Advent 3 – The Baptist
Today we light the third candle on our advent wreath, all candles counting down to the birth of the Christ. From the patriarchs who formed the people into a nation from a nomadic people, realizing the special relationship God chose to have with them in a covenant of grace, through the prophets whose lives largely were spent calling the self-same people to repentance for their inability to uphold their end of that relationship, with all the calamity that brought on the people time and again. Not sharing the love and protection they received from God, instead they sought other Gods, forgot the needs of the poor and sick, the widow and orphan, and sought riches, abused the poor and the foreigner, and showed themselves in the process truly ignorant of the revelation of God’s goodness that had been entrusted to them in the 10 commandments and the writings of the Pentateuch and the spirituality of the Psalms.
John can be seen as a bridge figure, in appearance and habit and message as much the last truly OT prophet, but yet the herald of the Christ, the initiator of his ministry, the person more than most who marked in their own lives the great change that the birth of the Christ had effected, but which had gone largely unnoticed as that small child grew. And think on this a moment, these two men were second cousins, born months apart, born to women who for various reasons were shocked as well as gladdened to know they were on their way. Born into modest village life, they no doubt played together, were schooled together, perhaps learned their trade together. Theirs’ was a small world, they would have known and been known by almost all the same people. So it is astonishing that John somehow comes to the understanding that his cousin Jesus is in fact the long awaited Messiah, the Christ, and more than that is prepared to risk the mockery and the incredulity of all who knew him to start a ministry himself preparing the way for Jesus to be revealed to his people. He retreated to the beautiful though imposing and daunting Judean wilderness, and there lived a sparce life of prayer, fasting, living on little, owning nothing, and meeting people only to call them to examine their lives, and find there a huge need for a fresh start, a radical change, what is called a repentance. And they came, they flocked to this enigmatic young preacher, whose appearance in rags and a fleece, whose sincerity and simplicity gave authenticity to his words. He initiated a ritual washing, what we now call baptism, which symbolized the wiping clean, and fresh start that he believed all needed to make. It cleverly combined elements of Judaism, the need for spiritual and ritual cleanliness, and would become the single most important sign of having accepted the Christ as Lord and Saviour, the one thing that still today, despite our diversity and divisions, still holds together the followers of the Christ. And it was to the river Jordan that Jesus himself, after having wrestled in the Judean desert for 40 days and nights comes to be baptized, to begin his public ministry, to allow God to speak and his cousin’s faith in knowing who he truly was, all to become reality. For his troubles he lost his life to the spite and vengeance of a young woman who caught up in the immoral world of the court of Herod was in no mood to change or to be told what to do by anyone. So barely aged 30 the Baptist is killed – possibly a rival with St Stephen for the crown of proto-martyr, but that is another sermon…
So far this is all mostly known to us, and great story though it is, recounting it each year might seem a little repetitive. But I want to contend that there is a great deal to learn here. I think firstly it is easy to forget that the journey of faith remains a difficult one. Increasingly it isn’t easy for people to tell those around them that they are a Christian, or that they attend church or say their prayers. John was brave enough to follow his own path, listening to the voice of God, no doubt wishing it wasn’t calling him to that particular job, but following nonetheless. For various reasons Christianity at least in this country gets a very rough deal. It seems, at least to me, that the media, can understand that people who follow another world religion have faith as part of their lives. Christianity isn’t seen in the same way, and despite attendance countrywide topping a million most weekends, it is painted as a dying, marginal, eccentric sort of thing. An unwillingness to admit that it remains a central part of our national life, our ethics, our laws, our sense of history of who we are, has been somehow diluted on the altars of other social theories, and so to profess faith as a young person is harder than it ever was. We are blessed to live in a richly diverse land, and one where religions are still kept faithfully, where they matter in the home, the family and inform decisions, morality and the desire to lead a life worthy of our calling. People who follow Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism and so on still have a space to profess their faith, it is considered part of who they are, why on earth do we accept a public narrative that picks away at the validity of Christianity at the very same time? It is still a time that calls for the bravery of a John, among people who will no doubt mock.
Then there is the key issue for me, how did John manage in such a short time to present his message in a way that made people not only want to listen, but want to flock to hear him, and to accept the baptism, that fresh start he had to offer. I believe without a doubt it was because he was authentic, he lived out what he spoke of, there was no doubting that even if he was wrong, he meant it from the bottom of his heart. Which is why it is so dispiriting when we have leaders who seem to think that authenticity means nothing. The morality of telling the truth, being open and honest, believing that the electorate deserve the highest standards from those who govern them is nonnegotiable. The past years have seen a rise of populist leaders who play fast and loose with truth and honesty, with moral propriety and trustworthiness. And as John showed, this isn’t something we can let pass without challenge. Because if we cease to take these things seriously what is left? There is such a thing as truth, there is such a thing as wrong doing, and we must hold ourselves and our leaders to the highest standards, because when we accept less than that, the spiral downwards is too frightening to contemplate. The world is in great need of more John the Baptists, the call for repentance is still needed so much. People will not listen to those they know are either untrustworthy, or duplicitous, authenticity thank God still truly matters.