Advent 3, Sunday 11 December 2011 St Mary Magdalene, morning

Readings Isaiah 61.1-4,8-11; John 1.6-8,19-28

Preacher Canon Robert Titley 

December 2011 will go down as a historic month, but which city will top the historians’ list? Will it beDurban, because this was the moment the world at last began get serious about climate change? Will it beMoscowand its brave demonstrators, voicing hatred (as Isaiah puts it) of’ ‘robbery and wrongdoing’ in their nation and the possibility ofRussiawithout Putin? Or will it beBrusselsand the Cameron veto, on what turned out to be the beginning of theUK’s long walk tot theUKexit?

On the last, Italian PM Mario Monti put it pithily when he saidBritainhad gained freedom and lost power. Look to the future, and John the Baptist’s words come to mind, of a voice crying in the wilderness. The wilderness can be a bad place – who will listen to you from there? – but sometimes it is the only place from which certain things can be spoken. We shall see which it turns out to be for us inEurope.

We met John himself last week, in his animal skins and with his diet of insects and honey. He is the antidote to the tipsy, self-indulgent Ho, ho, ho! of Christmas – picture him alongside Santa Claus in the Coca Cola advert. You may agree that John is a worthy figure, admirable in the way he walks the walk (like an Occupy London protestor who actually stays in the tent overnight) but God forbid that you should ever be like him. In particular, you may think that John’s way is not the right way, that it’s always better to be in the room talking, not shouting from the margins. So how much does the Baptist matter? Well, he’s in all four gospels – today we see him in the gospel according to John – and I am going to suggest that, whatever path you prefer (and whatever your views on style and animal fur) he is the model for anyone – woman, man, young person – seeking to live in the light of Christ.

What we just had was a filleted version of John 1. We got verses 6-8, then a long stretch from verse 19. What about the rest? Come to the carol service next Sunday and you will hear it. Alongside homely and playful carols we’ll read the whole of this towering hymn that opens John’s Gospel, ‘In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God…’ Verse after verse rolls around the church: ‘…in him was life and the life was the light of all…the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not master it…’ and then you get this:

There was a man sent from God whose name was John…He himself was not the light,’ – so why drag him in then? – ‘but he came to testify to the light.’

It’s Jesus the Word of God we want to hear about, so why give airtime to this half-naked weirdo, only to say that he is not the main man? The writer no doubt had his reasons: for some people John the Baptist was as big as Jesus, and perhaps he needed to put John in his place. But what a place he gives him.

Today’s reading paints a picture of John the Baptist as a person who holds together a tricky combination, because he is confident without being self-centred. Many of us manage one but not the other: confidence can swell into arrogance, and unselfish people can flirt with wimpishness. You cannot deny that John is confident: he knows who he isn’t – I am not the Messiah, I am not Elijah – but he knows what he is. He is that precarious thing, ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord.’ He claims to be part – a big part – of God’s great plan: the words are from the mighty prophet Isaiah, and John does not hesitate to apply them to himself. Is he not rather full of himself then? No. I’m doing my baptising, he continues, and that is important, but the one coming after me, well, I’m not worthy even to lace his shoes.

Christian faith is very good at preaching about being unselfish, starting with those lessons about Sharing in what used to be called Sunday School, and churches generally score quite high on containing people who are not too self-centred. Good news, except when unselfishness shrinks into a kind of contrived humility, or when it drains away the confidence that we should feel, if not in ourselves then in the God who so generously showers us with gifts – gifts which we then pretend not to have. Do you know what I mean? Vicars and churchwardens are often asking people to do things – confident that they have what it takes – only to hear, ‘Oh no, I don’t think I could do that.’ Have you ever said that? How true was it?

On Friday I did my first shift as a Street Pastor. I was nervous, but it was chilly, fun and very rewarding. There were six of us, ordinary churchgoers, who chatted and tried to be helpful to the crowds of young people who provide the fuel forRichmond’s night economy. A number were curious about what we were for. When we tried to explain to one reveller, she said ‘Ah, you look after pissed people, then,’ which was pretty much on the money. One volunteer, somewhat older than I am, was just the person someone else needed to talk to. She was in a pretty merry office party group, but a friend’s funeral had just taken place and she needed to say that to someone who was glad to listen. I’ve asked a fair few people in our three congregations to consider the Street Pastor scheme and heard, ‘Oh, I don’t think I could do that.’ Wrong. Many of you could; and some should.

John the Baptist would not have made a model street pastor (‘No Preaching’ and gentle friendliness do not seem to have been part of his shtick) but the unselfish confidence that made him a brave prophet is what also makes a gentle pastor. By the same token, being a voice in the wilderness or a voice in the conference room, both paths have their pitfalls of egotism and wimpishness. Unselfish confidence is what God needs from us, whatever our path, otherwise we or others will make the running in a direction that God does not want.

How do you pull off this trick? It comes from the to-and-fro of worship, it comes from the habit of putting yourself – every day in private, every week in public – in the presence of God. When we do that, as we are doing now, we are not flattering God but acknowledging God, paying the attention that it is wise for a creature to offer to the one who is the source of existence. Worship reminds me that I am not the centre of the world. I might conceivably think that I am; more likely, I may behave as though I am, scared that if I am not the centre of attention I won’t really exist. Or I may work somewhere where I feel I have to play this game among the jostling egos, scared that, if I don’t, in these unforgiving times I really will cease to exist, professionally speaking. Either way, offering worship to God frees me from these illusions.

On the other hand, I may find it hard to admit to the significance I do have. I may find it easier to say John the Baptist’s first words ‘I am not…’ than to say what comes next, ‘But I am…’ If, however, I can just offer my attention to God, God can offer something back to me. It is my world, says God, and I give you a place and purpose within it, a place that no-one else can take, and a purpose which, if you do not fulfil it, will not be fulfilled. It was well put by John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman:

God has created me to do him some definite service. He has committed some work to me that he has not committed to any other. I have my mission. I am a link in the chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good. I shall do his work.

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