SERMON: The Birth of John the Baptist - 24th JuneIs.40:1-11, Luke 1:57-66, 80.

Helen Keller was an American novelist, political activist and lecturer who became blind when she was quite young. She became the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts Degree in a life that spanned the 19th and 20th centuries.

She tells of that dramatic moment when Anne Sullivan, her teacher and friend first broke through her dark, silent world with the illumination of language:

"We walked down the path to the well house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motion of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten – a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that "w-a-t-e-r" meant that wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!"

Here's the alphabet in American sign language. Find out what Anne impressed into Helen's hand to spell water:

The moment Helen Keller describes is that moment when her world of darkness was shattered with the light of language. Although she was the same person physically, her life was transformed. She now had a way she could see and understand.

Spiritually speaking, people are living in a world of darkness. Some of you may recognize the words to the Simon and Garfunkel song from the 70's entitled The Sound of Silence: "Hello darkness, my old friend, I've come to talk with you again." This is an accurate description of the way many people feel today – they are living in spiritual darkness. They are in need of spiritual illumination, a divine light.

The 24th June is when we celebrate the festival of the birth of John the Baptist, and John is the only saint for whom we celebrate the birth.

It's set out in Luke's gospel, and those opening chapters of Luke are like a duet from an oratorio. One voice begins to sing, followed by another, and then the two voices harmonize. For a while the second voice is silent while the first voice sings alone. Then the first voice leaves off and the second carries the music until finally the song ends with a chorus of angels.

Mark's gospel starts like this: "In the prophet Isaiah it stands written: 'Here is my herald whom I send on ahead of you, and he will prepare your way' ." Here is Handel's chorus of Is:40.5.

The first melody we hear belongs to John the Baptist. It's the promise of his birth, given to his father Zechariah by an angel, fully believed only by his mother Elizabeth. Then we hear the song of the Saviour: the virgin Mary will give birth to the Son of God. When the two mothers meet, their melodies harmonize into one song. But after three months Elizabeth is ready to give birth, and Mary goes back to Nazareth to wait out her time.

It is time again to sing the song of John the Baptist. And today's gospel tells us of his birth.

But let's start at the very beginning. It's a very good place to start:

In the days of King Herod, Luke tells us, the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah beside the altar in the temple sanctuary as he was about to make the incense offering, and promised him that Elizabeth would bear a son. "And you shall name him John," The name means God is gracious, "and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared," just as the prophet Malachi, the last of the Old Testament prophets, had foretold.

"How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years," Zechariah said. And for his understandable doubt he was rendered unable to speak until the birth.

There is usually great excitement when a couple conceives a child. This is very true if the couple has had difficulty conceiving.

Then, after the conception, there are the months of preparation and excitement as the couple awaits the arrival of the child. Finally, the child is born, and there is further joy at the birth of that child. Parents love to celebrate with others following the safe arrival of the newborn child.

Luke devotes a significant portion of his Gospel to the conception and birth of two boys. The reason he does so is because both mothers conceived these boys in unusual ways. Elizabeth conceived her son John when she was old and well beyond the age of bearing children. And Mary conceived her son Jesus when she was a young teenager without the intervention of a human father. Both boys were given to their mothers by the promise of God.

In the account regarding the birth of John – the Baptist, as he will become known – Luke shows us how God fulfils his promise.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, 'No; he is to be called John.' They said to her, 'None of your relatives has this name.' Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, 'His name is John.' And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.

And our gospel reading today stops here, right at the moment when Zechariah begins to praise God.
And that's a great shame!
Because it's one of the great canticles of the Christian Church. It was sung long before we had hymn books!
It has been cherished for 2000 years together with Mary's song of praise, the Magnificat, and old Simeon's prophecy, the Nunc Dimittis, and, of course, the Psalms.

It's the canticle that we know as the Benedictus – Blessed be the Lord God of Israel for he hath visited and redeemed his people – sung at Lauds;
and in our Book of Common Prayer at Matins – Morning Prayer – it's chanted after the gospel.

"And you, child," sang Zechariah, "will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.

By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace."

To give light to those who sit in darkness and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

And to finish off, here's the Benedictus, as Queen Elizabeth I might have heard it in her private chapel (William Byrd – four part mass):

Amen