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A Sermon from Sherborne
St John the Baptist
A sermon for Evensong at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 16 December 2018 by the Reverend Hugh Bonsey, Associate Priest
John claims our attention on two of the four Sundays of Advent: last Sunday and today.
John the Baptist is important because he prepared the world for the coming of Jesus, and his life and ministry are seen to form a bridge between the Old and New Testaments. He is a ‘Voice’. John describes himself as ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare a way for the Lord’. Saint Augustine once said that John was ‘The voice breaking the silence.’ Indeed, this is so. John broke the silence following the time of the Old Testament prophets to usher in the new time when the Word of God became flesh and lived among us.
The prophet proclaimed the preparation for the coming of the Messiah. How easy it is for us to understand the imagery shown by these amazing words:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled,
and mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ (Lk 3.4b-6).
Anyone who has seen major road works, or the making of a motorway, can see the strength behind these words, and the message that they convey of a total rearrangement of our lives to prepare for the coming of the presence of God.
John’s task was to proclaim a baptism, which pledged forgiveness of sins. John presented his essential and life-giving message in three ways:
Firstly, he showed that true repentance, a true ‘turning round’ or ‘change of heart’ had to be accompanied by good deeds, and baptism was pointless without such a deep and proven change in one’s life. Being descended from Abraham, being a member of a particular race of people, did not guarantee salvation in any way.
Secondly, John exhorted individual people in his society to take moral decisions. His hearers, mostly poor people, were instructed to show generosity: to demonstrate works of love, rather than live by rigid adherence to the works of the Law. John’s proclamation involved a change in society from within, with individuals changing their attitude to their neighbour and to God. The new way of living was not to be effected through armed struggle and a political revolution.
Thirdly, John had to reply to questions concerning his identity. Many people thought that he was the Messiah – who could blame them? He had many followers who were just waiting for him to admit to being the Messiah. It would have been very easy for John to claim to be the Messiah. But he refused to trick his way to win the acclaim of the people. He chose the way of prayer and humility. As Saint Augustine reminds us, John was the voice, and Jesus was the Word.
It was easy to confuse the two men. The voice was taken to be the Word. And so John told the people that the real Messiah was far greater than himself, indeed John was not worthy even to be his slave. This confusion of identity between John and Jesus may seem surprising to us. John always strikes us as a powerful, rough, tough man from the desert, dressed in Spartan clothes and existing on a diet of locusts and wild honey. He is straightforward and totally devastating in his criticism of those around him. John describes the Pharisees as being like snakes escaping from a forest fire. Their great inheritance of being Abraham’s descendants is completely annihilated by him, saying that even the stones in the wilderness could be raised to replace them! In his direct and critical way, John demands individuals to repent – to turn round to God.
As the Gospels unfold, we have a problem concerning John’s perception of Jesus. The two men were cousins. They may have known each other very well. Yet John does not recognize in Jesus the work of the Messiah. The dramatic irony of the ministry and person of Jesus is crossed by the expectations of John’s hero – the Messiah. John probably expected Jesus to ‘set the world on fire’. John would see in the Messiah the generally expected work of the warrior king, who would bring in the new age, performing all the activities foretold long before by the prophets of the Old Testament.
So John sends his messengers to Jesus to ask him outright if he is the Messiah. Jesus answers John by showing the works of mercy, which would signify the coming of the age of salvation, drawing on passages from the prophecy of Isaiah. We are not told whether John is impressed by the demonstration, but we do receive a tremendous testament of praise about John from Jesus: he describes John as the greatest man who has ever lived.
And what cutting questions Jesus uses to make his point! Jesus asks his hearers just what is was they expected to see in the wilderness – a reed shaken by the wind? A man clothed in gorgeous apparel? Such men, Jesus tells us, are the ones who live in luxury and rule us. So what did his hearers go to see? Was it a prophet? Yes it was, and even more than a prophet. The man from the desert was none other than the person whose ministry had been foretold by the prophets to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord.
Then Jesus compares the people of his generation to children in the market place calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ (Matt.11.17). Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees holds for human nature generally, not least in our own society now.
People find the asceticism of John distasteful, and many, especially some Churchgoers, would not take kindly to the idea that Jesus ate and drank with the outcasts of society. So neither Jesus himself, nor his cousin John, would be accepted by the Pharisees, or the people of their day.
The question for us is: has anything changed? Will we accept these two extraordinary men and follow their teachings and respond to their invitations whereby we change our lives? It seems to me that over the last many years, we have broken away from the dreadful Victorian image of ‘little Jesus meek and mild’ to Jesus being ‘the man from the desert’, who was strong and lean and tough – although also having the gentleness, the humility and the love through which we can see the presence of God.
On the other hand, our perception of John the Baptist does not seem to change. He is always the rugged individual he ever was. And his message is there for us to take, and to which we must respond – one way or the other. John asks us to turn to God. If we turn away from ourselves, then we are able to be washed in the waters of baptism, which for us is Christian baptism. Our sins are forgiven, and we can live in a new relationship with our heavenly Father.
Not everyone will take up this offer of new life. The price will be too high, because it involves denying ourselves, taking up our Cross every day, and living lives of suffering and yet hope, as we follow our Risen Lord.
In this Season of Advent, on these two Sundays when we focus on the person and ministry of John the Baptist, will you take up his challenge? Will you turn to God and live a life in the newness and power of the Holy Spirit? This is what John demands of us. It is my hope and prayer that we, and the whole people of God, will respond in love and service to John’s most urgent call.