Nativity of S. John Baptist. June 24, 2018. Saint Andrew & Saint Margaret of Scotland, Alexandria, VA
Isaiah xl, verse 1 – Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Father Roddy and I when planning today agreed that I would preach, as I normally do on parochial visitations. We noted how after 15 or 20 years of preaching the round of epistles and gospels becomes very familiar. Neither of us checked out the calendar, or we would have noticed that June 24th is one of those relatively rare occasions when a major feast displaces the normal such-and-such Sunday after Trinity. So today my text is not from a usual Sunday epistle, though it is a very familiar verse. In fact this is the famous verse which begins the 40th chapter of Isaiah, which itself is a particularly important chapter at the beginning of a particularly important section of the Old Testament. The theme of the text is ‘comfort’.
The word ‘comfort’ has changed its meaning greatly since 1611 and the King James Version of the Bible. In our own day, ‘comfort’ means to soothe, to console, or to ease. Think of a mother comforting a crying child or of a tired man gratefully settling into an easy chair. But the word has at its root the Latin fortis, which means ‘strong’, as in our words ‘fort’, ‘fortitude’, and ‘fortify’. A fort is a stronghold. A fortified wine is one strengthened by additional fermentation alcohol content. In this older sense, ‘comfort’ means to strengthen, to sustain, or to encourage.
Father Gavin Dunbar in Savannah, some years ago provided a wonderful illustration for this change in meaning in the word ‘comfort’ with one of the panels of the great Bayeux tapestry of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. Panel 54 of the tapestry shows Bishop Odo, William the Conqueror’s brother, who was probably the man who commissioned the tapestry. In this panel Odo is waving a very large staff at some soldiers or squires. The text reads, Hic Odo Episcopus baculum tenens confortat pueros. That’s pretty easy Latin. ‘Hic Odo Episcopus’ – ‘Here Bishop Odo’ – ‘baculum tenens’ – ‘holding a staff’ – ‘confortat pueros’ – ‘comforts the lads’. Now I would be willing to bet that if you were one of the lads getting pushed along by a bishop with a big old stick you would not think of easy chairs or soft beds. The bishop most certainly was encouraging or fortifying or strengthening the troops, and in older usage that was comforting. Notice that in this case the older meaning of ‘comfort’ is almost directly opposite to our modern meaning.
So back to Isaiah. When God says to the prophet, ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God,’ what is meant? Well, if you know anything about Old Testament prophecy, then the truth is that often the prophets really were rather like Bishop Odo with his annoying, poking, pushing staff. But if we read today’s lesson carefully we find both senses of the word ‘comfort’ present here. We don’t have to decide between them, because both are meant in this case. God wants the prophet to comfort Israel in the context of national defeat and demoralization and exile. He wants to console a defeated people and soothe their embittered spirits. But God also wants Israel to be ready to respond to his call. God will ‘gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young,’ as Isaiah puts it later in the chapter. That work is comforting in the modern sense. But God also calls his prophet and people to ‘lift up th[e] voice with strength, lift it up, be not afraid’. That is comfort in the sense that embraces Bishop Odo and his staff.
We read this lesson today on the feast of the birth of Saint John the Baptist, because the gospel associates this lesson with John. Isaiah 40 is quoted by Saint Mark at the very beginning of his gospel by way of introducing the preaching of Saint John the Baptist: ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ (S. Mark 1.3) These words about the voice in the wilderness are found in Isaiah 40 and Saint Mark 1 both. John the Baptist came preaching the Kingdom of God in the wilderness, which preaching brings judgement of sin but also promise of forgiveness and redemption. It is this preaching that God calls in the text ‘comfort’. The Baptist is very much a character illustrating both aspects of comfort. For the sinners to whom John brought baptism and forgiveness, his preaching is consoling, a gathering up the lambs and the ewes. But for those who reject God’s kingdom, John is the fiery denouncer, the wild man of the gospel, the prickly and uncompromising preacher, the strange prophet eating bugs and honey in his animal skins. John not only is one who ‘speaks comfort’ to God’s people, as Isaiah is told. He also is the one who prepares ‘the way of the Lord’ and made ‘straight in the desert a high-way for our God’. John is the Forerunner, the prophet in the desert whose preaching and baptism point to Christ.
In today’s gospel the people ask, ‘What manner of child shall this be?’ John’s conception and birth were attended by strange doings which are recounted in a way that self-consciously harkens back to the Old Testament. John’s nativity is similar to that of Samson and Samuel, two other prickly and fairly dangerous Biblical characters. Since John’s mother, Elizabeth, had difficulty in conceiving, and only became pregnant very late in life, his birth is really the last in a long line of Biblical conceptions to women who were old or apparently barren. Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Manoah’s wife, and Hannah, all had experiences similar to that of Elizabeth. John therefore stands at the end of a line reaching from Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Samson, and Samuel. John’s birth shows him truly to be the last of the Old Testament heroes and prophets. In that respect John’s birth looks backwards.
But after John’s birth in Saint Luke 1, we turn to our Lord’s birth in Saint Luke 2. In both cases an angel announces the wonderful, unexpected conception. In both cases pregnancy follows in ways that contradict the normal course of things. In both cases there is a nativity. In both cases the birth is greeted with hymns. In both cases the child is named with special significance. John’s birth looks backwards to the Old Testament and its heroes, but also and even more significantly it looks forward to Christ. John is the hinge, the pivot on which the two Testaments turn. And the pivot is comfort in its double aspect of consoling and strengthening.
Today I seek to comfort you, both by sermon and by sacrament. I seek to challenge you to repent your sins and to turn from your sloth. I want to give you a little nudge. Bishop Mark joins Bishop Odo. But also I want to console you, to give you the Bread of Heaven to strengthen you on your journey as you seek to live out the gospel in your life the rest of this week. Be comforted. Be consoled. Be eased. Rejoice in the birth of this child and in the joy he brought his aged parents. But also be strengthened, be strong, and be challenged: for this child is the Forerunner of judgement as well as salvation.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.