Sunday, December 5, 2010

Advent Two: John the Baptist

Jim and Tammy: Prophets of our time?

Our Gospel this morning presents the raw, rustic personality of John the Baptist, the striking forerunner of Jesus the Messiah. John serves as the principal preparer for the coming of a new age where God’s will reigns in the lives of those who are his followers.

I quite fancy being John the Baptist. Well, not the lack of hygiene, the diet of locusts or the camel dung obviously: we’re talking prophetic-lite here for me. In my darker moments the idea of having a rant – you know, taking people on one side and spelling one or two things out to them very clearly - really appeals to me. For John to have done that in the conviction that he did so with the authority of God must have made him a formidable force and a troubling character if you happened to be at the receiving end of his righteous indignation.

How easy to abuse that position: how easy it would be for a latter day prophet to rage against the world the flesh and the devil … and to get it wrong, which is probably why I’m not called to the role of prophet. Recent history gives us many examples of those who called themselves prophets having been brought low by scandal. Do the names Morris Cerullo, Jim & Tammy Bakker or Jimmy Swaggart ring any bells? The job description of prophet doesn’t include any clauses whereby the individual makes vast amounts of money or privately indulges in the sort of sexual gratification he rails against in public or undertakes meanspirited acts of vengance. No: the prophet speaks the word of God to his or her generation regardless of personal cost. John’s life was entirely dedicated to God out there in the desert. There are few of us who can claim the same.

Oh yes: proclaiming judgement can come a little too easily to some of us which is why we shouldn’t do it – at least not unless we are absolutely sure we have God’s mandate. How many times have you listened to someone calling down Hell and damnation on some topic or other and then thought “No. Not in my name?” The next time you’re in the city centre, instead of scuttling by the street evangelists, just stop and listen for a while to their “prophetic ministry”. Is this the God you worship? Do you recognise him in what they say?

We Lutherans talk a lot about the distinction between Law and Gospel in preaching, but we talk about it in the context of balance. Too often I hear the Law preached and not the Gospel there outside Harvey Nicholls and Marks and Spencers in the city centre. Oh yes, John the Baptist is most definately the template for such preachers but he could only proclaim the law: the Gospel was not yet come but he knew he had to prepare the way for it. To hear some of our street preachers you’d be forgiven for wondering if the Gospel ever had come. Old Testament Christians, Leviticites. I'm often worried that Christianity has perfected the art of judgment but hasn't properly pointed to the One who really does the judging. That One who is, of course, the same One who does the saving.

This season more than any other points out the gap between our inner lives and our external behavior. John the Baptist points to the gap between our rhetoric and our behaviour. His is the voice of the Law, showing us our sin and calling us to bear fruit worthy of repentance. Repentance is, of course, part of the Christian journey, and it's part of getting ready for Christmas. God is coming and all of us probably need a little light shed on our darkness. But if we're going to be really honest this Advent season, we probably need to recognise our tendency to judge rather than repent; our willingness to play the role of John the Baptist pointing out the sin of the world; and our propensity to enjoy that role. After all what's Christmas without a little complaining about all those Christians who only come to church on Christmas Eve? What's Christmas for the lazy preacher if not moaning on about the materialism and the commercialism of the season?

Back to John for a moment. The people started to come, first in dribs and drabs and then in their hundreds and then in their thousands. All these people came to hear him preach. Walking miles out from their cities, out into the wilderness to listen to this desert prophet: that’s a long way to walk for a sermon.

These people came out into the desert to him preach. They came from all walks of life and included amongst them some of their religious leaders – who he manages to insult for their insincerity - and even Herod, their King or his spies. They came not because his sermons were witty or clever; not because of the wonderful music group or old favourite hymns; not because they had some desire to see old friends that they hadn’t seen all week; not because of some childhood habit of being at worship, a habit that they couldn’t kick. No.

The vast majority left their cities and walked miles out into the desert because they wanted to see a rare phenomenon. They wanted to see a man who had been totally immersed in God, whose soul had not been corrupted by life in the cities, whose personality had not been fouled by the compromises of life. They didn’t want to be tantalized; they didn’t come to be entertained; they didn’t come to hear some fashionable religious wisdom. They wanted to hear an authentic Word from God for their lives. The message of this desert prophet was essentially one word. Prepare. In the wilderness, prepare for the coming of the Christ. John’s message is based upon the nearness of the “kingdom of heaven”. His call to repent or to turn from wickedness prepares the way for that kingdom. It urges a fatally flawed people now as then to wrestle their attention away from the concerns of this life and to direct it instead toward the approaching age of God’s Righteousness. This is what qualifies John as “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” who prepares the way for the Lord.

Of course we have the benefit of hindsight: we know how the story unfolds and this influences our responses to the story. John was a disturber: just look at the way he speaks to the religious leaders. We’ve not walked miles to hear the voice of a challenging preacher but to what extent do we recognise the deeply disturbing nature of John’s teaching? We know we are preparing for the nativity. We know we are about to celebrate the coming of the infant Jesus, our saviour, but to what extent do we really view ourselves as being those in need of repentance? To what extent do we recognise our sinfulness? To what extent do we really want to be disturbed by such an uncompromising message? Come on folks, we’re in the run up to Christmas. Let’s not spoil things by getting heavy.

Matthew’s presentation of John the Baptist as the forerunner of the Christ of God concludes with the announcement that one more powerful, more worthy, more Spirit-filled, more fiery is on his way. This One will come as judge of the world, to be sure, but also as saviour. This portion of the preparation, therefore, is both warning and hope, fear and faith, condemnation and redemption, law and gospel.

Has it occurred to you what our responsibility is here at this time? Yes, I’m afraid we’re back to my desire to be John the Baptist. Except we’re all called to be John the Baptist preparing the Way of the Lord. Perhaps our role is not on this occasion to do the ranting and the judgement – after all we’re not outside Marks and Spencer’s – but instead to do the preparing: to talk to those we know and care for about the meaning and the implications of the coming nativity. It may come as a surprise to some we know to discover that the true meaning of Christmas is not the Only Fools and Horses Christmas Special repeat on Christmas Day, BBC 1 at 8.00pm.

When I talk to people who aren't interested in the church, it's almost always because they believe that the church is more interested in judgment than it is in salvation. We've communicated really clearly about sin but not so clearly about the love of Jesus. What an indictment of churches down the generations. We've given the impression that our sinfulness is more powerful than Jesus, who is the heart of God beating in the world. The one who is coming is more powerful than I, even more powerful than my ability to keep him away. It is only the relentless and ongoing announcement of love's coming that will inspire anyone to change and to live from its power. Preaching judgment is the easy part but the Gospel is primarily about saving the world. What John points to is the God who is not willing to stand by and wag the finger of judgment, tossing the unrighteous into unquenchable fire. It's a God who is willing to enter the burning chaos of human life and save it. Jesus is the one who enters into the heart of human life, takes into himself all those things that separate us from God. He steps into the gap between our inner life and our external behavior. His work ends, not in self-righteous satisfaction at letting those sinners have what they deserve but on the cross when the power of sin and separation and self-righteousness is overcome. This is what John is telling us to prepare for but he is also telling us that we should, in our turn, help others to prepare.