Sunday 24 June - Pentecost 5 - Evensong - Clephane Hume

24 – 6 18  6pm

 

Sirach 48 1-11 ; Luke 1 5-23

This evening’s lessons tell us the stories of two committed men of God.

A paeon of praise for Elijah and all the good things he did for the nation, and the devout priest Zechariah, who spent hours in the temple and lived a blameless life with his wife Elizabeth. Sadly childless.

So here we have Zechariah in the temple being visited, out of the blue, by the angel Gabriel who tells him that in his old age his equally ageing wife is to bear a son. No wonder he doubted – there were no assisted conceptions in those days. It seems a little harsh to have left him struck dumb because of his response.

He would be well acquainted with the stories of Elijah and to be told that his son would carry on the tradition would have been a surprise. As a humble man, why should he be chosen to father such a person? And to instil in him a particular way of living. A major responsibility within his service to the Lord. Lots of questions for him to consider.

Not being able to communicate except through writing precluded any explanations though the people round about obviously understood the impact of visions. But as we celebrate the feast of John the Baptist tomorrow, we know that his son was indeed a figure of importance. Moreover, the parallels to the life of Christ are evident. Receiving the good news, Zechariah would not have predicted the fate that was to befall his son and because of his age, we can assume that he, unlike Mary, did not suffer the pain of bearing witness to the death of his child.

Why was John’s ascetic lifestyle so important? Some gospel writers include the details of a restricted diet of locust beans and wild honey. Foodstuffs available naturally.

I don’t have an answer to that question, though I know that many religious people follow his example by living a simple life. Certainly it left him untainted by any of the temptations around him. The Roman occupiers didn’t follow a basic diet.

Just sharing of resources would appear to be one reason, something which the world struggles with these days. Obesity versus starvation. Nature is bountiful but requires our careful stewardship. And it does us no harm to remember that we are not in control of our planet. Being marooned, very briefly, during storm Hector, made me aware of the status of mankind. The residents on Iona are well used to such eventualities but visitors make sentimental mention of the Celtic imagery of wind and waves.

Sentimentality apart, being cut off, with intermittent Wi-Fi, is a challenge in today’s world, where we expect immediate communication and rapid responses. I was further confronted with that thought earlier in the week when the gospel reading provided guidance on prayer and fasting. We should, said Jesus, do these things in secret. It struck me that in the context of Facebook and Instagram, neither of which I actually use, very little of our lives is lived in private.

Add to that, surveillance in various forms, and the context expands. Partly because of our fear of others or their behaviour. A couple of days ago I had to wait at the checkout in the mini market while the cashier went to deal with someone whose behaviour had caught her eye. Which is relatively minor compared to terrorist threats.

And a very long way from a voice crying in the wilderness, which is how John the Baptist is often described.

Having ideas ahead of one’s time is not easy. If people are not ready to hear the message, trying to promote something new is dispiriting. It can also be lonely.

In my secular profession I have now reached the stage of seeing the wheel turn full circle, so that many of the things I did, which went out of fashion, are now being reintroduced as new ideas.

I’m now sufficiently retired and away from it all, not to be making the predictable comment, ‘we did that – it’s nothing new’ though I’m not immune from similar reactions around here………..and sometimes things that failed earlier do come into their own in the fullness of time.

John knew that someone greater was going to follow him, but he took on the people ‘around the Jordan’ and preached his message of baptism of repentance, thus incurring the wrath of Herod and being beheaded – as so often depicted in gory detail.

His is a model of leadership that confronts us. Speaking out against wrong doing is often regarded as whistle blowing, which leaves people in fear of reprisals. In a leader, it is not necessarily a popular move. And it’s something that we in the church shy away from. The media castigate us and we wriggle uncomfortably.

When he regained his speech after the birth of his son, Zechariah uttered words that we regularly sing in our morning services -  his prophecy that his child would be called the prophet of the Most High and go before the Lord to prepare his ways. Even as a respected member of the community, that might have been a claim that people found hard to accept.

But life involves risks, and that includes verbal ones.

One of our former murals had the strap line ‘confrontation can become co-operation’ , and the gospels tell us that , when he spoke out, many people did accept John’s call to be baptised.

If we are bold, we too might have our words accepted.