A Sermon from Sherborne

The Establishment rebel

A sermon for the Eve of St John Baptist’s Day, preached at Evensong in Sherborne Abbey on Sunday 23 June 2019 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods


Tomorrow is the Feast of the birth of St John the Baptist. Look out for the lovely garland always erected round the arch at the entrance to the Almshouse of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist, at the Abbey’s gates. Sadly I will not be at tomorrow morning’s Eucharist to celebrate the Feast, as I will be on the road to Puddletown for a meeting of the Trustees of the Dorset Historic Churches Trust. But I have always had an affection for this subversive saint, not least having been for ten years the Vicar of a parish church dedicated to him.

So who was he? He had a totally Establishment pedigree which would have looked good in Who’s Who. His father, Zechariah, was one of about 7000 priests in Israel at that time. They came from a total of 24 clans, each of which had to serve at the temple in Jerusalem for a week, twice a year. Priests were a power in the land in those days, and because priesthood was hereditary – Zechariah and therefore John were descended from Moses’ brother Aaron, a pretty pukka pedigree – our young man would have grown up trained and moulded to continue the line, to inherit his father’s secure social and ecclesiastical position and, no doubt, to be an instinctive conservative, a defender of the traditions which had nurtured him.

John the Baptist, or John the Baptiser, as the New Testament calls him, chose to be none of these things. He has two special days in the Church’s calendar: the Feast of his Nativity tomorrow and the Commemoration of his Beheading on 29 August. So it is about John the Baptist I must speak tonight. But be warned: he is not a comfortable saint to have around. He was a rebel. He did not care which bit of the Establishment he upset: Church, State or Royal Family. Eventually his outspokenness cost him his head. Literally. On a platter. Served up at a royal banquet, to please the King’s step-daughter. St Mark gives us a very brief pen portrait of him: John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt round his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. [1:6].  

So, he was a bit of a hippy, and a lippy hippy too. He began his rebellion by throwing-over the comfort of the vicarage, as it were, for a commune in the desert – very possibly the Qumran Community, living in caves close to the Dead Sea. I have visited those caves, Living there even today would not be my idea of fun. Baking desert, an austere regime, hard manual labour, long hours of study – oh, and compulsory chastity as a bonus. But there John found himself, and found his God – and his God found him. And God gave John a message – a message to the comfortable culture he knew so well and which he had rejected so firmly; a culture busy accommodating itself and even its core beliefs and values to the demands and the customs of the occupying military power, representing the might of the Roman Empire. And the message was ‘Repent!’

‘Repent’ – from the Greek word metanoia, which might be translated as ‘to turn right round from’ or even ‘to do a U-turn’. It implies a complete change of heart and of mind. Years ago, when the then Prime Minister was Margaret Thatcher, she came under immense pressure from her own party to change her policies, to execute a U-turn. She told the Conservative Party Conference: ‘You turn if you want to. The Lady’s not for turning.’ She brought the house down – and gave me my Sunday sermon. For Christians are precisely people for turning. Christians are – or should be – people who support the status quo only if and when it embodies and demonstrates the goodness and the justice and the love of God (which it rarely does) and who are prepared to work for change when they see that the Gospel and Gospel values demand it. Seen like that, everything about Christianity is subversive. Reading the Bible is subversive. We have just sung the Magnificat, Mary’s Song: He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away. Did you realise, I wonder, what potentially subversive words you were singing? You should.

And then, to pray is subversive. To sit with God, and to listen for God, is to risk hearing his voice, as John the Baptist heard his voice – and to be challenged to the core of your being. For when God speaks to you he calls, he reveals his plan and purpose for you – and that is likely to be a very different plan and purpose from the one you have already mapped out for yourself, be you the youngest chorister or the oldest parishioner here. And once you have discovered what God wants of you and from you, you will not know a moment’s peace until you give in and surrender, as I discovered long ago. If you don’t think you have the guts to have your plans and your ambitions rewritten, perhaps it’s better not to listen in the first place. But you will still be the loser in the long run.

And to love is subversive, if it is to love as Christ loves. When you love selflessly, as he does, you begin to put yourself last and others first. You begin to love beyond those who love you; you begin to love all God’s people, and then you begin to want justice for them, especially if you can see that they are being denied justice – by which I mean being denied work or housing, being denied clean water or sufficient food, and above all being denied a proper sense of worth and dignity. And that can lead you into working for justice, which can be a very subversive activity indeed.

Of course, God did not call John to be subversive for the sake of it. People who delight in being subversive just for the sake of being subversive are simply being selfish and self-indulgent. Any fool can play those games. No, the point about how God works is that he had a particular plan for John, a plan that he should deliver and keep on delivering a message, God’s message, which would prepare the way for the coming of John’s cousin Jesus, the Messiah.

In the same way, God has a particular call for each one of you, a plan for each one of you. Those plans are tailor-made for each of you. They will seldom be the same. But they each depend, first, on your being prepared to listen and, second, on your being prepared to respond. To listen, and to respond. It sounds so simple, so easy. But it can cost you everything. And that scruffy young man with the impeccable pedigree, John the Baptist, is there to remind us that the first thing you will be required to do is to repent, to turn right round, and to follow Christ in the narrow way. Then, and only then, will the rest of God’s plan and purpose for you unfold. And that you should have the grace to listen and the courage to respond to the voice of God is my constant prayer, for each and every one of you.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 23/06/2019
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne