Readings: Isaiah 11.1–10 & Matthew 3.1–12
Today – and indeed next week too, the Lectionary invites us to consider the place and role of John the Baptiser. We call him that, these days, because the word ‘Baptist’ has become linked to a particular theological viewpoint. At the grave risk of slightly offending our Welsh Baptist viewers on the InterWeb, today’s ‘Baptists’ believe that adult baptism is the only legitimate kind. Most Anglicans disagree….but there isn’t time to go into that now!
So let’s focus down on John the Baptiser – the man. Matthew, probably based on Mark is convinced that John is the messenger of the Messiah prophesied in Isaiah. He starts his account, saying “John the Baptiser appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near’.
It’s worth pausing for a moment to contemplate that word, ‘repent’. Most of you have heard me talk about it before, but it’s always worth revisiting, I find. I know that, for me, the word conjures up images of crazed street preachers – pointing at a crowd of drunks and crying ‘repent ye sinners!’. That image implies that the preacher thinks he’s superior to the crowd. It has a note of condemnation about it. But, it’s worth considering the original Greek word – which is metanoia. It means ‘turn around’. A call for repentance, then, is less about condemnation, and more like an invitation. ‘Metanoia’ invites us to stop heading in one direction, and choose to take a new path. It invites us to stop following the world’s promises about what will fill us, save us, and give our lives meaning. It invites us to turn instead to the straight and narrow way of the Lord.
John is the last of the Hebrew prophets. He follows the tradition of living apart from civilisation, and of calling people to repent of their evil ways. Picture the scene: Imagine a rather dirty fellow, with mad scruffy hair, dressed in camel-skins, and covered in bee-stings. He’s probably got blobs of honey stuck to his shirt, and he’s 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 try to get him some serious mental health support!
But there was something about John that attracted people to him. There was something about his message which, according to both Mark and Matthew’s Gospels, attracted people out into the desert from “Jerusalem, all of Judea, and all of the region along the River Jordan” (Mt 3:5)
According to Matthew’s account, John was not a man to mince his words either. He taunted the religious leaders of the day with phrases like “You viper’s brood” (Mt 3:7). He warned them against the complacency of their religion: saying “Just because you are Abraham’s children, don’t go thinking that gives you an automatic right to heaven” (Mt 7:8 - paraphrased)
There are, in fact, a number of puzzling questions about John. First there is the fact that he didn’t join up with Jesus. Why, after Jesus appeared, didn’t he set aside his baptising, and become a follower of the Lord? And then there’s the fact that when he was in prison he sent word to Jesus to ask him if he really was the Messiah – as we’ll hear next week.
I think that John had a different vision of what the Messiah would be like. John’s Messiah would be full of swift judgment against the evil people of the day. See what he says about Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 3: “...he will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”. (Mt 3: 12).
John’s expectations of the Messiah are rooted in the language and concepts of Hebrew Bible. In some ways, he was a bit like that street preacher I imagine jabbing his finger at a crowd of drunks. And, uncomfortably, Jesus simply doesn’t match up to John’s expectations of what the Messiah would be like... should be like. And he was Jesus’ cousin!
I wonder how many of us sometimes do that? How often do we simply assume that God will be as we expect him to be…rather than how God actually is? How often do we assume that God must surely agree with our beliefs?
How many Conservative-voters assume God is a Tory? How many people on the left blithely assume Jesus was a socialist? How many racists or homophobes automatically assume that God agrees with them? It’s painfully ironic to observe Vladimir Putin cosying up to the Russian church for approval of his evil plans. He must think that God is like him. But, the truth is, we all have a tendency to make God in our own image. We often imagine God to be a bigger and more powerful version of ourselves – rather than seeking the truth of God in whose image we are made.
John’s language is the language of criticism and warning. “You’d better do what I say, or God Almighty is going to smite you!” John’s kind of repentance is a rather mechanistic thing. “Repent, and be baptised, and you will be forgiven of your sins – you’ll be saved from the wrath that is to come”. It’s a promise of life, but tinged with the threat of death.
Jesus’ language, on the other hand, is of forgiveness, acceptance, and love. He speaks of journeys, and the Narrow Way of faith. John is the apocalyptic doom-sayer. Jesus offers life, hope and an exciting journey.
Mind you, Jesus is not immune from the apocalyptic tradition. Certainly, he also gives plenty of warnings, and he even appropriates John’s use of the phrase ‘viper’s brood’ – to describe the religious leaders of the day. (Mt 12.34). But, on balance, Jesus’ tone is rather different to John’s. Instead of calling us out to a desert of repentance, he invites us to commune with each other and with him around a meal. John offers locusts and wild honey. Jesus offers bread, wine, and a banquet in heaven. He even includes Samaritans, Zealots, tax collectors and even his future betrayer into that community. He includes women – which in his time was an incredible thing to do.
Jesus speaks the language of radical inclusion, whereas John speaks of unquenchable fire and winnowing forks. Jesus invites all of us on a journey of faith, community-life and growth into beings with the capacity to be like gods. He calls it the Narrow Way, and the Kingdom. Jesus calls us to turn away from making up our own ideas about how things should be. He calls us instead to tune-in to God’s loving, merciful, ultimately positive view of the universe. The baptism of John saves us from wrath. The baptism of Jesus invites us on journey of growth and faith.
In this season of Advent, we are invited to take stock of our own journey, and the extent to which we have fully ‘turned around’. Have we utterly forsaken the false promises of the world, and progressed a little further along the straight and narrow Way of the Lord. If the answer is ‘yes’, we can give thanks to God, and renew our commitment today.
If, on the other hand, the answer is ‘well, perhaps not quite yet’ – then we are invited, today, to make a new commitment. A commitment to forsake the false promises of politicians, of consumerism, of selfish-ambition. And a commitment to the straight and narrow way of love, generosity, self-sacrifice and deep, deep meaning.
“Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight”. Amen.