May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.
OurGospel reading shows St John the Baptist declaring that Jesus is the Lamb of God. The scripture readings we have in our services Sunday by Sunday are, of course, small fragments taken from the whole. And it is therefore generally useful to look at the passages that come both before and after in order to get a clearer understanding of what they are telling us by placing them in their immediate context. This Sunday in particular I think there is much to be learned by looking more closely at the context in which our reading is set.
So what comes before the cousin of our Lord's declaration? St John the Evangelist first tells us of how the religious leaders of the day came to the Baptist and asked him if he were the Messiah or perhaps one of the great prophets returned. And he emphatically rejects that suggestion, saying that he is merely the one who prepares the way for the Messiah, one who is greater than he, one whose sandal he is not fit to untie. Next we come to our passage for today, where St John both identifies Jesus as the one he was preparing the way for and explains how he knew who he was: he had seen the Holy Spirit descending upon him from heaven from above – the very sign he had been told by God to expect. Still dealing with today's reading, on the following day the Baptist again points Jesus out to people; and this time some of his disciples leave him to instead follow Jesus. One is St Andrew, who will become one of the Apostles. They in turn bring more people to Jesus who also become his followers. St Andrew brings his brother Simon, whom our Lord names Peter. He, of course, we know will not only become an Apostle but he leader of the Apostles. And then in the passage that follows, the other bookend to our reading for today, more of St John's followers become followers of Jesus: first St Philip, whom Jesus personally calls; and then Nathaniel, whom Philip goes and brings the one he knows to be the Christ.
So if we were to give a very brief summary of these three passages, it would be something like: St John is asked if he is the Messiah and says he is not; he points out to others who the Messiah is; and these others leave the Baptist in order to follow the Christ. It is very much along the lines of what St John prophesied later, that he must grow less even as the one he prepared the way for grew greater.
But let us consider the temptation faced by St John in the first passage. He has a great many followers. Many wonder if he might be the Messiah. The religious leaders have come to him to ask him this very question. What if he were to say 'yes' to their questions, affirm their suspicions, and claim to be the long-awaited Messiah? He is already doing good work, with so many coming to him and repenting of their sins as a result; could he not do even better work if they thought he was the Messiah? More would come, more would repent; surely that would be a good thing? Would not the lie be worth the result?
A great temptation surely. One would almost wonder if Satan himself did not put it into the minds of the religious leaders to ask him the question for this very reason, to persuade the holy man that God's work would be advanced by such a deception. But the holy man knew that only the truth, the full truth, serves God. And so he resists the temptation, even though he knows it will cause him to lose many followers and grow less in the eyes of the world. Because the salvation of souls does not lie in deception but in Truth. And truth is not to be distorted.
This is a mistake that many make today. They think that what the Church has always taught must be changed for the modern ear, that the teachings must be made to conform with the expectations of the world around us. This a huge error, because the truth does not change; and therefore as God's people we are called to make the world conform to what the Church teaches, not make Church teaching conform to what the world wants. Some think they will make what the Church teaches more relevant by bringing it more closely into line with the values of the world; but the fact is they only make it less relevant because who needs a Church that simply confirms that whatever they want to do is right, that agrees with on every point, that never challenges them in any way to lead the life we see Christ calling us to in the Gospels? The answer is, of course, no one.
And this is why St John resisted the temptation to place earthly glory for himself by falsely donning the mantle of the Messiah and instead stuck to the plain but hard truth. The irony is, if he had yielded to the temptation he would be largely forgotten. Outside of the Gospels he is remembered only in what is essentially a footnote in a work by the Jewish historian Josephus; and the only reason anyone reads it today is because of its associations with the gospel message. Had he gone down the false road of such a temptation there might be a handful of historians specialising in that era who had ever heard his name; there would have been no lasting fame or glory in yielding. But that is always the way of what Satan offers. He is the father of lies; and all one every gets for dealing with him is misery. But St John did not yield. He kept to the truth, even though he knew he would grow less in the eyes of the world as a result. And his name has shone done the ages, immortalised in the pages of the Gospels and in the hearts of Christians. And, more importantly, his fidelity won him the glory of being a saint in heaven. It is that glory that all here should hope for; but it is a glory that can only be won by faith to the word of Christ whatever the cost. I pray that all here will be able to pay that price; for however much it seems, it as nothing when one considers that what buys is eternal life in heaven. Amen.