Preacher Revd Neil Summers
It was way back in the 1970s that I went on a pilgrimage to Israel, but there were several experiences that will always stay in my memory. One of them was the journey through the wilderness of Judea towards the Dead Sea. The wilderness was a place of stark, yet awesome beauty; mysterious, silent, lonely and potentially dangerous for the unprepared, with searing heat by day and penetrating cold by night. Historically, it was inhabited by wild animals, and it was also the semi-permanent home of some fairly unusual human beings. Now, people who have the courage to be different, and celebrate their eccentricity and – especially perhaps – those who carry just a hint of risk, are always a source of fascination and interest. And if the description in this morning’s gospel reading is anything to go by, John the Baptist seems to fit the bill.
Matthew’s gospel tells us that John ‘appeared’ in the wilderness, and what a stirring, startling, even terrifying, sight he must have been. He may already have spent quite a lot of time there, perhaps as some sort of hermit, because he emerges as a wild man, dressed in animal skins, and eating locusts – the food of the poor, incidentally – washed down with wild honey. John is, in many ways, the figure who bridges the gap between the Hebrew Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) and the Christian New Testament. He was the first truly prophetic figure since Malachi, some 400 years before him, so it had seemed as though the prophetic line had come to an end until John appeared. I suspect John, like the other prophets of Hebrew history, was not an easy person to know, partly because of the unconventional character he was, but also, like all good prophets, because his message to people was uncompromising and demanding. Indeed, he seems deliberately to have set out to make his contemporaries feel uncomfortable. To that extent, not much has changed in 2000 years; John’s message is still difficult to hear and even more difficult to put into practice. ‘Repent’, he says. In other words, change your mindset; turn things around – including your own lives – towards God, ‘for the kingdom of heaven is near.’
In one way, it is odd that John’s call to repentance comes in the season of Advent. The gospel indicates that he appeared just prior to the start of Jesus’ public ministry, which began when Jesus was about thirty years old. So, we have been fast-forwarded at least twenty years, probably more, after Jesus’ birth, to this encounter with John the Baptist. On the other hand, though, John’s message seems remarkably appropriate for this season before the celebration of Jesus’ birth, as we prepare once again to receive the gift of one who was to usher in a new kind of humanity, and who led people to envisage God and religion in totally new ways.
As we all know, Christmas always arrives early in the shops, and the lights in our streets are routinely switched on even before Advent has begun. As Christmas gets closer, the school nativities, church carol services, the putting up of trees, the Salvation Army playing in the street and the first trickle of Christmas cards bring about a sort of magic and excitement, as the familiar rituals begin to kick in. But in the church calendar, Christmas isn’t here yet. In the midst of all the seasonal jollity, the call of John the Baptist can sound rather sour. He seems a bit of a killjoy who invades the comfortable nativity scenes we are starting to build, and his message jars with our comfortable religious lives and certainly with the secular environment. The word of judgement isn’t really what we want to hear, and yet John insists that we must take notice. His call is harsh and it is urgent. To the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious professionals, he said, ‘You brood of vipers! Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’ ‘Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ Strong stuff, this judgement. In the same way, John’s call to repentance echoes through the centuries to today’s religious establishment. It challenges us to hold up a mirror and take a long, hard look at ourselves and our motives. It doesn’t simply ask us to look at wrong deeds committed or good deeds omitted, important though they might be. This call goes even further and asks us to undertake a root and branch examination that may well prove to be very radical. That’s why the church gives us four weeks to do it (as if even that is enough!). It is one of the two main penitential and preparatory seasons of the Christian calendar.
Religion can become a rather comfortable thing. It can also be practised comfortably; compartmentalized and tamed, made to fit in with the rest of our lives. When that happens, religion is in danger of losing its edge; it ends up having very little practical impact on our everyday attitudes and actions. It is easy to accept the comfort and consolation of religion; it is also easy to sideline the radical nature of the change that the advent of the child of Bethlehem puts before us.
Perhaps John, the wild and woolly prophet – a non-conformist if ever there was one – could act as an inspiration to today’s world, society and church. We may need to re-examine the ways in which we operate. Uncomfortable as it may be, we might need to listen to voices from the margins, those cries from the wilderness we can too easily dismiss as a bit wacky. There are voices calling from the edges of our world today, from contemporary wildernesses, from the prophets of the 21st century. A very recent example might be the Bishop of Burnley, who, in the Church Times on Friday, called for the Church of England to ‘dismount its middle class bandwagon and reconnect with the dispossessed working class’. In the light of the political upheavals this year, particularly Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, the bishop argues that before we decry the collapse of the liberal consensus, we need to pay proper attention to the voices of those whose votes have caused these revolutions, whether or not we like what we hear. The people of Richmond voted in perhaps a slightly surprising way last Thursday, to which the bishop might respond that the leafy suburbs (as we are routinely caricatured) need to hear the often unheard voices of the estates and the inner cities. The church needs to play its part in seeking to heal the divisions in our nation. On the radio this morning, there was a service celebrating the 90th anniversary of the SMITF Christmas Appeal. This church, with a high worldwide and national profile, and which is The Queen’s parish church, nevertheless has at its heart a social and community ministry, especially among the homeless and destitute. A prophetic church indeed.
Those who question and challenge our culture, values and priorities, and who hold up to the light the way we conduct our affairs politically, socially, economically and – yes – also religiously, must be heard. And so must their message that we prepare the way and turn things around to enable the peace, justice and bias towards the poor and the outcast that will be the call of the child soon to be born among us once again.