The Nativity of John the Baptist
24 June 2018
Luke 1:57-67 [68-80]
Moving to Saskatoon in 1992 was my first experience of the prairies. I loved it, except perhaps the six weeks between winter and spring, when all is gray and dusty.
I did not know much about the prairies and when I had studied in Vancouver a few years before, I heard many people dis the prairies. Later I realized that that was likely because they were from the prairies.
The Ukrainian Museum of Canada is on Spadina Crescent is, and right across the street from it, on the promenade along the South Saskatchewan River, is a bronze statue of Ray Hnatyshyn, Governor General from 1990 to 1995. Hnatyshyn was born in Saskatoon and not only was the city proud of him but his appointment to the position of Governor General also meant that Ukrainian Canadians had arrived and were no longer outsiders.
I did not know any of this then, though Jackie informed me that Hnatyshyn was in fact our Governor General. What did surprise me though, was that someone had built a statue for a living person. It seemed unusual, if not risky. What if a person did something really dumb, or irresponsible, or evil things? Then one would have to remove the statue or provide some kind of context for people to understand that there is this statue for a person not considered worthy anymore.
The Lutheran World Federation does not beatify or declare saints, and we know that Luther had a problem with people praying to saints, which he considered a diminishment of Jesus as our mediator before God the Father (1 Timothy 2:5f). But those who do declare people saints do not start the process of canonization before someone has died.
All the saints days in the Christian calendar relate to this by marking the death of a saint, and thereby his or her rebirth in the Kingdom of God.
That makes sense and is prudent, yet the extreme of this is that people lived in fear that perhaps one of their last acts in life would destroy all they had worked for until this day, and their moral capital would be all spent with nothing left when they stood before the judgment seat of God.
And even Lutherans, in spite of our knowing of God’s grace, are people who want to be known by our accomplishments, at least to a certain extent. And while we may not be as afraid of sin as generations before us were, our understanding that we are what we do is the reason we are so afraid of dementia. We think that if we were to suffer from dementia we would no longer have value, because we could no longer contribute. It’s funny we don’t look at children in this way. They are precious and valued just for being them, yet we are afraid to become like them. We even speak of people as only being the shell of a person and the person long having left. It’s a way of resolving things we don’t understand, as if we could understand everything, and unfortunately it then keeps us from being present from those who want and need our presence because they are not just a shell but remain God’s beloved.
And this is where our celebration of the Nativity of John the Baptist is interesting because we don’t celebrate the day of his martyrdom but we celebrate his birth. John hasn’t done anything yet, except, according to Luke, leaped in his mother’s womb when Mary had come to visit during the time of her and John’s mother’s pregnancy.
And the fact that we celebrate the nativity of John the Baptist is underlined by the fact that our Gospel is from John’s birth narrative, and not from his career in and along the Jordan River.
And while we are mindful of the role John played and of his martyrdom it seems to me that what we celebrate is his existence and his vocation. This is not a day when we evaluate his life and ministry. As we give thanks for the long days of summer, that God made the sun, and the moon, and the stars, that the earth and all that is in it is the Lord’s, we give thanks for John, for his life, his vocation, and his beginning.
Sometimes we feel like we stand at a beginning. Our graduates will feel that way, for while they have finished one important and significant thing, another chapter is waiting.
But we may feel that way in our faith also. Sometimes our faith comes easily and sometimes we don’t even know whether we believe, if not in theory, then in practice.
Sometimes we feel close to God and sometimes we feel as if God were distant from us.
But we don’t celebrate John’s accomplishments. We don’t celebrate his humility, or how close he was to God, or that he got to baptize Jesus. What we celebrate is simply his birth, his existence, his call, expression of God’s love, expression that God deemed him worthy.
And in doing so we remember that following Jesus is not about accomplishments but about love, that God loved us first, and following Jesus is simply about allowing God’s love to enter us.
That’s what Jesus lived and practiced, and in that life and practice there is a place for everyone, no matter how worthy or (un)accomplished we feel, and no matter how (un)holy we feel, because it is God who makes us worthy and God who makes us human.