The Birth of St. John the Baptist - June 23, 2019
Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver BC

Click here to download an mp3 audio version of this sermon.

Should I still be working at the Cathedral when I’m of advanced age, and should the Angel Gabriel come to meet with me while I am sharing meals at the Maundy Cafe or writing emails and grant applications, or in the midst of preaching, I can guarantee that, even knowing this story, from Luke’s Gospel I will react in disbelief.

Elizabeth’s husband, a servant of God, a priest in the temple knew the stories of his ancestors, of Sarah and her husband, of their descendants, Isaac and Jacob. Of course Elizabeth’s husband knew the story of Sarah’s impossible birthing of a child when she was far too old.

Which is to say, should I still be around in my 90s, and Gabriel approaches me with the impossible news that my partner is to bear another child, I too will demand to know how this is to be so, and predictably remain mute for nine months, give or take.

When we encounter Elizabeth and her husband in today’s gospel, the time has been fulfilled. Nine months has come and gone, and Elizabeth bears a son, the one who was promised to turn many people of Israel to the Lord their God.

There’s something going on here, of course. The premise that this promised one will help many people turn from their ways, from the ways of abusive power and injustice towards God’s ways of justice and peace, means that all is not now as it should be.

It means that the people, however much they hold to their religious traditions, however firmly they say that they are in the majority, or that they have the final word on God’s revelation, have somehow gone astray, perhaps been led astray, and are no longer following in the ways of the one who created all things in the beginning, who set them free to steward themselves, their relationships, and the land, and who called them good, for goodness’ sake.

For Elizabeth, and for many women in those days, the safe arrival of a child was understood as a gift from God. The shame one would endure for the inability to bear a child, and more specifically a son, was immeasurable. The logic of the day said that God was clearly not with a barren woman.

That a person’s unmet procreative potential was sin. But this was not, nor is it now, the logic of Grace. And so, when this grand surprising announcement arrives, after year upon year of ridicule and shame, Elizabeth turns to God, gives thanks for this deliverance, this moment of salvation from the pits of hell her community and faith tradition had condemned her to, when they said that God wasn’t with her, even though we know that God will neither leave nor forsake what God has created in love.

The pits of hell are real. Yet all too often, we dig these pits of loneliness shame and isolation for each other.

One day, only a few weeks after Elizabeth’s cousin Mary visits with the news of her own unlikely pregnancy, Elizabeth gives birth. Friends and neighbours gather ‘round to celebrate God’s great mercy, a mercy that Elizabeth’s husband might see the continuation of his line, a mercy they understand as a gift to the family, the gift of a child who will carry the father’s name, who will honouring their parents as they predictably replicate the pattern of those who have gone before.

But before the community, entrenched as it is in its particular way of seeing the world; before the community can place its hopes and dreams on the one who has just drawn their first breath, uttered their first cry, wet their first diaper, before the community can saddle the child with their typical expectations of what a child ought to do, and what the arrival of this particular child ought to mean, Elizabeth disrupts the flow, saying no, his name will not be his father’s, but John.

We will say to you, and to all people, through this one, Yahweh is Gracious. The community starts to talk, can barely imagine, “what then, will this child become?” (Luke 1.66) As individuals, as communities, as nation states, as a world, we struggle to accept or to live into God’s grace.

And yet, this child we meet tonight bears a name meant to remind all they encounter of the one who was before all things, who is in all things, who gives life to all things, and from whom all blessings flow.

What if we paid attention to each one we meet, and when we met them, said first, “Yahweh is gracious.”and I know because I have met you.

These past few weeks I’ve been watching the news from Hong Kong. I’ve been watching and reading about the violent clashes between authorities and those acting in protest, those who refuse to accept encroachments on their freedom, the threats that come from overriding the judicial independence of Hong Kong’s courts.

The fears (and they are many and they are real) include the fear that nearly anyone could be extradited for anything considered slanderous towards or questioning the authority of Beijing.

And so the people have rebelled. The movement, led by the young, has at times sparked violence as tensions rise between the bureaucrats in charge of the transition and those who want to live in the way of peace.

What’s been surprising and captivating to me has been the way in which Hong Kong’s protestant Christians have joined the fray.

A largely middle-class group not known for engaging politically, have recognized that the erosion of rights for some is leading to, and will lead to the erosion and elimination of rights for others, including themselves.

There’s something in there for us, too. When these Christians show up, they show up with prayer, and prophetic song. They show up singing, over and over again:

“Sing Hallelujah to the Lord

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord

Sing Hallelujah, Sing Hallelujah,

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord.”

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord!

In the face of eroding freedoms, proclaim that God is God, and not the bureaucrats and legislators of the day.

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord!

In the face of a warming planet, of the displacement of coastal communities, proclaiming and embodying the love of a home-making God.

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord!

Even as government agencies sweep cities looking to detain refugees, and continue to lock up children in modern day concentration camps, still we sing our proclamation that God is a God of liberation and freedom

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord!

In the face of a country that rejects the rights of Indigenous people to free, prior, and informed consent Sing Hallelujah and stick out your neck for truth that may one day lead to reconciliation.

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord!

Sing in the face of those who would deny the humanity of Trans and Non-Binary folks, those who would denigrate their dignity, worth, right to exist.

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord on the campuses who make space for such hatred to take root and spread

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord!

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord tonight

In the face of all fear and oppression and shame because even in the darkest night, even in the midst of the impossible, even in the most profound disbelief, or the darkest night of the soul,

God will shine a light, God will prove God’s self to be faithful.

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord!

Not because the victory is won. Not because the skirmish is over, but because the principalities and powers of the day, the ones who seek to hold control over us and our salvation, the ones who seek to send us to the pits of hell, will never have the final word.

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord

and stand up for justice

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord

and seek the peace of this city

for it is by God’s grace that justice will come to these lands, for it is by God’s grace that light will be given to those of us who sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death; for it is by God’s grace that our feet will be guided into the way of peace.

Sing Hallelujah to the Lord! Sing Hallelujah to the Lord!