Luke 1: 57-80 Nativity of John the Baptist Susan J. Barnes June 25, 2017 St. John the Baptist, Minneapolis
57 Now 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.
59 On 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.
67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: 68 ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. 69 He has raised up a mighty savior* for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, 73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon* us, 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
80 The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
“What then will this child become?” That question captures my imagination every year as I ponder this text. Today I want to share some reflections on “becoming”.
“What then will this child become?” The question came to mind a couple of weeks ago as I had my first glimpse of Iona Kemper Johns. Born in New York on June 2, Iona is the daughter of my goddaughter Anne Kemper and her husband Keith Johns.
The close-up photo I received was taken from above of the three of them lying down, looking up into the camera. The parents’ smiling faces fill two thirds of the picture and closely frame the lean body of their daughter with her lively, dark eyes.
Anne and Keith made the interesting choice NOT to know the gender of their child until she was born. With patience and hope, they gave themselves over into the mystery, to the unknowing. What a wise choice that was, given the amount of unknowing in parenthood. It also enabled them to greet her freshly when she came, and to name her only after they had met.
What then will this child become? The same question may be asked about any baby, any child.
There were actually three ‘children’ in that photo: one new born and two in their thirties. Anne is the child of dear friends of mine. Since she was born she has become many things: a beautiful, accomplished, creative woman, a devoted sister and daughter, Master of Architecture with a good job in her field, a caring friend, a wife. Now she has become a mother. And her parents, in turn, have become grandparents for the first time.
We never stop becoming.
Ten days ago, a good-sized crowd of St. John’s members gathered at the American Airlines check-in at MSP; 29 of them were going on pilgrimage to Spain. The rest of us were there to see them off.
Our love, excitement and hope were palpable. We all knew that the journey would be transformative for the travelers—youth and adults alike.
Now they are back safely, having become many things. First off: they know now that they can live for a while without the comforts of home and family, and without cell phones! On their great adventure, for a while they became strangers in a strange land, citizens of the world. They probably became more attuned to what their bodies can and cannot do. I hope that they became more aware of their blessings, including the blessing of one another. I also hope that they recognized each other’s gifts, and maybe even some of their own. Time will reveal what each of them has become from this pilgrimage.
One thing is certain: what they have become will transform their families and will transform this church community in ways large and small—also to be revealed.
Children have a way of transforming things, don’t they?
The birth of our patron John the Baptist, which we celebrate today, utterly transformed the lives of his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth. The first part of their story in Luke, which we did not hear, makes that very clear. Zechariah and Elizabeth were elderly. Though they were highly respected members of the priestly class, they lived under the shameful shadow of being childless. When the Archangel Gabriel visited Zechariah with the news that God would bless them with a child, Zechariah doubted it and was struck dumb for the duration of the pregnancy. Harsh punishment for a very reasonable doubt. Then Elizabeth, who was thought to be barren, gave birth. In advanced old age, they became parents.
Zechariah’s tongue was loosed at the son’s naming to proclaim God’s holy purpose for John: to kindle the light of hope in a land of poverty and oppression; to herald the Messiah, the Christ.
Once again God manifested the power to make all things new.
As long as we live we are in a process of becoming. And we trust that process continues in God’s nearer presence.
Our “becoming” is most apparent and most affecting in relationship with those closest to us. I recall so precisely the moment twenty years ago when my mother was seated by me in church (a rare occurrence). She watched me pray, said nothing. Suddenly both she and I knew I was being drawn to the priesthood.
After Daddy’s death, my brother Stevo naturally took his place at the head of the table at the farm. He had begun helping our father out on that weekend place when he was only six. He grew up to became a contractor; his first major project was building the guest house there. When Daddy was in his 80s he smiled to recall the arc of their working relationship. He said that at first Stevo could barely hold the other end of the board that Daddy was sawing. Stevo grew into a peer, then into a master of those skills–far surpassing his father. Finally, Daddy was proud and happy just to hold the end of the board for Stevo.
By their own gifts, Stevo and his beloved Judith have also become the locus of heart and hospitality for our family.
Like individuals, like families, communities such as our own at St. John’s are always in the process of becoming, too. Right now that process is very evident here—with cranes and lifts being readied to restore the Tower. In July work will begin on the basement renovation, as well.
What really matters most is what these renovations mean to our understanding of ourselves as a people of God—to what we are becoming.
Some of that is clear already.
We are becoming better stewards of the building fabric itself when we restore the Tower.
Better stewards of our spaces, too, when the day care expands into the renovated basement. A little like the car that’s driven only to church on Sunday, those classrooms have been way under utilized: just occupied by Sunday school, September-May: roughly 36 hours/year. In a few months, they’ll be used Monday-Friday year around as well.
When that happens we will live more fully and broadly into our commitment to the healthy nurturing of children.
All of this is good. It’s what we should do. And it’s great that our collective generosity is making it possible.
But there is more: there’s a baby, too! And like all babies, this one promises to bring delight, surprise, and transformation.
Our baby has a big name: the Centennial Fund for Social Justice. Created with a tithe from the Keeping Faith campaign, it has a healthy birth weight; and it grows with every pledge dollar received. At the end of the campaign term, in five years it should reach a hefty $200,000.
Different from most newborns, but very like our patron John, ours has come into the world with a purpose: to engage this congregation in local work that will advance the holy cause of equal justice for all God’s children.
How that purpose plays out will be revealed in time. It’s just a baby, after all. But rest assured this one will to transform our “old,” well-established community of faith.
Let us be patient as it grows, as it takes shape and definition, as it challenges us all to grow, to learn, to stretch our understanding of what we at St. John’s are meant to be and do-what we are meant to become.
And let us live with love, excitement and hope into the question: “What then will this child become?