John the Baptist is one of the stranger characters of the New Testament. He wore clothing of camel hair – which I imagine was rather itchy – who seems to have lived exclusively on locusts and wild honey. I imagine that getting wild honey out of a wild honey-bee hive is rather a tricky thing to do. So poor old John was probably covered in bee-stings as well.
John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He followed the tradition of living apart from civilisation, and of calling people to repent of their evil ways. So, let’s picture the scene – picture a rather dirty fellow, who has probably never visited a barber, dressed in camel-hair, covered in bee-stings and with honey stuck to his shirt, munching on a locust...and declaring at the top of his voice “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near”.
I wonder what our reaction would be if we met someone like that in the streets of Havant – or even here inside the church. I think we’d probably try to get him sectioned – for his own good! There are, actually, some Vicars who have been known to dress up in ‘hobo’ clothes and sit in the porch of the church, just as worshippers are arriving…to see whether any of them would stop and ask if he needed help. Of course, I know exactly what would happen if I did that here. Jackie Martin would put on her Havant Homeless Trust hat and ask me ‘would you like one of the sleeping bags we’ve got in the office?’!
But, despite his strange appearance, there was something about John that attracted people to him. There was something about his message that had people coming out to him in the wilderness from “Jerusalem, all of Judea, and all of the region along the River Jordan” (Mt 3:5) And let’s remember, these weren’t Sunday drivers out for a laugh at the strange fellow in the desert. These were people who would have travelled many hours, and in some cases many days – to hear for themselves the amazing – even scandalous - things that this man of the desert was saying.
John was not a man to mince his words either. He called the religious leaders of the day a “viper’s brood” (Mt 3:7) He warned them against the complacency of their religion. “Just because you are Abraham’s children,” he would say, “don’t go thinking that gives you an automatic right to heaven” (Mt 7:8 - paraphrased). He warned them to be afraid of the Messiah who would ‘put an axe to the tree’ of their systems and laws.
There are a number of strange inconsistencies about John. First there is the fact that he didn’t join up with Jesus. Why didn’t he set aside his baptising, and become a follower of the Lord? And then there’s the fact (as we will hear in next week’s Gospel reading) that when he was in prison he sent word to Jesus - to ask him if he really was the Messiah...despite having recognised him as such by the Jordon at Jesus’ baptism.
It seems that John had a different vision in his head of what the Messiah would be like – he seemed to expect a Messiah who would be full of swift judgment against the evil people of the day. See what he says in today’s gospel, in chapter 3:
“...he [that is the Messiah] will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”. (Mt 3: 12) John’s mental picture of the Messiah was based in the language and concepts of the Old Testament. He expected the ‘great and terrible Day of the Lord’. And when it didn’t happen quite as he expected, he perhaps proved more reticent to join up with Jesus. Maybe that’s why he sent word from his prison – saying to Jesus, “are you really the Messiah?”.
But Jesus has a subtly different agenda. He also speaks of the coming day of judgment, and the separation of sheep from goats – later in Matthew’s gospel in fact. But Jesus places that event at some distance in the future. First, he has work to do – to call as many people as possible to repentance, and to give the greatest possible opportunity for people to choose God’s way of living over their own.
There’s a difference, you see, between John’s angry, passionate cry of ‘repent’, and Jesus’ loving invitation to ‘repent’. The emphasis that we put on words really matters, doesn’t it? John’s cry of ‘repent’ is angry, frustrated, and intolerant of the world he sees around him. He is motivated by anger, and longs for the vipers and the chaff to be burned up in unquenchable fire! But Jesus has God’s perspective on the world. He looks on the mess of the world with compassion and love – like a parent looks on a wayward child. He preaches tolerance, forgiveness and peace, and even prays for forgiveness for those who crucify him – “for they know not what they do”. Jesus is prepared, with God’s longing patience, to give time to the establishment of his Kingdom.
He is so committed to that path – and so reluctant to embark on the eventual task of judgment - that he is prepared to give up his own life so that we might find our way back to God.
And I wonder whether we ourselves can sometimes be a bit like John. Certainly, as a human race, we have often been guilty of making God in our own image. How many wars have been fought in the belief that God approves of them? How many acts of cruelty have been perpetrated in the belief that God is somehow being served through them? Are there ways in which we conduct our lives which are inconsistent with the reality of Jesus – and the way in which he calls us to live?
I wonder if you’ve seen that bracelet that teenagers sometimes wear. It has the four letters “WWJD”. They stand for “what would Jesus do” – of course – and it’s a phrase from the 1970s (at least!) which has perhaps become dulled by over-familiarity. But it’s still a good question. What would Jesus do in the face of the rampant poverty of the developing world? What would Jesus do in the face of corruption among leaders of so many nations? What would Jesus do when faced with the commercial pressure to ‘spend, spend, spend’ at this time of the year? What would Jesus do in the face of globalisation and the climate emergency? How would Jesus vote in the coming election? – assuming he doesn’t establish his Kingdom in power before next Thursday!
During this time of advent, the story of John invites us to prepare for the coming of Jesus – the true Messiah – who will probably be nothing like we expect him to be. We are invited to prepare for the Lord who says “love one another”, and who shows us what real love is like through radical self- sacrifice. The story of John reminds us that our understanding of who Jesus was, and is, needs to be re-interpreted. It needs to be seen in the light of Jesus’ advent as the forgiving, accepting, non-retaliatory, suffering-servant-king – whose strength is precisely in his meekness.
May you know the peace of Christ as you prepare to celebrate his coming once again this year. May you know the reality of who Jesus really was and is. By soaking up the stories about him in the Bible, may you deepen your understanding of who he was and what he stood for. And may that knowledge transform you. Day by day. So that you may truly know who you are...a loved child of God, gently and loving called to repentance. And by depending that knowledge, may you come to know what you stand for too.