difficult question to answer. If God speaks to people individually, then how can we measure something so personal? That is why we belong to a church which believes in an ordered way of working. Vocations advisers can never be experts, but those with proven experience can help someone to try to understand how and why he or she feels called to a particular ministry.

God can call in many varied and unexpected ways. And in ways that are uncomfortable. In opportunities presented to us; through prayer; through liturgy; through the example of another human being; in times of crisis; when we’ve been pushed into doing something and are surprised to find that we can do it! We must always be open to God’s call to come when we least expect it.

For God calls all of us. Those who go forward for ordination are ordinary people who one day knelt down and said their prayers and heard a particular call to them. That could happen to any of you, beware next time you pray! Priests, contrary to popular belief, do not come from Planet Zog, they do not just materialize when the mood takes them, they are called, and examined, and chosen from among the pews containing ordinary women and men. :

It’s not just that we ourselves need to be open to God’s call, but open to the fact that He may call other people who are very different to us. The outsider may judge that weaknesses may deem a person unfit for ministry. And let’s be realistic, weaknesses take many forms – be they physical, spiritual or emotional. In God’s eyes those weaknesses may indeed be the very strengths they bring to their ministry. Those of you who remember the good old Evensong hymns may remember the hymn “At even when the sun was set”. There is a very poignant line in that hymn “and those who fain would serve thee best are conscious most of wrong within”. So this Jesus who came not to call the healthy but the sick, also calls you and me. Perfect people aren’t called! So if you are perfect, you can breathe a sigh of relief! God won’t be troubling you!

In trying to understand ‘how’ God calls and ‘what’ he calls us to we have to acknowledge two things: firstly, it has to start with prayer. How can we ever begin to listen to God if we don’t stop our busy lives to listen to Him. There is no substitute for prayer! As Archbishop Rowan Williams puts it: “If we are busy and bossy with each other, we are likely to become busy and bossy with God!”

One writer puts it: “Prayer is both a resting in and a wrestling with God”.

Secondly, as a result of that ‘wrestling’ we have to face the sometimes difficult reality that what God wants from us is not always what we think we should be doing. “Your/Thy will be done” we say in the Lord’s Prayer. That is the most authentic form of Christian prayer ever. But how often do we say it and mean it?

S. Barnabas is known as the one who encourages. The collect for his feast says: Bountiful God… who poured your Spirit upon your servant Barnabas and gave him grace to encourage others… And so it seems appropriate that we learn that lesson from the prayer for his feast-day, that we ought to encourage each other. Encouraging and supporting each other is one of the ways Christians grow. And as we grow together and affirm each other we can help one another to discover the gifts that lie within each one of us. We can be excellent at criticizing one another, but not so quick to encourage sometimes.

I have known people to attend a vocations conference convinced that they have been called to one particular ministry only to discover that perhaps they are called to another ministry they had never thought about.

A most unlikely contender on the face of it, John the Baptist had an important ministry. He was a man with a mission, and that mission was to bring people to a deep knowledge of God’s love for them. That is the mission of the Church today and that mission can only be undertaken when we ourselves have heard the call to repentance and have experienced God’s overwhelming love. When we have come into contact with that life-changing force then we will want to stop at nothing until it is shared with all those around us.

Priests, deacons, laity, we all have a part to play together in sharing in John the Baptists’ Message and Mission. John led his people to welcome and accept Jesus. May we follow that example and do the same, the Lord being our helper.

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