St. John the Baptist. Sermon by the most blessed Metropolitan Vitaly (Ustinov)

Today we celebrate the memory of a great Saint. And not just a great Saint, the greatest of them all! This has been witnessed by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself who said that among all the saints "that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist". [Matt. 11:11]  And nevertheless, the greatest Saint, the greatest of them all, suffered death by martyrdom.

Our Lord on many occasions refers to the devil as the "prince of this world".  What is the meaning of this?  That this earth, on which we live, has already been condemned.  That the people of this world belong to the prince of this world, that is to the devil.  All of this is absolutely clear from the Gospel. [1]  And (almost) everyone who lives on this earth, whether baptised or not, is as though his citizen, of this prince of this world. [2]

The only difference is that we, those who are baptised, have the possibility to set ourselves completely free from his citizenship [3]. We do have this opportunity indeed, because the Grace of the Holy Spirit granted to us by The Holy Church in Baptism abides in us.

However, do you remember the warning given to us by the Lord in His parable about talents? When "unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one" [Matt. 25:14-30]. And the one "which had received the one talent" [Matt. 25:24], had returned it.  The talent was returned. The talent was not put into use.  This (parable) is a terrifying warning for us - should we fail to profit from the Grace of the Holy Spirit given to us in baptism; should we fail to develop within it and make this light into a flame.

This is a warning to all those who are baptised. And it is a dire warning.

As what did the Lord say to the man who had returned his talent to Him? He called him a "wicked and slothful servant" [Matt. 25:26]. And this is how He will name every so-called Christian. Those, who have received, during Baptism, and had this Grace of the Holy Spirit, but have never put it to use and failed to fill their whole human nature with it.

Therefore, beloved brothers and sisters, Christians, the reason you were given the Grace of God is to internalize it as much as possible, and to achieve Holiness.

"Ye shall be holy" for your Heavenly Father is Holy [Levit. 19:2]. This is a Commandment, not simply advice. God does not give advice, God gives Commandments. Every word of the Gospel is a Commandment, a spiritual guidance [4].

Be Holy, as your Heavenly Father is Holy.  How can we achieve this?  To enable us, the Lord has left us His two gifts. 

First, His Teaching contained in the Old and the New Testaments.

One should never diminish the significance of the Old Testament. As the Lord said [5], and according to the Teaching of the Church [6], the Old Testament is all about Christ's Church. The entire Old Testament points at the expectation; at the aspiration of the Coming of Christ. This is its only meaning. The Old Testament Church knew that He will come as a man - that He will be the God-man. This aspiration was so intense that a woman who did not have children would be reproached. She would consider herself the last of all - as being excluded from the providence of God about the Coming of the Saviour.

And so, beloved brothers and sisters, the Lord came and left us His Gospel, His Teaching. However, if the only thing He would leave us would be The Teaching, that would be a terrifying teaching for us. Terrifying by its unreachable height, by its seeming inaccessibility.

Therefore, in addition to the Gospel, the Lord leaves us His Church. And He is making a very important statement about it: "I will build My Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it ". [Matt. 16:18]

How is this possible? First of all, because Christ Himself is always invisibly with the Church [Matt. 28:20]. But can Christ be defeated? Of course not.

However, a man can be defeated. So, what is the demon's goal? - To tear away as many people as possible from this Church, so that he can defiantly say to Christ: "You see, all these people, they are baptised, as it seems. But you know yourself that they are all mine".

This is what the devil wants to be able to say to Christ, achieving this through his strategy of generating endless numbers of churches. Why? - because the devil knows, out of his own experience, that the Church of Christ burns him. He gets burned by the Church of Christ all the time.

The Life according to Gospel, the salvation is "impossible for a man" as God Himself said, however, "with God all things are possible" [Matt.19:26-27]. Therefore, the way to God is through His Church. The Lord administers the Mysteries for Salvation only in the Church, only in His True Church. Not in 390 churches that all call themselves Christian, while preaching absolute nonsense.

All of those, starting from Catholicism to Protestantism, and to all other schisms and sects, are not Churches. Each one calls itself "a Christian church"; we do not argue with them, so as not to offend or insult them. We are also referring to them as churches, but we do know in our mind, that these are not The Church. We know this assuredly. We will never go to these churches - not for Communion, nor for Confession, as we will not receive anything. We know this through our inner knowledge.

The reason why the devil is generating all this multitude of churches, is to overwhelm the True Church, to make it indiscernible. Indeed, the True Church scorns him, irritates him, unbearably irritates him and his followers.

He knows that those Christians who will cleave to the Church, would be able to fulfill the Gospel's Commandments in their lives. This scares him, because that means that they repudiate his citizenship with the help of God - that they do not belong to him anymore.

And this is the moment when the struggle begins.  A person who starts minding his salvation is the person who begins resorting to God's Grace abiding in him, and to God, asking Him for help, for salvation. In other words, asking for deliverance. The deliverance from what? From his own passions, from his own sins, and from the prince of this world.

The fact that a man begins praying for that, of course, enrages Satan, drives him into his own madness. He completely loses any self-control when he sees a single person who discards his citizenship, and that he does not belong to him anymore.

This is when the struggle begins. It is the moment when a Christian starts his spiritual life. Now, that he is fighting for himself, for his salvation, he feels a terrible struggle within his own soul. This struggle is, unquestionably, with the devil.  A spiritual man can see that the devil is for real. This is a no joking matter.

However, the devil has convinced this whole semi-believing world, that he simply does not exist. This is, indeed, his outstanding achievement! He has totally convinced the majority of people that he is just a fairytale! Try going out in the street right now and speaking about the devil. No one believes in him. They will call you a mad-man and will laugh at you.

So, beloved brothers and sisters, the spiritual life begins from the moment a man starts contemplating; making a sincere effort to pray, asking God to cleanse his heart. It is from that moment that a fierce battle begins. All kinds of lies, defamation and accusations suddenly attack this person. He feels like he is on fire.

Even his friends, those who are indifferent to their own salvation, will be directed by the devil against him, even his close ones will attack him.

On the other hand, those who have chosen the same path, do understand quite well what exactly is going on.

And so, beloved brothers and sisters, this is the beginning of the spiritual life. There are whole books written, totally dedicated to this subject. The complete "Philokalia" is about this. All Holy Fathers write about this, i.e. how to live your spiritual life.

However, although the battle is furious, the devil cannot really do anything. When he feels that this person became free of all the passions - when the devil senses the emptiness of his dwellings in this person's soul (and his dwellings are our passions, our sins, our inclination to sin); when he feels that those are non-existing, he simply cannot tolerate that. This is when he starts considering murder.

So, here we have John the Baptist, who has reached this supreme state of passionless and Church [7] Holiness, as witnessed by the Lord Himself. John rejoiced in his mother's womb when the Mother of God came to visit his mother. And from that moment on, the devil could not tolerate his presence on Earth.

In the same manner, the devil could not also tolerate Christ: "That man must be destroyed." Why? Of course, we know that the Lord had allowed the devil to destroy Him. The Lord has voluntarily chosen the path of His Passions. Nothing on Earth happens without the God's will. And God has allowed the devil this opportunity.

How could that be? According to the Holy Fathers' teachings, the devil did not know that Christ is Lord. He has seen Moses; he has seen many saints that have resurrected the dead. So, for him, there was nothing new. For example, prophet Elijah had resurrected a dead person and many other righteous men have performed amazing miracles.

Moses has divided the Red Sea and the whole nation crossed it at its bottom while the water was standing. This is not some tale requiring (modern day) explanations based on stretching idioms meanings or some absurd logic. The Holy Scripture is very direct: "the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left" [Exodus 14:22]. It's not that only the winds of incredible force caused the sea to retreat [Exodus 14:21] [8]. The Holy Scripture tells its story with an absolute accuracy and every word is an absolute truth. When the Scripture said that "the waters were a wall", this is exactly what it means. Moses did this by God's might.

Therefore, there was nothing new for the devil that Christ was resurrecting the dead. The only thing that irritated him was that in Christ he did not have any dwelling. There was nothing in Christ that would belong to the devil [John 14:30]; unfortunately, we cannot state the same about ourselves. That bothered him.

So, at last the devil decides: "He needs to be murdered". For this purpose, he has as many screamers at his disposal as he needs. They were all shouting "Crucify, crucify him", and there was a demon standing behind each one of them.

Christ saw all of this with his divine eyes. But His warfare was not against these wretched people that were crucifying Him. For them, He was praying: " they know not what they do" [Luke 23:34]. His fight was against Satan, to conquer him.

And so, the devil had finally crucified Christ.  He has crucified Christ, and there he is, standing and waiting. Satan knows that all the dead, including the righteous men, all of them are going to hell [9].

Can you imagine that moment? With his fiery eyes, all huddled up in his gruesome expectation, he is watching Christ, who is about to leave His body, and thinking "Finally, he will be at my place, in Hell".

And... A horror of horrors! God Himself emerges from the body...  This is an ultimate defeat.  This is what we celebrate every day by reading the Ninth Hour [10], a very important Service, never to be omitted. This is the victory of Christ and the complete defeat of demon.

So, who did he crucify? He has crucified the God-Man. As a result, God Himself descended into Hell, and all those who were expecting Him in the Old Testament, all the righteous people who were waiting for the Saviour, have exited Hell.

(The decent of God into Sheol) is our Holy and Great Saturday, the Great Sabbath.

And so, today we are celebrating the memory of St. John the Baptist.  He has achieved the highest level of Holiness... [11].  Let us pray to St. John the Baptist, so that he helps us to profitably complete our Christian life, fighting for our soul.  Not all of us, of course, can join the ranks of Martyrs, but there is also Confession for the Faith. This takes place when we get defamed, scolded, dragged through the mud. It is also a kind of Martyrdom.

Help us, God, to endure all of this, once we engage on the True Path of the True Salvation.


(Around 1996-1998)


[1] Those people of this world [John 8:23; John 15:19] who, following their own passions [1 John 2:16], accept the "prince of this world" as their ruler [Ephesians 2:2] (and thus "belong to the devil").

[2] Except those few, of course, who were able to steadfastly resist any temptations since the moment they have emerged from their baptism waters.

[3] This sermon is for those of us who have already renounced Satan at the time of the Holy Baptism, however keep forgetting of the never-ending invisible warfare, and in our laziness neglect fighting the worldly spirit pulling us away from our Lord and into the abyss.

[4] The Russian word "zapoved' " as used here has several related meanings, the two appropriate ones are used in this translation.

[5] " Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil." Matthew 5:17

[6] " the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. " Galatians 3:24; "For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect." Hebrews 10:1

[7] Of the Old Testament Period of the Church

[8] Metropolitan Vitaly is denouncing the modern secular mass media's purely physical explanations of the events during the Exodus (that aim at negating God's direct involvement witnessed through miracles).

[9] The word "hell" in the Old Testament means Sheol, the underworld.

[10] Celebrated daily at about 2:00 PM

[11] The highest possible in the Old Testament Church