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Homily on the Holy Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist John

An Excerpt from Of Whom the World was not Worthy

by Protopresbyter James Thornton

We end our series of discussions on the Patriarchs and Prophets with the Holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist [1] John, a towering figure who bridges the Old and New Testaments and who reveals, more precisely than his forebears, the object, the aim, the goal, the purpose of the preceding two-thousand history of the Hebrew people: namely, the advent of the Messiah, the God-man, the Savior, Jesus Christ. That was so since, as Saint Nicholas of Ochrid and Zica writes, Saint John “especially differs from all of the other prophets in that he had the privilege of being able, with his hand, to show the world Him about Whom he prophesied.” [2]

To discover the miraculous origin of Saint John the Forerunner, we read the following account in the opening pages of the Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke: “There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years. And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest's office before God in the order of his course, according to the custom of the priest's office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense. And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth.” [3]

The Angel further promised that the soon-to-be-born son would be filled with the Holy Spirit “even from his mother’s womb,” [4] and that he would “go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” [5] Saint Zacharias, stunned by the appearance of a Holy Angel and by the news that his wife would bear a son despite her advanced age, was somewhat incredulous. He answered with the words, “Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years.” [6] In other words, what you say seems impossible for a man and wife so old. The Holy Angel responded, “I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings. And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season.” [7]

Saint Zacharias, staggered by his vision, came out of the inner Temple. Just as the Holy Angel Gabriel had said, the Saint could not speak. And, sometime later, his wife, Saint Elisabeth, who was a cousin of the Most Holy Theotokos, conceived. Nine months later, the promised son was born. Her friends and kinsfolk rejoiced at God’s mercy, at the miracle that had allowed a woman well along in years to bear a child. When, eight days after his birth, the infant was to be circumcised, neighbors gathered together for the occasion. It was assumed by all that he would be given the name Zacharias, after his father, however Saint Elisabeth announced that he would be called John.

Saint Luke’s Gospel relates, “And they said unto her, There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. And they made signs to his father, how he would have him called. And he asked for a writing table, and wrote, saying, His name is John. And they marvelled all. And his mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed, and he spake, and praised God.” [8] Saint Zacharias sang a hymn of thanksgiving to God, saying about his new son, “And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” [9] The Gospel tells us that “… the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel.” [10]

We next read of the Saint, at the beginning of his prophetic ministry, that “the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness. And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” [11] Saint Nicholas of Žiča writes that Saint John “was of such moral purity that, in truth, he could be called an angel. [12] It is evident that from the time Saint John was of sufficient age to understand he chose the path of purification from all evil, which path leads to spiritual enlightenment of the things of God. Saint Matthew refers to his asceticism, noting that he “had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was shoots and wild honey,” [13] which reminds us of those rugged and God-loving men of later ages, the Desert Fathers. Thereby purified, his mission was to prepare the Judæan people for the message that would be brought forth by Christ Jesus, who was soon to begin His own public ministry.

Saint John’s preaching gained a significant following. Great throngs of people journeyed to wilderness around the Jordan River to hear his words and to undergo his Baptism. The Saint spoke bluntly, as the Holy Prophets are wont to do, calling his listeners a “generation of vipers,” [14] and warning them of God’s wrath and the need to repent, that is, to turn completely away from sin: “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” [15] was his relentless admonition. The people, much moved and impressed, suggested that perhaps Saint John was the Messiah, but the Saint rebuffed them, saying, “I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire.” [16]

Let us turn for a moment to the subject of the Baptism of Saint John. Saint John’s Baptism was a symbolic, or ritual, act of purification, signifying that the person immersed in the waters of the Jordan had chosen to repent and had committed himself to turn around his life towards God and away from sin. Thus, Saint Paul refers to Saint John’s Baptism as the “baptism of repentance.” [17] It was not the same as the Holy Mystery [i.e., Sacrament] of Orthodox Christian Baptism, which, in addition to cleansing the person being Baptized of all sin, mysteriologically infuses the Grace of God into that person, making him a member of the Church, an adopted child of the Almighty, and an heir to the Kingdom of Heaven. So it was that in the earliest days of the Church, those who had been Baptized by Saint John were required nevertheless to receive the Holy Mystery of Christian Baptism. [18]

At the very beginning of His public ministry, Christ Himself underwent Saint John’s Baptism, though He was sinless. He condescended to do so as an act of humility and as an example to the people of His concurrence with the preaching of Saint John. When Christ approached Saint John to be Baptized, the Holy Forerunner first exclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” [19] Holy Scripture explains that Saint John was at first reluctant to Baptize Christ saying that “I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?” [20] His exclamation upon seeing Christ, and his words of hesitation at the notion that he should Baptize Christ, tell us that the Saint, enlightened by his life of purity, knew exactly with Whom he was speaking. Yet, Christ Jesus insisted, and the Saint complied. Holy Scripture describes the event as follows: “Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: and lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” [21]

Saint John was as outspoken as the Holy Prophets of earlier centuries, since his mission was one of obedience to God to preach God’s word, whatever the cost. Consequently, he was not the least hesitant to speak against Herod Antipas, the Roman-appointed Tetrarch (ruler or governor) of Galilee, when Herod took as his wife Herodias, the former wife of his half-brother, Philip (whom she had divorced), and the daughter of another of Herod’s half-brothers, Aristobulus. Such a union was plainly incestuous, according to Mosaic law. Since Herod was nominally of the Judæan religion, his marriage to Herodias caused tremendous scandal, and so the Saint commenced preaching against this marriage publicly. Herod was enraged, and ordered the Saint seized. He would have liked to have had Saint John executed at once, but, aware of the Saint’s popularity among the people, imprisoned him instead. The Tetrarch then made an unwise, indeed a reckless, oath.

Saint Matthew records: “But when Herod's birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod. Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask. And she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptist's head in a charger [a platter]. And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath's sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her. And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison.” [22] So it was that the vengeful, vicious, and scheming Herodias brought an end to the life of the last of the Holy Prophets.

Saint John the Theologian writes of the Holy Forerunner in these words: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.” [23]

He bore witness to the Light that is Christ, the first and unique witness of that Light. He was followed by countless witnesses, who witnessed for Christ by their words and deeds, many giving their lives for Christ’s sake (the word “martyr” in Greek, [“mártysmeans witness).

We, all of us, are called upon to be witnesses to the Light. That is why we are Christians. To call oneself a Christian but to fail to witness for Christ is an exercise is futility, a waste of time, since the Church was not founded for purposes of entertainment, or to preserve certain ethnic cultures, or for any other secular purpose whatever. It was founded to teach each of us a particular way of life, a life in Christ, to teach it to each of us and to guide us in living it. Anything less than that is sheer emptiness, without spiritual content or meaning. Therefore, my beloved Children in Christ, be mindful of what it truly means to be a Christian, a follower of Christ. Learn from the Holy Scriptures and from other spiritual works what Christ asked of you when He brought you into His Church, what He asks of you now, and what His Way of Life requires. Then, assiduously follow that prescription for everlasting happiness with Him.

Endnotes

  1. That is, the “Baptizer,” one who Baptizes (from the Greek “Baptistes”).
  2. Prologue, Vol 1, p. 34. Saint Nikolai Velimirović, The Prologue of Ohrid: Lives of Saints, Hymns, Reflections and Homilies for Every Day of the Year, trans. Fr. T.Timothy Tepsić, ed. Fr. Janko Trbović, the Saint Herman of Alaska Serbian Orthodox Monastery, and the St. Paisius Serbian Orthodox Monastery, Vol. I, January to June (Alhambra, CA: Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Western America, 2002), p. 28.
  3. St. Luke 1:5-14.
  4. Ibid., 1:15.
  5. Ibid., 1:17.
  6. Ibid., 1:18.
  7. Ibid., 1:19-20.
  8. Ibid., 1:61-64.
  9. Ibid., 1:76-79.
  10. Ibid., 1:80.
  11. Ibid., 3:2-3.
  12. Saint Nikolai Velimirović, The Prologue of Ohrid , Vol 1, p. 28.
  13. St. Matthew 3:4.
  14. St. Luke 3:7.
  15. St. Matthew 3:2.
  16. St. Luke 3:16.
  17. Acts 19:4.
  18. See Acts 19:5.
  19. St. John 1:29.
  20. St. Matthew 3:14.
  21. Ibid., 3:16-17.
  22. Ibid., 14:6-10.
  23. St. John 1:6-8.

From Of Whom the World was not Worthy: Sermons on the Lives and Works of the Patriarchs and Prophets of the Old Testament, by Protopresbyter James Thornton (Etna: CA, Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 2010), pp. 185-191. Posted on November 12, 2010.