Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings:_ In our gospel from Luke 1:57-66, 80 we are given a very important message about John the Baptist which relates directly to our role as Christians. Theologians often speak of him as bridging the Old and New Testaments, or the point of transition between Judaism and Jesus, thereby creating a divide separating Jesus’ Jewish past from what he became. Our gospel however points to quite a different way of thinking.
John was born to a mature woman who had long been barren. This should immediately make us think of earlier Old Testament women similarly afflicted and in whom God worked for specific purposes. There is of course Sarah, wife of Abraham, founder of the Jewish race; and therefore the beginning of our story of God’s redeeming revelation of himself and his work through a specially chosen people and God’s covenants with them. Isaac was born to them, and the long story of our discovery of God really began. In a similar fashion there is the story of the barren Rachel who was given Joseph who tookIsrael’s story out toEgypt. These are stories of migrations of peoples; of land shortages and clan rivalries in which the people gradually became more aware of God and which would lead to the great epic of their history, the Exodus. Once therefore we have this context for the birth of John the Baptist, we begin to see that a pattern is being set; the details Luke gives us are not mere chance, but deliberate and purposeful. John, like his ancestors, will have a very specific part to play in the story of the faith; and it is for us to ponder and discern that story and learn from it.
John the Baptist was born of Zechariah and Elizabeth, of the priestly line of Levi. These were men who served in the Templein Jerusalemon a rota basis. As the line was hereditary it would have been axiomatic that a son born to one of the tribe of Levi should follow in his fathers footsteps. It comes as an enormous shock, not to say scandal, that John does not do this. Moreover this break with hundreds of years of tradition and good order was marked by the name given to this child. “His name is John”, affirmed by both parents. In an ancient society where everyone took his father’s name, and that of ancestors down through the ages, it would have been unheard of for the line to be broken! Yet here again, we see that in John’s case this traditional manner of behaviour is dramatically breached, leading to the inevitable query “What will this child turn out to be?”
In John the Baptist the mould has been broken, God has shown that he has a quite different plan for this young Jew whose purpose it will be to lead us to Christ and become the martyr who points to Jesus’ own death in the service of God.
This surely is what our second reading is also about, where in Acts 13:22-26 we are given a brief resumé of Jewish history leading up to Christ, and John insists on the utter difference between himself and the Christ. “I am not fit to undo his sandal.” John lays aside the ways of Judaism to recognise and facilitate the full revelation of God in Jesus.
Our reading from Isaiah 49:1-6 points to a similar and dramatic revelation of God to the nations which do not know Judaism. Second Isaiah, the prophet of the Babylonian exile, wrote not just to rebuke the failures of his people but to assure them of God’s faithfulness and their redemption. God had made him the means of rebuke, “A sharp sword”, but Israel is also the means by which God will be glorified; it will become “The light of the nations.” Tiny Israel, the pawn of superpowers has broken the mould. It is not ultimately to be rubbished according to Isaiah, and in a similar way we know that John the Baptist was to be someone who stepped outside the norm and had a particular role to play in God’s plan. Each of us too has a purpose in God’s eyes and has been graced precisely for that role, and we can achieve it even in the face of contrary evidence in the world.