Text: Luke 3:1-6
In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“You can choose your friends but not your relatives.” I wonder if anyone ever said that to Jesus about his strange cousin John the Baptist? Luke introduces this challenging character at the beginning of his Gospel. He seems to appear out of nowhere — the solo voice of one crying in the wilderness. His dress and diet speak for themselves in other Gospels he is described as wearing a leather girdle — camel’s hair — locusts and wild honey. He seems totally lacking in social skills — devoid of diplomacy as he launches a message of doom and gloom. He is not my type, I have to be honest, and, I imagine he is not your type. He is the ultimate loner — the original rugged individualist — the desert prophet — yes, the voice of one crying in the wilderness.
We can easily forget that John the Baptist was the product of good nurture. His parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, were both of priestly lineage. They were elderly, and, no doubt, it was difficult at times to understand their independent son. We do not know when and why John left home. He was raised, however, by solid, spiritual parents in the traditions of the faith. He knew the pilgrimage, the people, and the places of his Hebrew roots. Luke connects him to his heritage by quoting from Isaiah in his introduction. His dress was identical to that of Elijah, the forerunner prophesied by Malachi. That prophetic voice had been stilled for centuries until the Baptist aroused people from their spiritual sleep with his clarion call. He was the fulfillment of the old, and prepared the way for the new.
As today we consider the prophets foretelling the coming of the Messiah, so our Gospel brings us the last of those prophets: the bridge between Old and New Testaments: John the Baptist. He was the prophetic hinge connecting the past and the future by what he did in the present. This was a man of God who knew his place.
We live in an age of immediacy — instant foods, instant winners with our lottery mentality, instant information from the Internet, instant gratification in the drug culture. There is little loyalty to the past nor sacrifice for the sake of the future. To live for the moment is the prevailing passion — to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity. I believe we are fast losing the sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future.”
There is little loyalty in the workplace. Our language gives us away when we speak of “headhunters,” “corporate raiders,” and “hostile takeovers.” Few sportsmen (footballers especially) remain with the teams that signed them. You can change your electricity or gas supplier and even they suggest your Bank in an instant, and quicker than we can swap brand loyalty between Coffee Shops that pay their tax and Coffee Shops that don’t. The consumer makes choices based on present needs with little thought for the past or the future.
John the Baptist, conversely, was a man of history: well connected. Well acquainted with the prophecies of the past, he knew his place in the present as he pointed and prepared for the One who would be the future. Never take his sacrifices for granted. The Gospel we hear this morning affirms that his message, however stern, struck a responsive chord. The crowds came — his congregation grew, but immediately when Jesus begins to preach, John withdraws to the wings — the spotlight shifts: “He must increase — I must decrease.” There is not one trace of jealousy, one ounce of envy. He knew his place; he was not the way — he would prepare the way.
Two of the ten commandments have to do with coveting: speaking out against the accumulation of stuff, of power, of influence. So often envy and jealousy spoil the efforts of people because they cannot sacrifice for, nor celebrate their successors.
The message of John the Baptist was loud and clear; repent, change. It will not be back to the future. It will not be more of the same. It will not be business as usual. The old will give way to the new. Isaiah said it this way: “Cease to dwell on days gone by and to brood over past history. Here and now I will do a new thing; this moment it will break from the bud. Can you not perceive it?”
Last week I travelled to a theological college in Oxford: Ripon College Cuddesdon to speak of mission, of outreach and discipleship, and most especially how that must change our outlook if the Gospel is going to be heard in current and subsequent generations. The prophetic, forward-looking voice of John the Baptist is never more relevant. There is a nostalgia today that the way ahead lies solely in the way back and that the glory days are always in the idealized past: there are elements of this in General Synod and the way the Church of Rome is lurching backwards causes me personally much concern.
In a world where chaos theory reigns, a world of accelerated change, we long for the past rather than prepare for the future. Among Fresh Expressions practitioners like myself, it became clear that the number one factor in growing congregations was “a primary mission to those not currently members,” and, conversely, the number one factor in declining congregations was “a primary mission to current members.” It is a difference between maintenance and mission — a preoccupation with the present (and attendant anxiety about buildings and quota) versus a focus on the future.
You, my dear friends, are the driving force of that: an outward, forward-looking ethos cannot come solely from Clergy, but must be in the very life-blood of the whole congregation. The issue is not a matter of gender or generation, liberalism or traditionalism. The issue is how willing we are to trust God for the future and be creators with Him of that future. How open are we to the future. How open are we to the new? How well have we heard the Good News?
Jesus addressed the closed religious leaders of his day by saying “We played funeral songs and you did not weep. We played wedding songs and you did not dance, what do you want? John came among you in his austerity and you rejected him. I came among you and went to your feasts and you called me a glutton and drunkard, what do you want?”
In many ways John and Jesus were opposites; but to those only interested in maintaining the status quo, neither was acceptable. I read that back in 1863 the Commissioner of Patents submitted his resignation because “everything exciting had been invented and patented, and there was nothing else for him to do but preserve the past.”
That is the tragedy when people of faith limit what God has done to the pages of a Bible or the places of first century Palestine and deny the work of the Holy Spirit. God not only came, but God comes! The meaning of Advent is opening ourselves anew to make room for God in our lives now. Then as we prepare the way, we point to the One who goes before us.
People of God, let us accept our age — let us act our age! Again, those words of Isaiah: “Cease to dwell on days gone by and to brood over past history. Here and now I will do a new thing; this moment it will break from the bud. Can you not perceive it?”
With thanks to The Rev. Dr. Elton Richards