Sermon at St James
Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3,1-12
To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:
You will be relieved, I imagine, to hear that I’m not going to talk about the election. John the Baptist is not only a less contentious subject but also more edifying. I would be glad to know though what he would have had to say to today’s political leaders. Would he have lumped them together with the Pharisees and Sadducees – you brood of vipers – and also warned them of the wrath to come? There may well be plenty of wrath this coming Friday.
But it was the very opposite of wrath that Isaiah prophesied in today’s marvellous Old Testament reading. The wolf shall live with the lamb; the calf and the lion shall lie down together, and a little child shall lead them. It’s a delightful picture, but sadly, like so many election promises, only an unobtainable dream. We all know, and David Attenborough has recently been showing us again, that in reality nature is red in tooth and claw.
However, this passage shows us that the hard-headed, down-to-earth Israelites were able to dream of a better world, a restoration even of Paradise. And they realised that this could only come about through the leadership of a successor to King David, the ideal king, ideal in tradition rather than in fact. David, a shoot from the stock of Jesse, his father.
The one to come would indeed be a Messiah, and the spirit of the Lord would rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. This truly is an Advent reading - a prophecy of the coming of Jesus, part of God’s own preparing for Christmas.
A major part of that preparation of course was John the Baptist, his person and his work. The gospel story of his being born to the upright and devour old couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth, shows that John’s birth as well as that of Jesus was part of God’s strategy.
And what an extraordinary character John was, not at all an attractive man, so odd in his manner of life as to make us feel uncomfortable. He was uncompromising; there was nothing homely about him; he probably never ever told a joke; you wouldn’t want to invite him to dinner; he would hardly be a jolly guest. Even his contemporaries found him strange, living rough in and off the wilderness in his makeshift clothes, with uncut hair and unkempt beard, and existing on a desert diet. The wild honey sounds OK, but I don’t fancy the locusts. Yet who knows, in years to come locusts and such like might well be part of our diet.
It was far from an easy life, but it kept him safe. There was no rich food to temp him, no alcohol, no home comforts to make him cosy, nobody to impress with fine clothes or rich possessions and no women to lead him astray. In fact there were no distractions at all. There in the wilderness John could concentrate totally on God and what God wanted him to do.
I remain ever grateful that Jesus, while himself being absolutely focussed on God and God’s will for him, lived a very different sort of life, showing that you can love and serve God through a life lived fully involved in family and community and enjoying the bounty of God’s rich provision.
Anyway, back to John. There was, you could almost say, something repugnant about him. And yet, and yet there was also something magnetic. He drew thousands upon thousands from the towns and villages of Judah into the desert to hear what he had to say, and they found his message mesmerizing. What a preacher! – the voice of one crying in the wilderness – he must have had a strong and commanding voice. Prepare the way of the Lord; make his highway straight; repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand, gripping words which his listeners took to heart. “What shall we do?” they asked. And John answered, ”The man with two shirts must share with him who has none and anyone who has food must do the same.”
Let’s pause there and consider that challenge. Those words were not in Matthew’s account of John which was this morning’s Gospel, but they’re there in Luke’s. And I think we tend to forget that as well as his call to repentance followed by baptism, John had this social programme which of course was later endorsed by Jesus. To be members of the Kingdom of God is not just a matter of worshipping and praying it’s essentially a matter of sharing, sharing what we’ve got with those in need. To what degree do you, do I, put that into practice? It’s a question that troubles my conscience: maybe it troubles yours as well.
And John went on to baptise those who repented, that is who turned away from their former way of life and embarked upon the way that leads to God, a way of recognising the nearness of God, a way of worship and of sharing. Baptism symbolically washed them clean for a fresh start. And thousands were baptised and also were told to look out for the one who was to come.
It was an amazing one-man mission, creating throughout Judea an awareness and expectancy upon which Jesus could build. John really merits being called the herald and the forerunner of Jesus. And Jesus later came to speak of him more highly than of any other person. Remember too how saddened he was by John’s dreadful and unnecessary execution by Herod.
John had a manifesto, straightforward and trustworthy. You have a choice, he said. Elect to turn away from all selfishness, and elect to turn towards the way of worship and sharing along the highway leading to the restoration of Paradise, that is life as God means it to be - when the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Now that really is something worth voting for.