Friday, December 15, 2023

John the Baptiser - Prophet and Sceptic

This is certainly the week for thinking about John the Baptiser – he’s the focus of readings all through this week.  Today, I’d like to home in on one particular facet of John’s character – a facet which speaks directly to us today…and it’s this:  John was a sceptic.  After being thrown into prison, by King Herod, John sent a message to Jesus asking ‘Are you the Messiah?  Or are we to expect another?’.  This is the same John who didn’t become one of Jesus’ own disciples.  After having so enthusiastically announced Jesus’ coming, after formally recognising him by pointing at Jesus and declaring ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ – John, weirdly, carried on ploughing his own furrow…doing things his own way.  Some of John’s own disciples left John, and joined up with Jesus: but John himself, carried on angrily calling people to repentance with dire warnings.  He became such an annoyance, to the likes of the King, (over the King’s incestuous marriage) that he ended up locked up, and then beheaded. 

Jesus, on the other hand, preferred the tactic of Love.  John was all about winnowing forks and the baptism of fire.  Jesus was all about loving your neighbour.  John lived on the margins of society, shouting his warnings from the desert.  Jesus entered into the day to day lives of those he came to save.  So, John, it seems, was sceptical about Jesus. 

Scepticism is all around us, isn’t it?  We are – perhaps justifiably - sceptical about the Government’s promises to ‘stop the boats’ or ‘rebuild the NHS’.  We are sceptical even about the great national organs of balance and truth that we’ve trusted for generations, like the BBC or the great newspapers of our nation. 

Scepticism doesn’t just pervade our national life though.  It also pervades our thinking about God.  Just like John the Baptiser, we wonder whether Jesus’ claims to be God’s Son, indeed God himself, can really be true.  And, if we are not careful, our scepticism can drive us to throw aside everything we believe, and on which we have based our lives.

But scepticism is not, in itself, a bad thing.  Scepticism is part of a process of growth.  It’s part of ‘putting away childish things’ (as St Paul so memorably said – see 1 Cor.13).  For a sceptical mind is ultimately a questioning mind.  It’s the kind of mind which asks ‘where does this information come from?  Is it trustworthy?’  Philosophers and theologians have a long name for this kind of enquiring thought – they call it ‘epistemology’ – which essentially asks the question ‘how do we know what we think we know?’.  It’s a question that intelligent sceptics ask about the Bible, for example.  We are taught, by some parts of the church, that the Bible is the inerrant word of God.  But is it?  Really?  Or is it, rather, a collection of writings, by ancient ancestors, who were wrestling with the reality of God, just as we do?

Sceptical thought should lead us to deeper thought, and to greater understanding.  When John asked, via messengers, whether Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus said this to the messengers:  "Go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached". (Lk 7.22). 

Notice how Jesus doesn’t get angry at John for his sceptical, doubting question.  Instead, he answers the question with a powerful illustration.  And invites John to arrive at a new understanding.  Sadly we don’t know what the results of Jesus’ answer to John’s question were….not least because the poor fellow literally lost his head a short time later.  But we can see that expressions of doubt, and scepticism, were not rejected by Jesus.  Instead, he confronted the sceptic head-on, and gave him new facts to consider.  And this is how the healthy work of scepticism should work for all religious people.  We should never be afraid of doubt, because doubt is part of the process of digging for truth.  Scepticism, used wisely, is the shovel we use to unearth the gold nuggets of real truth. 

Of course, like any human characteristic, it’s possible to take scepticism too far.  At the far end of religious scepticism, for example, we find the ultra-atheists, like every preacher’s ‘boogie-man’, Richard Dawkins.  I genuinely feel sorry for such atheists.  They become SO sceptical of religions, and of religious thought, that they lose all objectivity.  They fail to understand the simple truth that atheism is a faith position, too.  To state, categorically that God does not exist takes just as much faith as stating that God is real.  Both are faith positions.  Neither can be proved objectively.  Sadly, for the most prominent atheists, scepticism is no longer a shovel with which to dig for truth, but a bulldozer to cover over any view which is not his own.

When I was a child, I thought like a child.  But now I am a man, I have put away childish things.  But even now, I still can only see through a glass darkly…and therefore I need to embrace the grown-up, adult-brained task of being sceptical about my faith, and about my own political and world views.  That’s the adult thing to do.   As the Christmas story unfolds around us again, perhaps you might find yourself sceptical about any number of things.  Does it matter whether Jesus was born of a virgin?  What is an angel, anyway?  Why on earth would the civil authorities tell people to go back to the town of their birth to be counted in a census?  Why was the astrology of the Wise Men rewarded when the Bible commands us to ignore astrology? These (and many more) are all good questions to ask. 

And if you honestly seek answers to honest sceptical questions, I promise you that those answers will lead you into a much more profound, much more meaningful understanding of the truth.  You too can unearth – with your sceptical shovel - new understandings of the depth of the story about when God came to town.  A little town. Called Bethlehem.  Amen.

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