Sunday, 10 December 2023
Revd Janet Spence, Chaplain
I’d known my place up until that moment … my place was in the shadows. But John, this John the Baptist, called me out of the shadows.
I’d like to tell yo a story - Asher’s story ...
I didn’t really remember the belt. But as soon as I heard his voice, I knew that I knew him. That voice that I’d never forgotten had a strength and a clarity not often heard.
He’d come into my workshop in Ein Karem as a very young man looking for a belt - he was going away, he said, and his dad’s old belt that he’d inherited was falling apart. Most people stayed away from the workshop - working with leather fresh from the tanner can be a stinking business – tannery smells of urine, faeces and decaying flesh linger. So, understandably, few of my customers hang about. But this man stayed while I worked… and we talked.
He wasn’t loud; didn’t really speak much. But even on that ordinary day, in my little workshop, what he did say carried a depth, an intensity and integrity. His words held truth that made me really listen. I’ve always remembered that man, and that conversation.
He spoke of his plans to go and study in the desert with people who really knew about our faith. Not watered down Judaism, he said, but the real thing, hard core; too strict a life for me! His youthful enthusiasm was striking; I thought he’d mellow with age as most of us do.
We talked about the prophets, and he told me of midrash that he’d studied. Now I know the priests and pharisees like to talk about all that - it helps us to know how to live our lives, and it’s important stuff - but for us workers, we don’t talk about it. And sometimes it seems just too far away from the realities of my day-to-day life to hold my interest.
But when this man spoke something was different. He spoke to me as though I mattered. And as though I should think about this stuff too; as though this was really vitally important for today, and for tomorrow, and the future of us all.
I’m a shy man ... I don’t usually share much about myself with people, but somehow I ended up telling him my story and spoke about my pain.
I spoke of the death of the baby that Miriam and I had wanted for so long. I spoke of how I felt unable to reach Miriam to ease her pain.
I told him of my anger with God, anger that led me to turn away from God in my heart. I’d never before spoken of it; no-one else knew my heart, but I knew and lived with the shame within me, every day. And somehow this young man was the one who could hear my story.
Normal chit chat? Well that just didn’t happen with him. And soon his belt was ready, and, tying it round his middle, off he went, and I’d never seen him again.
Until … a few days ago, Miriam whose grief had dulled life for her for so many years and had cut between us, started saying she wanted to go and see a man, John the Baptist they called him. There was an energy I hadn’t seen in her for years, as she told me about his preaching. People were excited by what he was saying, and he came from our home town, Ein Karem. Some claimed he was a prophet, a messenger calling all people to get ready for God’s coming!
They were calling him the new Elijah - some even said he was Elijah returned from the dead! He looked like him apparently - wore the same camel’s hair tunic tied with a leather belt, and ate locusts and wild honey.
So yesterday Miriam and I headed into the desert - it wasn’t hard to find him - just follow the crowds. Crowds of people, maybe hundreds, were all heading out to find this man, this prophet, and to hear what he had to say. It was noisy – young people and old, children, some running along excitedly, some crying. The thing was, the crowds were people like us. I even recognised a few of our neighbours; we are ordinary working people, we have what we need, not much more. We’re happy enough with our lot but we know our place and it’s in the shadows.
And then, just as I was thinking it was time to give up on this wild goose chase, there he was. I heard his voice loud in my ear despite the clamouring crowds, and immediately I knew him; the same voice as in my workshop all those years ago, but now he spoke with authority, and confidence.
I took Miriam’s hand and pulled her forward with me through the crowds. Some of his disciples were keeping people in order, helping people down to the water’s edge, but I couldn’t wait. I shouted to him - ‘John! John!’ - and he looked up, and saw me. He saw me, and glanced down at his belt, still tied round his middle like the day he walked out of my workshop, and I knew that he remembered me. He knew me, and he spoke to me.
‘Repent, and be forgiven’ he said, and I knew that he remembered my story of my heart’s turn away from God. ‘Repent, and be forgiven, and prepare for the one who is coming after me,’ and I knew that he remembered my heart’s turn away from God, but that today he was offering me a way to be set free from my shame, and be able to look forward to what was to come.
I’d known my place up until that moment … my place was in the shadows. But John, this John the Baptist, called me out of the shadows. He called me to repent and be baptised, and to get ready for the one who is to come; the one greater than him he said, who was coming after him. This John called me out of the shadow of shame, and into the light.
So here I am, standing in the light, and telling you my story.
When John walked out of my workshop all those years ago he took the belt tied round his middle, and he also took a part of me with him, a part that hoped there might be forgiveness and joy in my heart again. Now the rest of me has caught up, and Miriam too. We, both of us, were changed through his baptism of repentance; there’s a freedom, a truth, and a transparency about who we are, about our relationship, and together we’re on a journey of discovery towards being the people God is calling us to be, today, tomorrow, and into the future.