Reading Luke 3: 7-18
Preacher Reverend Alan Sykes
‘It’s the rich what gets the pleasure, it’s the poor what gets the blame’. Not very grammatical words and not perhaps the whole truth about human life but reflecting a good dollop of what is actually the case.
And it’s not just the rich, it’s those with power and status who get the pleasure, or at least what passes for pleasure in ordinary human discourse.
And not just in our own day. It was ever thus.
And it was especially thus with kings – and queens. They had wealth, power and status – they were the very pinnacle of the social pyramid.
Not that being a ruler is necessarily much fun – often the reverse – but it did involve certain privileges.
In the ancient near east, for instance, when a king proposed to tour a part of his kingdom, he would send a courier ahead of him to prepare the roads.
It stands to reason of course that a king must be kept as comfortable as possible.
John the Baptist in his own way was also a courier of that ilk. In last week’s gospel reading we heard how he exhorted his hearers by quoting the prophet Isaiah:
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
John is telling his hearers to prepare the way of the Lord. And who is this Lord they’re to prepare the way for? Well, it’s just some carpenter from a provincial backwater called Nazareth. No wonder the kings and bigwigs of the time didn’t know what to make of John or Jesus.
Now John inhabits the wilderness. The wilderness represents the opposite of worldly prestige. It’s a place without luxury and without distraction – far away from the hurly-burly of getting and spending, far away from power politics, far away from the complexity and busy-ness that we seem all too willing to impose on our lives.
In this week’s gospel John tells his hearers to bear fruits worthy of repentance. Now, the Greek word in the gospels that is often translated as repentance is metanoia – as it is in our reading this morning.
These translations seem to be suggesting that repentance is what prepares our hearts for the coming of the Lord. Well, it’s certainly our hearts that need to be prepared.
But, so the scholars tell us, repentance isn’t quite the right word. There isn’t a right word. As so often with foreign languages there’s no direct equivalent in English. You’d think foreigners would be more considerate, wouldn’t you?
Metanoia is often translated as repentance, but it’s more than that – though not, we should note, less.
A more comprehensive definition of the word would be that it is a transformative change of heart. It’s that change of heart that will lead to a change of behaviour, but the change of heart is more fundamental.
It’s this transformative inner change that will prepare people to welcome Jesus rather than to ignore or even resist him. There’s an ethical side to it of course. There’s a social side to it. This change of heart prompts us to love fairness and justice and mercy, and to hate the way we’ve perhaps been behaving up till now, to hate the way that society behaves or perhaps the way it is organised.
John tells his hearers to reform their behaviour – whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; whoever has food must do likewise, and so on. But that’s all the fruit of metanoia, not metanoia itself. Fundamentally, John isn’t arguing that we should just replace a bad set of behavioural practices for a good set.
His prescription for our ills is a change of heart – an inner transformation – because our sickness is a sickness of the heart.
So can this sickness be cured? Well, we could just start behaving better – doing the sort of things that John tells his hearers to do whether we feel like it or not. A bit like when they say, if you’re feeling down, act cheerful and you’ll cheer up.
I suppose that might have a marginal effect but I don’t think it’s a real, deep, lasting cure.
Now this transformation is a deep and elusive thing but I think John the Baptist by his life gives us a couple of pointers. I’m not suggesting there aren’t other factors.
Firstly there’s humility. John doesn’t claim to be some VIP. He is what he is. He knows who he is and doesn’t pretend to be, or want to be, anything other than himself. That seems to me what humility is.
The temptation of course is to think more highly of ourselves than is warranted by the truth – but also to think more disparagingly of ourselves than is warranted. Both are a form of egotism.
If we know in our hearts that God loves us, we don’t need to pretend to be other than we are. We don’t need to be perfect. It’s the love of God we should be cultivating, not some ill-judged regard of ourselves and not some notion that God won’t love us unless we achieve perfection.
Our dignity comes from being loved by God, not from what we think of ourselves or by what other people think of us.
Now, humility is definitely one of those virtues it’s probably best not to think about too much. Certainly it’s not a good idea to keep on examining ourselves to assess our humility. That way an even deeper egotism lies. Humility is never something that we achieve. Expose ourselves to the love of God and it will just happen.
The second pointer that John gives us is the need to avoid distraction. We’re approaching Christmas and you probably don’t need me to tell you how distracted it’s possible to become.
But let’s face it. It’s not just at Christmas that we’re distracted. It’s a year-round thing. We actually seem to prefer it to not being distracted. I think we fear emptiness.
But John doesn’t. He goes into the wilderness. There aren’t many distractions out there. Life becomes amazingly simple – simple food, simple clothing and time to be with God.
It’s my profound conviction that we need to find a wilderness in our lives. I don’t mean literally going somewhere hot and dry, though that does have its attractions in the middle of an English winter.
I mean creating space in our lives without other things getting in the way – space in which we can put ourselves into the presence of God and allow his love to permeate our being and so transform us.
That’s how we experience radical humility and that transformative change of heart the Bible calls metanoia. That’s how we prepare the way of the Lord.