This morning we find ourselves in the company of John the Baptist. Last week, Jim Forrest reminded us that John wasn’t someone who would have a mantlepiece full of invitations to dinner parties or black tie events. He is unlikely to be the person you would most like to bring back to life. He was a dirty and ramshackle character who, I suspect, was pretty scary to encounter. He didn’t mince his words; he wasn’t trying to win friends – he was a prophet in the truest sense, he sought to share the truth. And he didn’t try to soften that truth or to make it more accessible; he just told it as it was.
And the crowds responded. They asked him: What then should we do? They understood that things weren’t as they should be; they understood that they had a part to play in changing the situation – and they came to this holy man and asked him, tell us; guide us; direct us. Show us what we can do to make an impact on this state of affairs, to begin to shift the norms within our communities. Tell us where we’ve gone wrong; point out the bad habits we’ve picked up and help us to get ourselves onto the right path. Help us to have a different focus and a change of priorities.
And John responded to them. He wasn’t a prophet whose only contribution was to point out what was going wrong, he was also able to make some suggestions about how to turn things around. And so he began to speak to them about redistribution; about fair treatment of other people; about appropriate behavior with others and about contentment with what we have. That’s a serious agenda. It’s a highly political (with a big P) agenda. It’s an agenda about how we see ourselves in relation to other people, an agenda about turning our gaze towards others rather than focusing on ourselves and what we might desire – or even convince ourselves that we need. It’s an agenda that reminds us that we are not isolated individuals wandering through our lives in some kind of protected bubble. We’re each a small part of a number of communities, each of which is part of something bigger than itself and the whole is very much bigger than the sum of its parts.
One of those communities is our worshipping community. We are a gathered group of people who come together once a week in this place at this time.
Each of us comes with our own story, our own understanding of the situation in our world, our own ideas about what might make a difference. And perhaps in common with those early crowds who flocked to question John, we are looking for answers, looking for guidance, looking for direction. This morning we hear some of that from John – share what you have; only keep what you need; do the task allotted to you with integrity; treat other people with respect. Pretty straightforward principles that are difficult to challenge. Most of us can, at least, have a stab at that – even if we don’t achieve all of it all of the time.
But that’s not the end of what John has to say. He gives his guidance, he offers some suggestions. And the people are touched by what he says, they are questioning in their hearts, they wonder whether this might just be the Messiah.
John is quick to answer: I’m not worthy to tie the sandal of the one who is to come. You might think that I have something profound and life changing to say but you haven’t heard anything yet.
These are the preparatory steps on your journey of faith; these are the things you can do now, to begin to prepare yourselves for the real change that is about to come to the world. These are the ways you might change without too much personal cost or challenge. But wait. This is only the beginning of the story. There is real good news to come – and it’s just around the corner.
We’ve reached that point in Advent when Christmas appears to be coming rather sooner than we might have liked – most of us will have plenty to do between now and the beginning of next week and if you’re like me a growing awareness that there are insufficient available hours for the ‘to do’ list to be completed. What we know for sure, what we’re reminded of in this morning’s Gospel, is that the celebrations of the Incarnation are just around the corner. Our encounter with the Son of God, renewed year by year and, in some way new and still magical year by year, is just around the corner. We can make some preparations, we can think about the witness of John and be thoughtful about our decision making in these coming days, but the main show is yet to come.
The One who will actually change the world, the One whose Incarnation is the fulfillment of these weeks of watching and waiting, the one who challenges us to change in ways that are uncomfortable and sometimes difficult, the birth of that One will be our focus before we know it.
And the challenge then is to keep going on this journey of faith. It’s all too easy to look at the suggestions for change that John the Baptist made, to do our best to achieve those changes, and then to convince ourselves that we’re living our lives in the light of the Gospel. But that would be short-changing ourselves and in the long run short changing our community. As soon as Jesus is born, we begin to see that he is a threat to the authorities of the time, that he brings challenge and tough suggestions about what amendment of life might actually mean. He doesn’t let himself away with anything and he doesn’t let us away with anything.
Fundamentally the Christ child brings a message of hope – hope that God’s Kingdom really will come. Hope that things really will be different.
The crowds who flocked to John in the desert asked: what then should we do? The coming of the Messiah gives us a more complete answer to that question. We should indeed do the things that John suggested – do what we can to make the lives of other people as good as they can be; treat people as we would wish to be treated; share what we have and try to have only what we need.
And in addition to that, we should take our gaze even wider. We should begin to consider the brothers and sisters we can’t see and don’t know. We should take seriously our responsibility for our planet, should find ways to exercise good stewardship of our shared resources. The Christ child came not just for those who encountered Him but for the whole of humanity. The Christ child came in response to God’s love for the world. Our response to that child must be to take seriously His incarnation, his presence in our midst, and to seek to follow faithfully and with integrity.