Sermon: There’s a Crack in Everything (for St. John’s Day)

At our late service on Sunday, June 24, 2007, the local lodge of Free and Accepted Masons will be joining the congregation. Masons do this once a year in many locations. On what the church calls “The Nativity of St. John the Baptist,” which Masons call “St. John’s Day,” they gather as a lodge and attend church together at one particular place. Because I am a member of the local lodge, I’ve been asked to host this corporate worship event and have invited my brethren to join the congregation. We will use the lessons of St. John’s birthday commemoration instead of the regular lectionary texts: the Gospel lesson is the story of John’s birth, Luke 1:57-80. In addition, we are also baptizing a little girl named Hannah.

Bartolome Esteban Murillo, Birth of John the BaptistThe commemoration of the birth of John the Baptist is sometimes called “the little Christmas” because in celebrating this feast we are celebrating Christ’s Incarnation.

Both holidays are feasts of light. The birth of Jesus is observed on December 25 at the time of the winter solstice, while the birth of his forerunner is observed six months earlier at the time of the summer solstice. A popular custom in many countries on this day is the kindling of “St. John’s Fire,” a huge bonfire which symbolizes Christ the Light. As the fire burns, the celebrants dance and sing around it. One commentator refers to the singing as “an indispensable part of the festivities.”

Perhaps that is because John’s birth was greeted by his father, Zechariah, with a song of praise to God. You remember that Zechariah was informed by the angel Gabriel that he and Elizabeth would have a son in their old age but Zechariah wouldn’t believe the angel, so he was deprived of the power of speech until it came to pass. In today’s Gospel then, we heard the story of his tongue being loosed and his first words, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel….” the song of praise which has become the church’s morning song, sung at the Daily Office of Morning Prayer for many centuries.

It has been said that the releasing of Zechariah’s voice at the birth of John has the same significance as the tearing of the veil of the Temple at the crucifixion of Christ. That veil or curtain has been described this way:

The curtain before the Holy of Holies was “40 cubits (60 feet) long, and 20 (30 feet) wide, of the thickness of the palm of the hand, and wrought in 72 squares, which were joined together; and these Veils were so heavy, that, in the exaggerated language of the time, it needed 300 priests to manipulate each…..” (Brian Schwertley, God’s Commentary on the Finished Work of Christ, Part 1: The Torn Curtain (online), citing Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah.)

The purpose of such a heavy curtain was to separate the Shekinah or divine Light of God from the people who were considered by Jewish tradition as unfit to see it. Only the High Priest could enter the Presence. According to Luke, the temple curtain tore during a time of darkness:

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. (Luke 23:45-46)

The sun’s light failed, but the divine Light of God poured into the dark world in dramatic fashion. The rending of the Veil then symbolizes the coming of that Light, and though nowhere near as dramatic, so too does the loosening of Zechariah’s tongue. Like the rip in the heavy temple curtain, Zechariah’s recovered speech is a crack allowing light to shine in the darkness.

As I thought about that, a song came to mind. Not a religious song, per se, but one that I find loaded with religious meaning. It is by the Canadian singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen and is entitled Anthem. These are the lyrics

The birds they sang at the break of day
Start again I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what has passed away
or what is yet to be.
Ah the wars they will be fought again
The holy dove She will be caught again
bought and sold and bought again
the dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

We asked for signs; the signs were sent:
the birth betrayed; the marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood of every government –
signs for all to see.
I can’t run no more with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places say their prayers out loud.
But they’ve summoned,
they’ve summoned up a thundercloud
and they’re going to hear from me.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

You can add up the parts but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march, there is no drum
Every heart, every heart to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

The birth of John the Baptist was a crack in the darkness, one of those cracks in everything that let the light get in. He was to be the voice crying in the wilderness, the prophet who would condemn those “killers in high places say[ing] their prayers out loud,” the thundercloud they had summoned up whose rolling boom announced the coming of the Light. They had been asking for a sign and the sign, John the Baptist, was sent.

One commentator has suggested that John marks a division between the old and the new:

John, it seems, has been inserted as a kind of boundary between the two Testaments, the Old and the New. That he is somehow or other a boundary is something that the Lord himself indicates when he says, The Law and the prophets were until John. So he represents the old and heralds the new. Because he represents the old, he is born of an elderly couple; because he represents the new, he is revealed as a prophet in his mother’s womb. You will remember that, before he was born, at Mary’s arrival he leapt in his mother’s womb. Already he had been marked out there, designated before he was born; it was already shown whose forerunner he would be, even before he saw him. (Marcellino D’Ambrosio, Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist, online)

I believe this author is on the right track, but I would suggest that rather than a boundary between the old and the new, John represents a break in such a boundary, a breeching of the barrier, a crack in the wall through which the Light began to show.

We have all been radiated by the Light which John announced, and like John we have the mission to extend that Light to the ends of our world, the end of our abilities, and to the end of our time. Jesus told his followers: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:11) What this means is that you and I have ministries like John’s, and ministries even more important than John’s. John was born to make known the coming of Jesus. We are born for the remembering of his life, death, Resurrection and Ascension. We are born to announce that he lives today and gives new birth and new life to everyone. We are born to break open our world, to be the cracks in everything that let the Light of God shine in.

The Baptist was given the name “John” by divine command. The angel had said to his father, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.” (Luke 1:13)

In the Bible, naming is part of the creative process. In the first chapter of Genesis, God calls each element into being and gives it its name:

God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. *** God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. (Gen. 1:3-5,9-10)

Genesis tells us that humankind participates in this creation. Adam shared in the creative process; we are told that he “gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field.” (Gen. 2:20)

Names disclose the reality of things. Names establish relationships and make possible communication and communion. To know a name makes it possible to address and call upon another in a personal way. In the biblical tradition, name and mission are linked. Thus, changed realities require changed names, and new realities require new names. God calls people to mission by giving a new name, for example, Abram (“exalted ancestor”) is renamed Abraham (“ancestor of multitudes”) and Sarai (“my princess”) becomes Sarah (“princess of the nations”) (Gen. 17:5) and Jacob (“held by the heel”) becomes Israel (“the one who wrestles with God”) (Gen 32:29; 35:10).

In the story of the Baptist’s birth, the name given Gabriel is confirmed by his father: “John” (Yohanan in Hebrew) which means either “God is gracious” or, simply, “God’s grace.” And, indeed, John’s mission is to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, the ultimate expression of God’s gracious light for all humankind. As the Evangelist John says:

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:6-9)

So names are important, John is born to be the forerunner, the harbinger sent to announce the Light of God’s grace in the coming Jesus, and is given a name to signify that mission. Today, we baptize Hannah M________ S________. Hannah is a Jewish name similar to John; Hannah means “grace.” Let us pray that God will give her, and all of us, the grace to shed the Light of Christ in our world, for indeed, we are all born for the remembering of Jesus’ life, death, Resurrection, and Ascension. We are all born to announce that he lives today and gives new birth and new life to everyone. We are all born to break open our world, to be the cracks which let the Light of God shine in. Amen.

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