John the Baptist

Sermon at St James

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:

"Prepare ye the way of the Lord: make straight in the desert a highway for our God."

That was the call, written in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, that John the Baptist answered, and answered successfully. By the way he lived, by the word he preached, by his baptizing in the Jordan he made it possible for the Lord to come to many, many people and for many, many people to come to the Lord.

Our first reading, however, was from another prophet, Zephaniah. He was rejoicing in the Lord being King of Jerusalem. The Lord will save the lame and gather the outcast there. It will be, he said, a place which people can call home, a  prophecy which was fulfilled by the advent of Christ. Jerusalem, the Holy City, is the spiritual home of all of us, where Jesus is Lord and King, a place where the lame and the outcast are welcome. And so we can go along with what we heard from St Paul:

Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I say, Rejoice. The Lord is near; so do not worry. A fine message for Christmas, and for all seasons, and made possible and true by the Nativity of Christ.

Advent of course is the season for preparing ourselves for the coming of Jesus, whenever and however he comes to us. It began to be observed in the 7th century, and its central character has always been John the Baptist. His God-given mission prefigured the Advent theme. Prepare ye the way of the Lord: make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Without God, life can be an arid desert, difficult terrain, with mountains and valleys, crooked and rough places. The way to God can indeed be full of hindrances. But John helped to exalt every valley, make low every mountain and hill, helped to make the crooked straight and the rough places plain, that the glory of the Lord may be revealed. Any moment now I might burst into song. Handel’s Messiah captures the essence and the excitement of God’s Advent purpose.  

In his own life John let nothing hinder his communion with God. Clothes and fashion didn’t matter to him – camel skins would keep him warm enough. Housing, for status or comfort, didn’t concern him – his home was the wilderness. Food was unimportant except for survival – he lived off what he could find in the desert. He didn’t depend on the enlivening or soporific effects of alcohol – no strong drink passed his lips. There was in his life no vanity or self-indulgence to come between him and his God.

Let’s face it, he would not have been the most appealing dinner guest. He was an Advent man, not a Christmas man. Thank God, and I mean that, thank God Jesus showed us a different way of life – a life in which all God’s bounty can be enjoyed without necessarily cutting us off from him.

But John was a man of obvious, outstanding holiness, by his manner of life a sharp reminder to people at that time, and now to us, that some of the things we may set great store by don’t ultimately matter at all.

Repent, he said. Turn away, that’s what the word means, turn away from your selfish ways and turn to God. His kingdom is already here; here and now let him rule in your life. Make a fresh start, and mark that by being baptized, symbolically washed clean in the River Jordan. And then, keep on looking for the one who is to come, the Messiah himself.

From the villages and the cities thousands came to the Jordan to hear John, and were convinced, and were baptized. And later many of them eagerly welcomed Jesus. The highway had been built. No wonder Jesus came to say that John the Baptizer was the greatest.

But what shall we do? the crowds asked John. We heard his answer in the Gospel. If you have two coats, share with someone who has no coat. Similarly with food; if you have more than enough, share it with those who have none. Don’t cheat or exploit anyone. Even be satisfied with your wages. Of course we can ask supplementary questions. Don’t I need different coats for different weather conditions and different occasions? And as to wages, am I really getting the right rate for the job? And so on. But I’m sure we all get the point. Being in the kingdom of God has practical implications for the way we think and the way we treat others.

I’m glad this Christmas that our church appeal is for the Salvation Army and their work in caring for those who are homeless. I’ve always admired the Sally Army, and of course homelessness is a most appalling condition. We think of it particularly at Christmas. Joseph and Mary were not. as is sometimes said, homeless, or refugees. But they were away from home and there was no room for them in the inn. And of course there’s that feeling that Christmas is the time for families to get together in the family home.

Many years ago on Christmas Day we’d just finished our Christmas lunch when the doorbell rang. It was Smithy, one of the half dozen or so tramps who called on us every now and then for a meal. So he came in and sat at our dining table and had two big helpings of turkey and all that goes with it and then two big helping of Christmas pudding.

Because we were full up with all the family staying, just as there was no room in the inn, there was no room in the vicarage. So I phoned the Salvation Army hostel in Swindon, where both Jill and I had taken people before, and yes, they could put him up; they already knew Smithy. So I drove him to Swindon and went into the foyer with him. They welcomed him and then asked, Would you like a Christmas dinner? O yes please, he said.

Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make it possible for the Lord to come to women and men and girls and boys and for them to come to the Lord. Isn’t that the main job of the church? And of course not just Melanie’s job, but a task for every single one of us.

How can we fulfil that task? It would be a brave soul who stood on a soapbox at Colwall Stone on a Saturday morning and shouted, "Repent!" Someone might be called to do that, but I hope it’s not me. No, there are more gentle ways, as St Paul said in our Epistle, Let you gentleness be known to everyone.

To a large degree it’s by the way we live, not going to the extremes of the Baptist of course, but by living lives of integrity and truthfulness, kindness and generosity, unconcerned about status and possessing the latest fashion in clothes or digital gadgets, and not overly self-indulgent.

You shall know them by their fruits, said Jesus. Our way of life should itself speak of our faith in and our commitment to God and show that being a follower of Jesus is a beneficial and attractive way if life.

But it’s not only actions, it is also be a matter of what we say: words can be so powerful. I’m not thinking of public proclamation but of private conversation. In daily life there do occur opportunities for gently preparing the way of the Lord – saying to someone who’s ill or in distress that you’ll pray for them; mentioning a particular service or event in church, especially if you can say, I’ll be going myself; observing that in spite of everything most of us have many blessings to count; pointing out how something links with what Jesus said, like the Good Samaritan or always treat others as you’d like them to treat you. And Christmas is probably the best time of all when, again not stridently but gently, we can remind people of the reason for the season.

And it’s far more telling if you do this rather than Melanie or Anne or Anne or Bernard or Tim or me, because people expect it of us – it’s our job.  

Prepare ye the way of the Lord: make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Let’s do it. There are still nine days of Advent. Let’s be as generous as we can with the Salvation Army appeal; let’s try to make sure that our way of life and what we say point to Jesus. Then let’s have a wonderfully joyful Christmas.