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Readings for the Nativity of John the Baptist

1. Isaiah 49, 1-6

  • The Lord called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.  All cultures, not just Israel, tell their divine destiny stories about gifted men and women born to lead.  Let me hear what kind of leader will emerge.
  • He made of me a sharp-edged sword and concealed me.  In other words, a potent weapon in the service of God and not in his own cause.  You are my servant, Israel.  In ancient Israel weapons of war entered the common discourse.  But to what kind of weapon in our country’s arsenal could I compare their swords and arrows?  Assault rifle, depleted uranium bomb, bunker buster?  And a peasant’s machete wielded in drunken rage is not much better.  My emphasis will be on the action of God and the call to serve God.
  • And how is God served?  I will make you a light to the nations.  And this could not possibly mean a ‘shock-and-awe’ show of lights!  God’s light is the kind that an eye must accustom itself to seeing, as if awakened late in the night.  God’s ‘power and might’ is not, we believe and hope, in any way like our nation’s!  It achieves its cauterizing and healing purposes slowly and surely.
  • My reward is with the Lord.  Modern-day evangelists count their success in the money they raise and the audiences they gather.  Today we celebrate a man who, to the sophisticated world, toiled in vain, spoke an unwelcome truth, and died in a dark prison to satisfy the honor of a king – and whose disciples did not long survive him.  But we remember him because he pleased God in his ministry and preaching.  The only rating that counts is God’s.  My God is now my strength.
  • Climax: A light to the nations.  The reading builds from a parochial concern to embrace the ends of the earth.  Today we (and perhaps our leaders will eventually get the point) understand too well how the earth breathes as one, how a thoughtful or thoughtless action in one place affects us all.
  • Message for our assembly: How parochial or how universally-oriented are we?
  • I will challenge myself: To not repeat the military images naively, but to find the purpose of the God of Shalom then and now.

2. Acts 13, 22-26

  • Salvation history sometimes is presented in terms of the men and women who helped to make it happen.  This sermon in the mouth of Paul mentions three of them: David, Jesus and John.  The apostle mentioned them very quickly in this summary, and if I read the words hastily no one will remember their names.
  • These three are selected because they helped bring God’s plan to fulfillment.  For example, David: He will carry out my every wish. 
  • Then Jesus, a savior brought to Israel.  Savior?  That merely means that he has no other purpose but God’s.  Some secular leaders throughout history (such as the Egyptian despot Ptolemy) have called themselves “savior.”  Better that we give that name to those who truly act for God and in God!
  • Finally John, who proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people.  Again, none of it for his own sake.  I am not he.  Behold, one is coming after me.  This is what makes them all great: their acceptance of their calling.  They do not seek greatness for its own sake, though we honor all of them as great.  They tell us what we must do for God to accept us as great.
  • Children of the family of Abraham and those others among you who are God fearing.  These were the people who embraced Judaism, having been born into the people or having joined them out of conviction. 
  • Central point: John the Baptist heralded the coming of Jesus.
  • The message for our assembly: To us this word of salvation has been sent.  We do more than overhear an old sermon in a forgotten city of modern day Turkey.  We can take it to heart in our own lives.
  • I will challenge myself: To read with meaning and with admiration for the three men mentioned here.

Gospel. Luke 1, 57-66 and 80

  • Luke is the only evangelist who reports the birth of John, though all of them report his mission.  What can I learn to enlighten the assembly today?
  • The Lord had shown his great mercy toward Elizabeth.  Perhaps not so often today, but through the ages a woman was fulfilled in the children she bore.  Her neighbors and relatives rejoiced with her. 
  • Today we say that no one is limited by birth or social status, and that we forge our way and our role in society as we go.  The ancients believed that destiny was sealed at birth.  That is why they could say in amazement, What then will this child be? 
  • Luke meant to contrast the birth of John, the ‘precursor’, with that of Jesus.  We can imagine a large gathering of people at the home synagogue around the priest Zechariah and Elizabeth.  (Joseph and Mary were on the road among strangers.) 
  • Immediately Zechariah’s mouth was opened and he spoke blessing God.  I hear a strong release of emotion and a flood of grateful blessings gushing from the priest.  I will say it as if I am witnessing everything with amazement.
  • Climax: John is his name, because God has decided it.
  • Message for our assembly: When we name our children, do we remember that our children come from God and that their faces reflect God’s glory?
  • I will challenge myself: To make an unusual naming ceremony sound as unusual as it should be, so that God’s design will come through the ordinary details.

From Word to Eucharist: It may be a day to celebrate the youngest members of our assembly, who are already called by God for a greater purpose.  Even if they do not join us in the communion procession, they are with us in an eternal communion with Christ.

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