Almighty God, by whose providence your servant John the Baptist was wonderfully born, and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Savior by preaching repentance: Make us so to follow his teaching and holy life, that we may truly repent according to his preaching; and, following his example, constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.A prayer for the Feast of John the Baptist, June 24
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.A reading from the Gospel of Luke (chapter one)
In the early 16 th century, Matthias Grunewald painted an altarpiece for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, Germany. The monks of the monastery cared for plague sufferers, treating their skin diseases. In the center of that painting, the image of the crucified Christ is pitted with plague sores, showing patients that Jesus shared their afflictions. Google it. It’s grim. A graphic illustration of compassion, which literally means to suffer with. Imagine its impact in a hospital filled with folks suffering in inexplicable ways.
The altarpiece conveys the violence of the crucifixion. The suffering Christ is set in the middle, Mary Magdalene and Mary, Jesus’ mother to his right, and John the Baptist to his left. John the Baptist stands with arm extended, index finger pointing to Christ. For Barth, John the Baptist was key to interpreting Grünewald’s piece. “John the Baptist can only point” (Church Dogmatics, I/1, 125). The painting is not about John the Baptist. It is about Jesus. For Barth, witnessing means “pointing in a specific direction beyond the self and on to another” (Church Dogmatics, I/1, 111).
Karl Barth kept this picture of John the Baptist over his desk where he worked incessantly, writing theology about everything, day in and day out. Apparently the man never had an unexpressed written thought. Every morning Karl Barth would wake up, read the newspaper, and stare at this painting by Grunewald. Before he would teach theology or write, Barth would meditate on this painting, particularly on John the Baptist. He said that, as Christians (whether a theologian, pastor, teacher, mother, doctor, store keeper, etc.), our job is to be the pointing finger of John the Baptist. The only thing we should do, the only thing we can do is point to Jesus. Barth said that this scene painted by Grunewald is the sum of all history, from creation in the past to eternity. He said that we are that pointed index finger. He said that within that finger rests the weight of salvation.
Today is the Feast of John the Baptist, as eccentric character as can be found in scripture, and that’s saying a lot. At one point, Jesus said that there was no one greater born of woman than this guy. So what was the key to his greatness, a timely question in a world where we debate what makes us great? I think it has to do with this sense that he knew how to point. He had obvious gifts. He had a whole ton of followers. And he knew he was not the messiah.
In light of that, he becomes a model for us, teaching us how to make it through this week in late June. It has to do with remembering that we are called to point to Jesus. We are called to point to love breaking into the world. We are called to notice compassion, identifying with the suffering from which none of us can escape.
So how will you honor June 24, the Feast of John the Baptist? It seems to me that it will come with our creative response to this call, to figure out what it means for each one of us to point to Christ. We live in a world where grace and love are in dangerously short supply. We can point to Jesus in ways great and small. An act of kindness can point to Jesus. A blessing, spoken or enacted, can point to Jesus. A prayer of hope can point to Jesus. An identification with the pain of the world can point to Jesus. You get the idea. Go for it.
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
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