Sermon on the Synaxis of St John the Forerunner and Baptist
Delivered by Monk-Subdeacon Theodore
at Holy Trinity Cathedral
Jan. 7/20, 2020
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit!
“No rhetoric of the earthly-born can suffice worthily to praise thee, John the Divinely-praised; for the lips of Christ praised thee, calling thee higher than the prophets and the greatest of all born of women.” — Kontakion from the Akathist to the Holy Forerunner and Baptist John
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today, we, the earth-born, come to offer praise to Saint John the Baptist and it is indeed true that nothing we say can worthily magnify him. The holy Theologian John speaks of his namesake in his Gospel when he writes that there was a man sent from God; not simply a man, but as the Lord Jesus Himself says, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist. He, the last of the prophets and the first of the apostles, had the calling to be the crown of the prophetic witness of the Old Testament and the heralding of the New.
The prophets of old preached the coming Messiah using figures and shadows, while the holy Forerunner had the honor of pointing to Him in the flesh and boldly declaring: Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. Not only did the holy Forerunner show the sons of Israel their promised Messiah, but, in fulfillment of his father Zachariah’s prophecy that he would give light to those in darkness and the shadow of death, the holy Forerunner preceded Christ’s descent into Hades and preached the Gospel of the coming Saviour to those that lay lamenting in the dark emptiness of Sheol: “Behold! The Messiah walks the earth and soon comes to deliver us!”
...God calls for Truth, and Saint John unhesitatingly stood for the Truth and so should we.
Saint John had a further message, an eternal message that still speaks to all of us. His message is simply to Repent, repent and turn away from our lives of vanity, hypocrisy, laziness, and contentedness. Saint John calls us to a radical change of life – to take the Gospel seriously and strive to follow the path to salvation laid out by Christ the Lord.
The path shown to us by the holy Forerunner is an authentic life, a life which has that authenticity that many seek in our times but few find. The authentic Orthodox Christian life is built on the repentance that Saint John preaches. Good repentance leads to good fruit, fruit which is worthy of repentance as the Forerunner says. To quote Saint Nikolai Velimirovich: “fruit, fruit, and only fruit does the Lord seek from every living tree which is called a man. Good fruit is a God-loving heart, and evil fruit is a self-loving heart. Everything else that a man possesses and enjoys – position, honour, health, money and knowledge – are but leaves on the tree.” Saint John the Baptist bore much fruit – and good fruit it was – because in him dwelt the Spirit of God, Who granted him such grace and power to fulfill his prophetic and martyric life. He was fruitful because he was a branch of Christ, the true Vine. As the Lord says, I am the Vine, ye are the branches, and we branches can do nothing without our beloved Vine. What use is a branch without a vine? Does it bear fruit? Of course not! They are useful for nothing but firewood, as Saint John preaches: Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire; and, now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees. This axe is wielded by Christ Himself, Who judges our fruits on that dreadful day when He comes again to call all of mankind before His throne of judgement.
...the authentic Orthodox Christian life is built on the repentance that Saint John preaches.
The holy Theologian also says of his namesake that the Forerunner came into the world to bear witness to the Light, to be a martyr for the light, and in every sense the life of Saint John the Baptist was martyric. Orphaned as a youth, he spent his entire life striving in asceticism in the desert. Truly, he is the first of that legion of monks who provide us with the greatest examples of struggle and piety. In the desert, Saint John grew in virtue and manliness: he was no shrinking violet. The Lord asks us about the Forerunner, What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? Certainly not; the holy Forerunner was a man of strength, of courage, unshakeable in his conviction that God calls us to account for our wretched lives and that we must repent before him.
Saint John did not shrink or cringe before corrupt religious authority; he called those hypocrites a brood of vipers! Saint John did not back down before corrupt political authority, preferring to suffer in prison for the sake of Truth than to give even an inch to sin. To bear witness to the Light means to suffer for that Light: the Light comes into the world and is not received by the world; therefore those who follow the Light should expect to suffer for it. Saint John the Baptist’s martyric life calls us to live an uncompromised Orthodox Christian life, a life that does not settle for expediency, but is willing to undergo hardship for the Truth. Being uncompromising does not mean aggressively forcing our point of view on other people, or even, God forbid, our own opinions, as tempting as that might be. The world demands tolerance; God calls for Truth, and Saint John unhesitatingly stood for the Truth and so should we. No, being uncompromising is simply to humbly and conscientiously strive to maintain that which has been passed down to us by our elders in the faith — the Apostles and the Holy Fathers — and, when the occasion calls for it, to choose suffering over betrayal of our holy faith. Saint John stood his ground and was not shaken in the wind, preferring to be unjustly executed by a corrupt and deviant potentate than to tolerate his unnatural sins.
...to bear witness to the Light means to suffer for that Light: therefore those who follow the Light should expect to suffer for it.
The greatest born of women was murdered at the behest of a dancing girl; why should we, sinners all, even expect to have an easy life? Hardships may come and go but the word of God is eternal and we are told by the Lord Himself that he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.
...the world demands tolerance; God calls for Truth.
Fortunately, in our times of general weakness, our hardships do not come from violent persecution by the powers that be, but they still nonetheless come: mostly from our own negligence in the spiritual life, where we leave ourselves open to the tricks and deception of our common enemy, the devil; as well as our own passions, which overwhelm us time and time again. Yet again, we can look to the holy Forerunner and find in his words the way to the spiritual sustenance that will aid us in our struggles against the world and the passions.
He declares, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. The Holy Church today also declares to you, “Behold! Before us, on the holy altar is the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world! This is the Beloved Son, in Whom the Father is well pleased, receive ye Him!” The Lord has given us, and will give us until He returns in glory, the Mystery of His Body and Blood so that we might partake in His victory over the enemy. Saint John baptized with water, but the Lord Jesus baptizes with fire and the Spirit; let us therefore let the chaff of our sins be burnt away by the fire of the Holy Eucharist!
...let us therefore let the chaff of our sins be burnt away by the fire of the Holy Eucharist.
The holy season of Christmastide is at an end and the holy forty days of Great Lent draw near. As our Lord went directly from His baptism in the Jordan to His forty days of struggle in the desert, let us too prepare ourselves for our own journey into the spiritual desert, renewed and fortified by the Holy Mystery of the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, cleansed by the holy waters of Theophany, and assured of the prayers of Saint John, the Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist of the Lord, who continually intercedes for us before the throne of glory, whereupon is seated the Lamb of God, slain from the foundation of the world, Who promises us a place in the eternal kingdom where He is glorified unto the ages of ages.