DATA BASE REF: C/L 1056

JOHN THE BAPTIST. UPTON VISITATION READINGS 24 Jun 2001

            “What then shall we do?” This was a question asked of John the Baptist when he appeared out of the wilderness publicly to Israel.  Over the last five years, in our celebrations of the Patron saint of Upton, we have recalled different stories about him. We have heard about his father Zechariah the priest hearing from Gabriel. We have heard about him baptising people, we have heard how he came to be called John. We have heard how he was put to death. And today we have heard how her cousin Mary, Mother of our Lord, visited his mother Elizabeth.

He was a strange character John the Baptist, even then. He was not always the Patron saint at Upton. At first the church here was dedicated to St Helen, mother of the Constantine, the first xian Roman Emperor. Constantine was born in York, and there is a legend that his mother Helen was British (Although I should also say that there is a story that Helen was a Yugoslav stable girl, but whatever she was, she was a devout Xian.) But it is John not Helen we have to engage with; to see if there is anything about his story, which can say something to us today.  John the Baptist was a strange character, even then, even in his time. He was an Old Testament style prophet, but was recalling a tradition that had died out some time previously in Jewish History.  Imagine how we would react if a 28 year old man appeared from sleeping rough in Castor Hanglands, dressed in rabbit skins and started telling us to change our ways. If it had happened 200 years ago, people may have flocked to listen to him. If it happened today, he might even be locked up for his own God.

We do not trust prophets these days, let alone take them seriously. We even misuse the word prophet – we do not completely understand what it means. The word prophet actually means, one who speaks out, divulge, makes known things that are hidden. It does not mean some-one who can forecast the winning numbers on the lottery, or the winner of the 2.30 at Huntingdon. And the word was always used in a religious sense. Hence it has the idea of being an interpreter or spokesman for God. In the NT, it has the meaning of one which, moved by the spirit of God, hence his spokesman, declares to his fellowmen what he has received, and it relates in particular to God’s purposes for us. The prophet was a revealer of Holy wisdom in a particular situation.

I cannot help feeling therefore, that story of John the Baptist has quite a lot to say to us at this time. We are all aware of the parlous state of much of rural England. Shops and schools closing, houses going beyond the call of most of us, the calamities that have affected farming and so on. And here in particular, we have the future of this church to consider, and I personally really do not know at the moment what the right way forward is for us. I hope that the public meeting may throw some light on the possibilities for us.

But John the Baptist reminds us of some factors we have to take into account. Firstly, we have to believe that God is involved in his world, that there is a divine purpose, as there was for John. Secondly we have to be able to reflect and interpret that purpose for our situation here in this place. It seems unlikely that we shall find a prophet on our doorstep, telling us what God wants for us here. We shall have to be our own prophets. In which case I would want to say, that the process is more important than the decision. If we get the process right in our deliberations; if we take time to think; to listen to each other properly, if we can be open with each other about our own fears and; if we can achieve all these things, whatever decision we make will at least have been made in love and friendship with each other. – which would surely be at least part of God’s will for us. Because we are talking in part about how we work as a community, what it means to be community in Upton..

When John started his prophetic ministry, we read in the Gospels that many people came up to him, soldiers, tax-collectors and other people, and asked him : “What then shall we do?” . This to is a question for us here now. What then shall we d?. I do not know, but one of things we must do, I believe, is that if we listen, if we reflect, if we take care, if we pray, Spirit of the lord which came on Zechariah, and Elizabeth and Mary, and John the Baptist will guide us too. Amen.