A sermon preached in 2010:
The Birth of John the Baptist
‘The child grew and became strong in spirit.’ Well, he didn’t have much choice, did he, with that family dynamic. Think about it. His workaholic clergy dad has given mum the silent treatment through the whole pregnancy, and even when he can speak, it’s right back to business. No endearments to his wife, no expression of joy that at last, after all the years of waiting, hoping, and being disappointed, that they finally have a child in their old age. And the first words directed to his infant son sound like, ‘you won’t be going into the family business.’ This is not a scene that can be sentimentalized on the front of a greeting card, as we will do with a different family in six months’ time. No wonder John toughened up and spent his early life in the wilderness, grew up to become a bit of a renegade, and came to a bad end.
John, however, is one of the few martyrs whose birth is more important than his death, his ancestry more interesting than those who followed him. Zechariah, a priest of the Temple, and Elizabeth, also a descendant of Aaron and therefore from a priestly family, represent the received religion of Israel about as strongly as possible. There is no doubt that their son should also become a priest. And yet, Zechariah distinctly says that John will be a prophet of the Most High.
Prophecy and priesthood rarely came from the same source. The priestly class didn’t much care for prophets, especially if they had become overly fussy about adherence to ritual and sacrifice, or were uncritical of those in political and economic power. The prophetic emphasis on renewed relationship between God and humanity, rather than ritual sacrifice, meant that Temple revenues could decrease, interfering with the livelihood and social status of the hereditary religious leaders.
Prophets weren’t too keen on priests either, often accusing them of corrupting the purity of God’s message to the people, leading them to believe that ritual was enough to earn God’s favour, and leaving justice and mercy as optional add-ons while supporting questionable political and social structures. The Old Testament narratives show few examples of priest and prophet in any kind of harmonious balance, let alone members of the same happy family.
Zechariah may not be our 21st century model of an enlightened dad. But this story gets the balance and relationship of received and emerging religion exactly right. Here, the priestly traditions are not opposed to, but issue forth in, prophecy, in the most natural way imaginable—the birth and raising of a child. Likewise, the prophet is to point to the One who is coming to fulfil God’s rule, to make the people ready and eager for His coming. But the prophet can only know that One if he has been soaked in the traditions and stories of the community that has been waiting so expectantly for its saviour.
Priest and prophet are intimately related. What holds them together is love. Love for their people, love for the vision of God’s tender and merciful rule on earth. Zechariah the priest makes a prophetic speech; John will be a prophet in whose very flesh and blood resides the priesthood of Israel.
In the ‘mixed economy’ church we serve, the old and the new exist together, not in tension or competition with each other, but in mutual love. Just as Zechariah welcomes John, we all should welcome the new voices and ideas that renew our ancient faith. And just as John’s prophecy grew out of the priestly tradition, those new movements in the church must make sure that they are faithful to the teaching of the apostles.
Priest and prophet, old and new, then and now—none of us are just one of these, or even just a few of them. Just as Zechariah and Elizabeth are in John’s bloodstream, and John is fully his parents, we are all of the same spiritual gene pool, even when we can’t see that very well. And we all are guided by the vision that Zechariah loved so much he was compelled to share it with his infant son. We, too, love that same vision and want to share it with a world that so desperately needs the One who will give light to all in darkness and guide all our feet into the way of peace.