Pastoral Message – June 25, 2023
This past week I was on vacation in New Jersey to celebrate my cousin’s wedding and again to visit an Atlantic City casino with my dad. Then, I was in Albany, New York to spend Father’s Day with my brother and my dad, and I flew home this past Wednesday. I definitely feel like I need a vacation from my vacation! The calendar was also busy this week. Monday, was “Juneteenth.” On Wednesday, we marked the Summer Solstice – the longest day of the year and the official start of summer. Finally, Saturday was the Solemnity of the Nativity of John the Baptist. Both my busy vacation and the busy calendar reminded me how easily our own plans and the activities of this world can distract us from what is truly important.
One person who consistently stayed focused and “on message” throughout his life was John the Baptist. We celebrate his birthday on June 24th. Our son is named after John the Baptist because, when my wife and I decided to start our family, we were not blessed with children as quickly as we had hoped. We prayed to St. John the Baptist since we knew that his mother, Elizabeth, was also incapable of having a child. We drew comfort from the words of the angel to his father, Zechariah, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John.” Shortly thereafter, we discovered that Rosemary was indeed pregnant with our son. Immediately, we decided that his name would be John. We had a little discussion about his middle name, but that’s a story for another day.
It is highly symbolic that John is born at the time of the Summer Solstice. Like the sunlight, John’s light also grows dimmer from the minute he is born through the birth of Jesus. From June 21st through December 22nd, the days grow shorter. The light begins to increase again at the exact time that Jesus is born in December.
John himself recognizes the supreme importance of Jesus when he famously says, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” When I was in the seminary, one of my friends decided that he and a few other seminarians needed to lose some weight so he formed a group that he called “We must decrease that He can increase.” I always thought that was a clever name for a weight loss group comprised of seminarians.
Jesus indirectly praises John the Baptist when he says, “Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father.” When it comes to acknowledging Jesus in this world, John the Baptist is the pre-eminent example. Jesus called him “The Spirit of truth.” John was both bold and relentless when it came to acknowledging Jesus. Jesus praises him saying, “Among them that are born of women there has not arisen a greater than John the Baptist.” Despite this praise, John remains humble. As he is baptizing folks in the Jordan River, he reminds them that one is coming who is greater than he is. In fact, the “one who is to come” is so powerful and amazing that John feels that he is “unfit to even untie His sandal straps.” John’s mission can be summed up by one word, “preparer.”
It was John’s happy chore to prepare the people for the coming Messiah. His role as preparer was announced by both Isaiah and Malachi who made it clear that one would be chosen to “prepare” the way for the coming of the “Messiah.” After being visited by the angel and recognizing the very special son who he and Elizabeth were to raise, Zechariah himself prophesied that John would be called “the prophet of the Most High” who would “go before the face of the Lord to make ready his ways.”
One of the ways that John made the way ready for the Lord was to communicate the need for repentance and to encourage people with the message of salvation. In his letter to the Romans, Paul explains that, “through one man sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all men, inasmuch as all sinned…” Long before Paul wrote these words, John the Baptist characterized the Lord as “the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.”
How do we feel about Jesus? Are we in awe of Him the way that John the Baptist appears to be? Do we consistently and passionately acknowledge Him? Are we in “awe” of Him? Do we believe that we must shrink before Him and allow Him to be far more important than we are? We may not need to lose weight, but we certainly need to decrease so that our Lord can increase in every aspect of our lives and our relationships.