Readings Isaiah 40.1-11, Luke 1.57-66,80
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
Last Sunday my new colleague David Gardiner went down a storm with a question-and-answer sermon, so I thought I’d be bold this morning and try – a question. What words appear on the edge of the standard £2 coin? ‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’, first attributed to the 12th century philosopher monk Bernard of Chartres, and famously spoken by Isaac Newton: ‘If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’
Today we mark the birth of someone who will stand on giants’ shoulders, John the Baptist. He will be the latest in the line of prophetic giants like Isaiah, he will dress in camel skins, like the great prophet Elijah, and he will prepare the way for someone more gigantic still. But all that lies ahead. Today John is born. In Luke’s gospel, a book about Jesus, the ‘greater one’ John looks forward to, we have a full sixty verses telling the story of John’s birth. This opening section of the gospel has constant echoes of the Old Testament: when Zechariah hears from the angel that his wife Elizabeth will bear a son, he is struck dumb, just like Daniel was when he met an angel (Zechariah’s speech comes back in this morning’s reading); Elizabeth gives birth to John in her old age, just as Isaac and Samuel were born to women well on in years; and John, we hear, ‘grew and became strong in spirit’, just as the hero Samson ‘grew and…the Spirit of the Lord began to go with him’.
What Luke does here is show God as the great preparer. Just as John the Baptist must come and prepare the way for Jesus, so the whole history of God’s chosen people, described in the Old Testament and now personified in John, has been a preparation for what God will now do in Jesus, the one in whom all the longings of generations of God’s people will be satisfied. So John is a hinge between past and future. Here we see that God takes history seriously, and takes us seriously as creatures of time, whose present has been brought to birth out of the past and who will conceive the future of those who come after us.
This is a God who is ceaselessly at work, with one eye fixed far ahead, who is prepared to play a long game. And so must we be, if we are to do God’s work, for each of us is a hinge between past and future. On the face of it, John is not an obvious role model – a writer of the time, a rather sophisticated Jewish historian called Josephus, called John a ‘hairy, half-naked, vegetarian desert-dweller’ – but the Baptist is the forerunner, the preparer, the clearer of the way, the patron saint of beginnings and of unfinished business. How can we follow him, and so follow Jesus?
The Rio+20 earth summit ends today. Archbishop Rowan Williams has produced a video message for the conference, in which he asks what kind of world we want to leave to our children. This is not just a question, he says, of material things – pollution, clean water, food…
But just as importantly, it’s a question of what kind of habits and what kind of lifestyle we want to leave to our children, – what sort of skills we want to see them developing in living sustainably in this world. That means, as in so many areas, we have to start small and we have to start local. Big changes come because small changes happen.
And if you find the archbishop a bit Guardianesque for your taste, here is the combatively right-wing historian Niall Ferguson, this year’s Reith Lecturer. In his first lecture he quotes the 18th century thinker Edmund Burke:
The state is a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.
Burke is worried about people who are ‘unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors or of what is due to their posterity’, and so is Ferguson. Looking at the US, where he now lives, he costs the difference between present government liabilities and future government revenue at over $200 trillion. He calls this ‘a vast claim by the generation currently retired or about to retire on their children and grandchildren’. We can debate the analysis, but both pastor and professor ask a question that should bear on us as we remember John the great preparer: what sort of place are we preparing for those who come after us?
We have just had the privilege of welcoming to our shores someone who has lived with that question. In her years of enforced solitude in the domestic wilderness of her crumbling family home in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi tried to prepare the way for a time she might not live to see (indeed, she reminds everyone that it’s not here yet), and she did it in a way that, as the archbishop says, began with the small and the local. Where else could she begin, unable to step outside her front gate?
What sort of place are we preparing for those who come after us? There is danger in comparing yourself with great people and great events (unless that’s the world you move in): it can lead you either to overdramatise your life, or to see the the gap between them and you – the fate of a nation does not rest on my shoulders – and see your life as trivial by comparison. But it isn’t trivial. That is one of the things we try to tackle in the Christianity at Work group, which meets after the service today: to hear reports from real lives, to listen to one another about how we succeed and fail in being preparers of better things.
Occasionally it may fall to one of us to be in a moment of crisis, when you must make a dramatic choice, and then you pray that you make your decision with the mind of Christ. Much more often, however, our choices are made on routine days, when both triumph and tragedy seem far away, small decisions, to spend a little time talking to someone when there is no need to; to give a few spare minutes to prayer rather than the paper; to walk rather than jump in the car; to do some small act of courtesy even when you’ve had a lousy day; to develop the routine of being truthful, even if you work in an environment that encourages the small, convenient lie. ‘Habits and lifestyle’ on ‘the day of small things’, things that are undramatic in themselves and may make no obvious difference, yet can play their part in preparing, in making big things possible that – but for your small deed – might not come so soon; or at all.
One day in 1940s South Africa, a white man, an Anglican priest, met a black woman walking with her young son. The end of apartheid lay half a century away, so this was a time when black South Africans were expected to step aside, even into the gutter, as whites approached. As this white man approached, however, he raised his hat. It was a small act of courtesy from a gentleman to a lady; unusual, perhaps, in the circumstances, but hardly revolutionary. Still, it made an impression on the little boy. Later, when, like John the Baptist, had grown and become strong in spirit, he would see this as a hinge experience in his life, a sign of what could be possible in his life and in his country. His name was Desmond Tutu.
Archbishop’s message for Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Adso8D6vXVo
Reith Lectures 2012 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01jmx0p
The day of small things Zechariah 4.8-10:
The word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this house; his hands shall also complete it. Then you will know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you. For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plummet in the hand of Zerubbabel.