Readings Isaiah 5.8-end, Acts 13.13-41
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
‘My people go into exile; their nobles are dying of hunger and their multitude is parched with thirst.’ Bad things happen in the world, so what makes the prophet Isaiah certain that these are signs of God’s judgement? In a very modern-sounding passage he tells us: people who are already rich add to their estates; they are happy to have God at arm’s length, and therefore they are under judgment.
Isaiah sees a very this-worldly judgement coming: because you have behaved like this within history, you shall feel the consequences within history. He would have been quite confident prophesying among the mayhem our economies have been through in the last five years, and he would certainly have had something to say about the children’s lecture here yesterday on climate change. He knows about greed and foolishness and their consequences, though what he sees coming tonight are not bailiffs and storms but battalions of storm troopers. s death: his preaching has upset the rich and powerful, especially the quisling king Herod, who locks him up and then kills him.
His influence persists, though. The book of Acts talks about groups of John’s disciples among the communities of the Jewish Diaspora. Even John’s gospel mentions him in those majestic words that form the climax of the Nine Lessons and Carols:
In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God…the word was made flesh and dwelt among us….[and then this]…there was a man sent from God whose name was John.
Why? It’s a bit like writing an epic poem about Churchill in the Second World War and putting in Neville Chamberlain. He had his place in the scheme of things, but even so… In the case of John the Baptist, there were plenty of his fans still about, people who thought that the Baptist (as another John would say of the Beatles) was ‘bigger then Jesus’, so perhaps the writer felt that he needed to put him – very respectfully – in his place.
But there may be another reason for hanging on to John, that has to do not just with the circumstances of the early Christian generations but with what we might call the Christian process in every generation. So the New Testament is saying not just, ‘The John the Baptist movement was strong at that time,’ but also, ‘and you always need John the Baptist before you can have Jesus’, just as each year you can’t have a real Christmas tree unless someone has first put the axe to it and cut it down.
John came, say Paul and his mission team in Antioch in the second reading, and proclaimed a baptism of repentance; and when his work was nearly finished he said: there is someone coming after me. John’s message was: this people is in a mess; it is called to be one thing but it is another; there is a big gap between what it stands for in theory – God’s chosen people, the instrument of God’s work on earth, and what it actually does. If John had preached in the US he would have liked the bumper sticker of the subversive artist Jeremy Deller: GOD LESS AMERICA. And (John continued) this is not just a thing that ‘they’ – the rich, the Romans – have done, it is a thing that each person shares in. He would have found a kindred spirit in Desmond Tutu, who preached in Soweto about how being oppressed made them oppress each other – ‘Nurses, teachers, ministers often treat fellow Blacks as if the did not count,’ he said; ‘We do not deserve to be liberated because we are so divided.’
So – repent: each person must come and receive the water of baptism, the cleansing of a fresh start. But how might it have looked when you came up, dripping from the river Jordan? What had changed? Your country was still a mess that was beyond your repairing, a few rich and many poor, a few big landowners and many landless, countless who were sick and who could not be healed; a country that Isaiah would have found depressingly familiar. And you were still the same person deep down, that jumble of things good and bad, virtues and vices, loves and lusts, of passion and indifference; and the bad stuff couldn’t be washed away like the dirt from a day’s work.
How could you achieve what was needed? How could you be the person you wanted to be? That would be the moment when you saw that, if things were to change, God would have to make the first move. And then you’d be ready to see Jesus as Good News, because around him things happened that seemed impossible anywhere else.
And so to tonight. The floodwaters of Christmas are about to burst through the sluices. There is already a serious leak, with three school and community Christmas events here last week. So this is a precious moment, before the bloatfest begins, to ask: to what question might the birth of Jesus be the answer? to what struggles (in the world, or in a single human life) does Jesus come with real good news? Let us ask ourselves, allow the questions to take shape. Where is my greed, deliberate or unthinking? Where is my indifference to God, my failures to give God time, my certainty that I have no time when I have as much as any person who ever lived twenty-four hours in a day? Where is my country standing for one thing but doing another?
Yes. I see now. I need to find another way. So do we all. But I suspect I am too dim to find it; too weak, too compromised to keep to it. And now t despair: I am the way. I’ll take you there.
Desmond Tutu From his Hope and Suffering, Collins 1983, page 52.
I am the way. I’ll take you there. From a song of John Bell, ‘Travelling the road to freedom’.