Happy Birthday John the Baptist!
Happy Birthday John the Baptist!
We have a birthday today. In the Orthodox Church we celebrate death days. On every day throughout the year, Orthodox Christians commemorate particular saints, who are very special holy people. We commemorate them on the day that they died. For example, today we celebrate the Neomartyr Panayiotis of Caesarea in Cappadocia (+1765). The reason we celebrate death days is because for saints, it is their birthday into the kingdom of heaven.
However, today we really do celebrate the earthly birth of one particular saint. It is somebody you all know. The celebration of an earthly birthday for saint in Orthodoxy is so rare, we do this for only two other holy persons: Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. So this third saint is very special to us but were not going sing “Happy Birthday” to him nor will there be a cake with candles. The only thing that he wants for a birthday present is for us to love and worship God. More specifically, he stated what he desired when he said, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” (Mt.3:30). In fact, he’s probably embarrassed that we are even talking about him. He doesn’t like attention to himself. He would rather have the spotlight on Jesus Christ because he once said, “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). And he also said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29,36).
You probably guessed who I’m talking about or if you have been following the church calendar closely, you already knew that John the Baptist is our birthday person today. In the life of the Church his birthday on June 24th is so important that when it occurs on a Sunday like today, the epistle and gospel readings for this feast supersede the normal readings. The Gospel passage from Luke 1 is only read for this feast, thus we only hear it about once every six years in the liturgical worship of the Orthodox Christian Church.
In the Gospel passage we hear about the events leading up to and including John’s birth centering mainly on his parents, Zacharias and Elizabeth. We celebrate, as a secondary feast today, the Synaxis of his parents. We don’t have time to review the whole passage in detail but I would like to raise up for us some important themes.
First, notice that Luke the Evangelist addresses his gospel to a particular person: Theophilos (v.3). What does the name “Theophilos” mean? It means “lover of God”, someone who loves God. Some ancient church fathers taught that this was code for the whole Christian community, not to one particular believer but to each Christian who loves God. Thus, it is important for us to love God. And one of the ways we learn how to love God is to read the scriptures, to hear and understand the content of their teaching.
Second, we know that Zacharias and Elizabeth did not have any children and they were elderly beyond childbearing years (v.7). Yet, it was God’s will that they bear a son (v.13) in order to fulfill His plan of salvation. They were not the first elderly couple that God allowed to conceive and bear a child. Hundreds of years before, Abraham and Sarah, both over 90 years of age, became parents of Isaac (Gen.17,18,21). Though younger than Elizabeth and Sarah, other barren woman were able to conceive through God’s power including Isaac’s wife Rebecca, his son Jacob’s wife Rachel, Manoah’s wife the mother of Samson (Judges 13), and Hannah the mother of Samuel (1Sam.1,2). What we must remember is not only can God perform miracles but that they must be in accordance with His providential will. In other words they are not just for the building of faith in persons like you and me but they are also for God’s plan of salvation for all people. It’s not about God giving me what I want. Rather, it’s about each of us understanding that we are part of a greater plan and thus we have a responsibility to God and each other to seek His will, discover it and do it.
Third, when the Archangel Gabriel came to Zacharias in the temple as he was offering incense according to his priestly duties (vv.8-11) and announced the conception and birth of John (v.13), Gabriel also described the type of person that John would be. John would “be great in the sight of the Lord” and “filled with the Holy Spirit” (v.15), “will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord” (v.16), to turn “the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous” and “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (v.17). It might be difficult to tell if Zacharias was more troubled and afraid (v.11) by the sudden appearance of the Archangel or by the daunting task, as an aging parent, of raising this new child to be this mighty person about whom Gabriel prophesied.
We just celebrated Father’s day last Sunday and Mother’s day a little over a month ago. Mothers and fathers already have a big responsibility to provide basic care in raising their children. Now add God’s expectations on top of that and some parents think it’s too much. I am reading a book titled “Wounded by Love” written by Elder Porphyrios of Mount Athos. I recently read the section about his advice to parents in which he says that parents spend too much time lecturing children and not enough time concentrating on their own thoughts, words and actions in providing a good example to them. Every teenager is nodding their head right now. Porphyrios says that instead of talking at our children, parents should spend more time talking to God in prayer and let God talk to our children. So, in short, parenting as Christians is a huge responsibility.
Fourthly and lastly, after Gabriel announces the glad tidings of the conception and nativity of his son, Zacharias asks, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man and my wife is well advanced in years” (v.18). Now this seems like an honest, appropriate response. Yet, what happens? Zacharias is struck mute, unable to speak because he did not believe the prophecy (v.20). Many people say it is ok to question God because it helps us grow in our faith. However, we see more times than not that there are consequences to unbelief. Now God didn’t zap Zacharias into a pile of ashes for not believing but imagine how difficult it was for Zacharias, having seen an angel, heard this unbelievable prophecy, and then not being able to share the experience with anyone. This goes on and on as the child grows inside Elizabeth’s womb. Surely friends, neighbors and relatives were talking wondering how this old lady became pregnant. And here Zacharias has the answer but he cannot tell anyone because he cannot speak. And he knows why he cannot speak, because he didn’t believe. I am sure he was saying to himself and to God, “I will never doubt you again.”
The bottom line for us to understand is that there are consequences to our unbelief. We may not even realize that those adverse circumstances are connected to God or tied to our unbelief. But if we try as best we can to love God, to seek His will, in order to discover His will, in order to do His will; if try to imitate John the Baptist; if we try to be great in God’s eyes, not in the eyes of human beings; if we try to open ourselves to be filled with the Spirit of God and not the spirits of drunkenness, lewdness, lust, strife and envy (see today’s Epistle Romans 13:13); if we repent and turn to the Lord; if we are prepared for the Lord; then these consequences will deepen our faith so the next time He speaks to us, whether through an angel or another, then we will be sure to believe Him. Happy Birthday John the Baptist! Amen!