Readings Isaiah 40.1-11, Luke 1.57-66,80
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
They asked, ‘What manner of child shall this be?’ The child whose birth we celebrate today will grow up to become a ‘hairy, half-naked, vegetarian desert-dweller;’ not my words but those of the Jewish historian Josephus (no fan of John, it seems). He continues, ‘He really was a most peculiar creature, hardly like a man at all. The whole object of his life was to show up sin in its true colours’.
John was to gather many followers, but we must ask, Why? Who would be attracted to such a figure, with his judgement and his condemnation and (if you know the story) his weird dress sense? Who would prefer John to, say – Jesus, with his good news of forgiveness and love?
John the Baptist seems rather a pre-Christian figure; and that is just how the Gospels portray him: self-consciously incomplete, pointing forward to the one who comes after him, whose sandal (he says) he is not fit to untie. In life and in death John is the forerunner of Jesus: like Jesus he has his band of disciples, like Jesus he will die a martyr’s death; and as with Jesus, so with John, there is something remarkable about his birth, as we hear this evening, though in John’s case the angel brings the promise of a child not to a young virgin but to an aged couple. Throughout his life then, John is the precursor of Jesus, and so is his message: law must come before grace, judgement before acceptance, conviction before forgiveness, John before Jesus.
So it was then. And as we read the opening to Luke’s gospel, with John’s birth coming just before that of the loveable baby of Christmas, there is a question for us: Do not we also need the Baptist before we can have the Christ? Can there be a gospel of love and forgiveness, unless you first hear of law and judgement?
Read the Prayer Book collect for this day, with its request for help to ‘rebuke vice’, and you may say, was ever another request so little required? For most of its history the church has not needed much encouragement to rebuke what it saw as vice. How much has the church down the years obscured the gospel of God’s love with its moralising, its readiness to condemn? And yet. There is no gospel at all if Christian voices only ever soothe, and say nothing but, You’re OK, I’m OK and All is Well.
‘The whole object’ of the Baptist’s life was ‘to show up sin in its true colours’. How negative; how unchristian. No, not unchristian, but pre-Christian, and a healthy place to begin: first let us be shown the destructive ways of life which shackle us; then we can hear the good news of freedom. Or in the combative words of the Puritan Thomas Watson: ‘Till sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet.’