Vespers for the Nativity of St. John the Baptist
A voice cries out in the wilderness, “Comfort.”
John was the last of the prophets; a greater is to come.
Dear Lord, we pray for the grace to bless you always and to welcome your counsel, which you set upon your hearts, night after night. May we hold you always before us, in the wilderness of our lives and in the midst of the people to whom you send us, knowing that, with you at our right hand, we shall not fall. Amen.
Hymn: Comfort, comfort ye Johann Olearius Hymnal 1982 #67
Comfort, comfort ye my people,
speak ye peace, thus saith our God;
comfort those who sit in darkness
mourning ‘neath their sorrows’ load.
Speak ye to Jerusalem
of the peace that waits for them;
tell her that her sins I cover,
and her warfare now is over.
Hark, the voice of one that crieth
in the desert far and near,
calling us to new repentance
since the kingdom now is here.
Oh, that warning cry obey!
Now prepare for God a way;
let the valleys rise to meet him
and the hills bow down to greet him.
Make ye straight what long was crooked,
make the rougher places plain;
let your hearts be true and humble,
as befits his holy reign.
For the glory of the Lord
now o’er earth is shed abroad;
and all flesh shall see the token
that the word is never broken.
O Lord, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us.
Psalm 85, 7-13
7 Show us your mercy, O LORD, *
and grant us your salvation.
8 I will listen to what the LORD God is saying, *
for he is speaking peace to his faithful people
and to those who turn their hearts to him.
9 Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, *
that his glory may dwell in our land.
10 Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
11 Truth shall spring up from the earth, *
and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
12 The LORD will indeed grant prosperity, *
and our land will yield its increase.
13 Righteousness shall go before him, *
and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. Amen
O Lord, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us.
The Old Testament Lesson: Isaiah 40:1-11
1 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has
served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she
has received from the LORD’s hand double for all
3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of
the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway
for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and
hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the
rough places a plain.
5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all
people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
6 A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass, their constancy is like the
flower of the field.
7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of
the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are
8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our
God will stand forever.
9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good
tidings; lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not
fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”
10 See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm
rules for him; his reward is with him, and his
recompense before him.
11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather
the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Hymn: The great forerunner of the morn Bede Hymnal 1982 #272
The great forerunner of the morn,
the herald of the Word, is born;
and faithful hearts shall never fail
with thanks and praise his light to hail.
With heavenly message Gabriel came,
that John should be that herald’s name,
and with prophetic utterance told
his actions great and manifold.
John, still unborn, yet gave aright
his witness to the coming light;
and Christ, the Sun of all the earth,
fulfilled that witness at his birth.
His mighty deeds exalt his fame
to greater than a prophet’s name;
of woman born shall never be
a greater prophet than was he.
To God the Father, God the Son,
and God the Spirit, Three in One,
praise, honor, might, and glory be
from age to age eternally.
The New Testament Lesson: Luke 1:57-80
57Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
59On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” 61They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” 62Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. 64Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
67Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
68“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, 70as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, 73the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.
78By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
80The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Homily: What Then Will this Child Become?
Someone who listened to last Sunday’s service wrote to me, as sometimes happens, to reflect upon it and its lessons. I always welcome feedback on anything I send to people via voice, text, or song, hoping that at the very least what I share is good, true, spiritually nourishing, and from time to time interesting. While the most popular thing I’ve offered during this entire season of quarantine has been the surprise appearances of our cats during worship, the prayers, the words of Scripture, or the preachment raise thoughts, questions, or ideas that people want to share. That’s always welcome.
This particular person, however, wanted to talk about the final hymn, W.A. Percy’s “They Cast Their Nets in Galilee.” Talk of hymns is always welcome, too. This one is set to a beautiful tune by David Williams called – and I have no idea why – “Georgetown,” which has a pleasant, pastoral feel. Hearing it, one would be forgiven, this commentator said, for thinking that the words to the hymn had a similarly pleasant meaning, but they don’t. “It came as a bit of a shock,” this person wrote, “to realize what this hymn is actually saying.”
I’ll reprint them here:
They cast their nets in Galilee just off the hills of brown;
such happy, simple fisherfolk, before the Lord came down.
Contented, peaceful fishermen, before they ever knew
the peace of God that filled their hearts brimful, and broke them too.
Young John who trimmed the flapping sail, homeless, in Patmos died.
Peter, who hauled the teeming net, head-down was crucified.
The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.
Yet let us pray for but one thing — the marvelous peace of God.
These people had relatively happy, simple, hobbit-like existences until Jesus showed up and turned everything in their world upside down. They left home, family, career (or caste role), and not a few of them died as martyrs – that is, were victims of torture and exile, and often of judicial murder. They knew, the hymn says, the peace of God – knew it filled, but also broke, their hearts. As befits one whom they remembered saying, “I come not to bring peace, but a sword,” his peace, though it might be a marvel as it passes all understanding, has about it the nature of a quarrel or strife that doesn’t end but merely pauses, perhaps for the last time. The phrase “strife closed in the sod” was to both of us ambiguous. “Does he mean that the strife is over, and is thus buried like a body, or that it’s just paused, and has therefore been planted, like a bulb or a seed, to emerge in all good time?”
I wrote back that I didn’t know, because I don’t. The hymn writer appears to have captured both senses in this hymn, and that may itself be the most powerful message. Jesus turned these simple people’s world upside down, and the chief gift he had to give – the peace of God – might involve just the slumber, not the defeat, of sin and death, of strife and wrong.
As we celebrate today the herald of his coming, John the Baptist, the one who cried out in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord” and “I baptize you with water, but the one who comes after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire,” this thought will not leave my mind. This man, too, turned people’s worlds upside down even before he was born, not to mention by how he lived and what he had to say. His father’s questioning about why he had to name him “John” led the Lord to strike the priest mute until he wrote the name down and confirmed it, which he did. Zechariah’s faithfulness ensured that the Baptizer’s name message and that of the Gospel of John, in which he appears very little, would ever be conflated, though it is the gospel and apocalypse writer John, not the baptizer John, who homeless on Patmos died. John the Baptist, by contrast, died in Herod’s jails, beheaded upon order of a besotted tyrant and his manipulative niece and sister, who were then served his head on a platter. You think, if that’s what preparing the way of the Lord gets you, I don’t know….
But that was the fate of the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth – the priest and his wife, making John the Baptizer the first PK [preacher’s kid] in the history of the Jesus movement which became Christianity – the first possible PK. He did better than most, we’d have to say, and seems to have caused his parents no grief, though quite a bit of surprise. The role he was born to fill, like the role Jesus was born, to fill, took some getting used to. As his father sang at his birth – let us for a moment imagine that Zechariah himself wrote the song that came at the end of today’s gospel – he was called “the prophet of the Most High,” the one who went “before the Lord to prepare his ways.” What did it mean to prepare that way, or those ways? Again, as it says in the gospel song – the Benedictus, the Song of Zechariah:
- to let people know what salvation means;
- to get them to understand their sins, repent them, and accept the Lord’s forgiveness of them;
- and to show them that a new day had dawned, giving light to people who sat in darkness and the shadow of death, and guiding their “feet into the way of peace.”
Peace – that word again – as well as salvation from our enemies, from sin, from death, and from wrong. That was the promise; that was the message, the good news. Everyone would see that salvation, as it was written in Isaiah, but they would also see an axe laid at the root of any tree that did not bear good fruit, and would have to live right, cheat no-one, rip no-one off, speak truth to power, and prepare to bow down when the Lord comes. Many were the happy, simple fisherfolk who heard John’s words and felt the water from his hands baptize them into repentance. Many where the happy, simple farmers and farriers, shepherds and soldiers, tax collectors and other sinners, hewers of wood and drawers of water, who heard his words, saw his robe of camel-hide and watched him make a meal of locusts and wild honey, figured he knew more than they did, and repented. See, John had grown to be strong in spirit, and did so in the wilderness, much I imagine to the consternation of his parents, who did not know about that part of his story before it happened, and must’ve wondered what he was up to when the boy left for the desert to wrap his mind around what the Lord wanted him to do.
We don’t know if they lived long enough to hear his preaching or receive his baptism, but I hope so. I hope that they lived long enough to see what their child became: a prophet as from the ancient world, a figure out of legend and hope, who would tell people impossible things: that the words of the prophet Isaiah were true. That comfort would indeed come to the Lord’s people, that they would suffer no more, than their debt was finally paid and their time of exile and waiting was finally over, that the Lord would tend to them much as they tended to their own domestic animals: feeding them, protecting them, even carrying them in his bosom. That a new day had indeed dawned, that light would shine, that darkness would flee away, and that they would walk in the ways of peace.
Peace – that word again. It would fill and break their hearts, too. It would be, as it always is, not the restoration of the earthly paradise, but “strife closed in the sod,” but good enough for now. It would come to people as something they feel, intuit, know in their guts – hence, “passing understanding” – even when, perhaps especially when, violence and strife returned, the wicked prospered and the good suffered, people like John lost their heads because people like Herod said they should, and people like Jesus lost their lives because people like Pilate said they should. It’s a peace that enables us to live in the world as it is, even as we speak out loud, shout out loud, struggle out loud to make it the world that should be.
But part of the message from Isaiah 40 is not quite captured in the tales about John the Baptist. I mean verse 6, in which “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’” It’s not clear if the words that follow are what the voice cries out, what “I” the prophet should cry out, or just things that are true. But they are true, and are meant to give comfort as well as hope, but only in a sense that I think that hymn I spoke of earlier would understand.
Isaiah 40:7-8 says that “All people are grass…[and] grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord is upon it….yet the word of the Lord will stand forever.” How a word “stands” is unclear, except in the abstract sense of “exists,” “abides,” “endures,” “remains valid,” which is what the writer most likely had in mind. The breath of the Lord withers the grass, and us, too – but it is also the source of that word, and the one we call The Word. Each religion that has God speaking scriptures, and all creation, into being holds that those scriptures, that Word of God, outlasts all flesh and the rest of creation, and that his word, his actions, his judgments are true and righteous altogether. Among those judgments we must, I think, hold the things that are and that recur, even when they are not pleasant or good or even peaceful – and pray for the peace by which to endure them and overcome them, and for words of comfort to speak to those who need it, as well as words of challenge for those who need that.
John the Baptist, John the Baptizer in his ministry gave people more of the latter than the former, I think it is fair to say. He might reply, however, that telling people a new day had dawned, that salvation was at hand, that repentance would work and forgiveness last forever even if no single life on Earth ever does, was comforting news indeed. He would be right to say so, if predictably challenging as he did it. The child who became the prophet who died too young but set Jesus on his way before he did so would’ve wanted it no other way, I suspect. May the peace he knew, and the challenges he spoke out loud, be with you on this day of his nativity.
A Statement of Faith, A Song of God’s Love (1 John 4:7-11)
Beloved, let us love one another, *
for love is of God.
Whoever does not love does not know God, *
for God is Love.
In this the love of God was revealed among us, *
that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.
In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us *
and sent his Son that sins might be forgiven.
Beloved, since God loved us so much, *
we ought also to love one another.
For if we love one another, God abides in us, *
and God’s love will be perfected in us.
A Collect for the Nativity of St. John the Baptist
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.
The Common for a Martyr
O Almighty God, who didst give to thy servant John boldness to confess the Name of our Savior Jesus Christ before the rulers of this world, and courage to die for this faith: Grant that we may always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us, and to suffer gladly for the sake of the same our Lord Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
A Collect for Vocation in Daily Work
Almighty God, whose loving hand hath given us all that we possess: Grant us grace that we may honor thee with our substance, and, remembering the account which we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of thy bounty, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
A Prayer for Mission
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.
Hymn: O Master, let me walk with thee Washington Gladden Hymnal 1982 #660
O Master, let me walk with thee
in lowly paths of service free;
tell me thy secret; help me bear
the strain of toil, the fret of care.
Help me the slow of heart to move
by some clear, winning word of love;
teach me the wayward feet to stay,
and guide them in the homeward way.
Teach me thy patience; still with thee
in closer, dearer company,
in work that keeps faith sweet and strong,
in trust that triumphs over wrong,
in hope that sends a shining ray
far down the future’s broadening way,
in peace that only thou canst give,
with thee, O Master, let me live.
Blessing and Dismissal
Go forth now in the power of the risen Lord, proclaiming the good news to all.
May the blessing of God: Father, Son, and Spirit, be with you to the cleansing of the world.
About Episcopal Worship and this Service
The Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist is a feast observed more in the breach – meaning that I’ve never been to a celebration of it, and it never really did take off in the life of the church. The first problem with it is the menu; the man himself lived, famously, on a diet consisting of locusts and wild honey. Even the best chefs in the world would struggle to make a festive meal using only those ingredients, though I suppose a menu that featured those two things prominently while still sustaining life in the manner to which we’ve become accustomed could be appealing.
John’s ministry was complex, short-lived, and important. It set the stage for all that Jesus would do, even if the man himself never lived to see it. He missed the triumph and the tragedy, the Sermon on the Mount as well as the trial and passion, and was not there that first Easter morning. He baptized the one who was greater than he, and saw with a prophet’s foresight, which is primarily a deep, honest understanding of what thew world really is, how it all would be.
John knew the Messiah, the Christ, and that was enough. Having awakened the people to their need for repentance and salvation, and bowed out quietly when that salvation appeared. He did not die for that, but for speaking truth to power in a way that it could not handle. Jesus grieved for him, but made sure everybody honored this good man, this last of the prophets of Israel, this herald of salvation and the world to come. In the womb, John leapt at the advent of the in utero Jesus; Jesus the man, some thirty years later, wept at hearing news of his murder in prison.
In his honor, let us always prepare the way of the Lord and make straight the desert a highway for our God.
We celebrate this feast this year with a daily office service of prayer, word, and song. This leaflet is designed for you to use on your own, in addition to being a guide to worship online. Feel free to adapt it as best suits your and your family’s needs.
The readings for this service, and the prayers you see, come from The Book of Common Prayer and from Enriching Our Worship 1 and 2. You will find links to these free resources below.
Resources (available for free online)
Book of Common Prayer, www.bcponline.org
Enriching Our Worship 1, https://www.churchpublishing.org/siteassets/pdf/enriching-our-worship-1/enrichingourworship1.pdf
Enriching Our Worship 2,
These three resources contain the prayers and worship services used in The Episcopal Church and by Episcopalians in their daily devotions.
The Revised Common Lectionary and Daily Office, https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/
This source shows the readings assigned for use in Sunday worship and for daily office use for each day of the year, with links to online Bibles.
The Episcopal Church: www.episcopalchurch.org
The Episcopal Diocese of Washington: www.edow.org
St. Mark’s, Fairland: www.stmarks-silverspring.org
A Prayer in Times of Sickness and Contagion
Heavenly Father, giver of life and health, source of all wisdom and peace: Comfort and relieve your servants who suffer from sickness or fear, give your power of healing to those who minister to their needs, and let your grace be with all those who work to protect us from contagion and disease. May we be strengthened against any weakness, sickness, fear, and doubt, and place our confidence in your loving care through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
 Hymnal 1962 #661.