Like any cleric I have pet peeves. And, yes, I’m sure something I say or do is a pet peeve for some other soul, too, but when it comes to preaching, one of my pet peeves is this: don’t we short-change God’s people by dodging the extra work to celebrate God’s workings through the saints, especially when they serve as catechesis? Shouldn’t our preaching lift up God’s work also educating God’s people in a catechetical fashion? Taking nothing away from social justice preaching, which is critically important, and which is not in short supply these days, but doesn’t catechetical preaching have a place? I think so.
Consider that June 24th is the feast day of St. John the Baptist, prophet and cousin of Jesus. This feast celebrates John’s birth. It can transfer forwards or backwards when it falls on a day other than Sunday. And unless I am mistaken, this festival is one of only three nativities celebrated as feast days. The other two are the Nativity of Jesus and the Nativity of Jesus’ mother, Mary. Pretty much all other feast days for humans are tied to their deaths. Sobering reality isn’t it, saints lifted up in birth and death?
To this end, let’s look at the gospel text for the Feast of St. John:
57Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 59On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” 61They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” 62Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. 64Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him. (NRSV)
John comes on the scene of humanity in a turbulent time. There are wars. Politicians vie for power. The rich are rich. The poor are poor. The religious folks are caught up in religiosity. And together an old priest and his old wife conceive a new child. A womb that had been a tomb fills with new life. And the world is about to turn for God is moving in the new. And it starts with a new name: “He is to be called (Yochanan) יוֹחָנָן
“He shall be called ‘God is gracious.'”
God’s new thing comes into being out of God’s gracious nature. And it begins with the name Yochanan—-John.
God’s answer to the Herodian puppet government was “God is gracious.”
God’s answer to the rich riding rough shod over the poor was “God is gracious.”
God’s answer to the expectant poor was “God is gracious.”
God’s answer to Imperial Rome was “God is gracious.”
Here we are 21 centuries later with a shooting in Orlando, a political line-up in the USA that makes my heart sink, a nation more polarized than I’ve ever felt before, and still God’s answer is “God is gracious.”
As the sun rises over the palms, spreading golden honey-light, God’s answer remains, “God is gracious.” A new day is here and with it new chance, new possibility. New is here once more. Another day to become God’s gracious response to a world that feels like a barren womb ripe with despair and craving hope. God’s gracious response is to give us a present–THE PRESENT. This moment is fruit from God’s answer.
Six months before the Nativity of Jesus comes the birth of John. John becomes our access point to Jesus, the preparatory course before the main dish. John preps humanity to receive Jesus. Six months before Christmas Eve John enters our present, offers us ways to “Repent” and “Prepare.” Upon this preparatory day hinges the Church year, the day when through humanity, God graciously prepares humanity to receive and know the Divinity. Through John we meet Jesus. God is gracious! This is the news that lifts up saints in birth and in death and has been doing so for 21 centuries.
Need we wonder why Elizabeth says, “he is to be called John.”