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Sermon for Advent 3 John the Baptist

The Reverend Charles Royden

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So this morning our passage is taken from John's Gospel and the account of John the Baptist

There has been great interest in the 'bush tucker trials' in the TV series 'I'm a celebrity get me out of here.'  They needed somebody like John the Baptist in the team. We do not know huge amounts about John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus, but we do know that he ate insects. His died included insects and wild honey. We also know that he conducted his ministry ‘on the other side of the Jordan.’ This means Perea, one of the territories controlled by Herod Antipas. Josephus the Jewish historian tells us that John was later imprisoned in the fortress Machaerus in the same region. John is arrested in the place where he conducts his faithful ministry. The readers would know this and they would know that that John was beheaded by Herod for his preaching. He called for a way to be prepared and this was no cheap road. The Christian community knew that the way of the Lord was the ‘via dolorosa’, a way of the cross. Many of the Christians who read this Gospel would also be executed for their message and mission.

John is the first to proclaim God's kingdom. He announces it not in the Temple but in the desert the place where the faith of so many before had been tested and a place where people like Moses had encountered God. The Jewish people had built a Temple but they were called back to the desert across which they had come into the promised land.

The average person can only go a couple of day in the wilderness without water. In the prophets the desert is used as a metaphor for estrangement from God, it is frightening, lonely and dangerous, yet it is to here that John calls the people for renewal. Perhaps that is where God still wants to meet us, in the place where we are stripped of distractions and ready and anxious to listen. In the desert all our facades are removed?

There was confusion as to who John was. People asked him "Are you Elijah?" That might seem a strange question. The prophet Elijah had lived around 900 years previously, and tradition had it that he never actually died, but was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. ( 2 Kings 2:9-12). In the last verses of the Old Testament, the prophet Malachi prophesied his return (Malachi 4:5-6), so people might have suspected that this was some miraculous return.

John the Baptist was a prophet. I remember being at a big clerical gathering once where the audience was asked to look around them to see if there were any press in the hall. The reason being that the speaker, a prominent cleric, was about to speak and he didn't want what he said to be reported in the papers the following day. I am often surprised as an ordinary minister, just how much I am able to speak my mind without such concerns. I do not have to look over my shoulder to see if somebody is listening and I can speak my mind quite freely. It seems that the further clergy advance in their careers, the less they can honestly express themselves!

John the Baptist is a most extraordinary individual. He is clearly not an ambitious man, he had no designs on one of the top jobs back in Jerusalem. Instead he spoke his mind freely without fear or desire for favour. He spoke the words he believed that God wanted the people to hear and the people flocked out to hear him, no doubt attracted by his honesty and integrity.

It must have been refreshing for those who travelled out of the city into the desert to listen to such a man. Yet he never chose comfortable words, rather he challenged the people in a way that they had not been challenged before. He called people back to their core beliefs and reminded them of the days when they lived in the desert. This advent we are called also back to fundamentals, to prepare ourselves for the coming of our Lord.
John calls other people out into the desert and asks them to be baptised as a sign of a change of attitude. But the sign of baptism is not an independent formal and external ritual, it must be accompanied by them showing tangible proof of their change 'bear fruit worthy of repentance' Matt 3:8.

Jesus recognised this prophetic quality of John, and the fact that John the Baptist spoke his mind freely and honestly. jesus knew that John did not 'blow with the wind'

We are told in Matthew 11:7 that Jesus spoke about John. He addressed the crowd and said

"What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind?

Reeds are wonderful things and instructive of survival. They are able to bend in the wind and therefore they do not break. They go with the flow. The point about John was that he was not prepared to simply to adapt his message to the wishes of those around him. He was determined to speak truths which challenged the prevailing culture.

Jesus recognised the willingness of John to take on a very different role to the established prevailing religious culture. Jesus said John was a prophet,

‘This is the one about whom it is written: "'I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'

When I think about prophets I think of people like Martin Luther King. Prophets are people who are willing to speak out and say uncomfortable things, challenging things, without fear. Listen to some of the words of Martin Luther King from his 'I have a dream' speech.' It is possible that this speech by Martin Luther King was one of the greatest sermons ever preached. We are fortunate to have it recorded. (It would have been wonderful to have John the Baptist on film also).

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."

Martin Luther King uses words from Isaiah 40:4,5.  If he had started his quotation at the previous verse 3 he would have included

A voice of one calling: "In the desert prepare the way for the LORD ; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken."

He had a dream. He was speaking about what he believed to be the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth. He was speaking about the achievement of the struggle for real freedom and equality of black people in the United States. In his dream those things in the America of his day which are incompatible with the coming of Christ - the 'mountains and hills of injustice, prejudice, inequality and oppression - are laid low' by the love of Christ and the dignity of all human persons.

That is the true spirit of our Advent:
- an awareness that there are things in ourselves and in our world which are not worthy of Christ.
- further an awareness of our need and our ability in faith to challenge those things both in ourselves and in our world that are wrong and to attempt to rebuild a world worthy of Christ.
- yet further to pay the price of the opposition that witness will bring. Both John the Baptist and Martin Luther King died for their witness;

They were not reeds. Therefore they were vulnerable to be broken.

We might reasonably say that few of us will be called to take on such great causes. But listen to the words of John  the Baptist and it is clear that  there are real challenges to each one of us. John told people to be baptised and to go on to show change of personal lifestyle in all sorts of ways. which were compatible with their awareness of the forgiveness of God. As they were shown mercy, so they too must now show mercy to others. We need to go to Luke’s account for the specifics. In Luke 3:10 we are told

"What should we do then?" the crowd asked. John answered, "The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same." Tax collectors also came to be baptized. "Teacher," they asked, "what should we do?" "Don't collect any more than you are required to," he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, "And what should we do?" He replied, "Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely--be content with your pay."

This Advent is a time for all of us to make ready and John gives us just a few ideas of where we should start. The actions of our lives are important, so important that John can speak of acceptance or rejection based on our deeds. The axe is laid at the root of the tree that does not bear fruit. There is wheat or chaff, no middle path 3:12. John calls for repentance, for us to change what is crooked, to seek justice and to prepare for an encounter with the Lord.

Advent is the time to prepare for the time of the Lord's nativity, it is time to prepare for our encounter with the Lord Jesus. Hence it is a time for all of us to determine what needs straightening, what needs levelling. John is saying that it is necessary to change the root of human behaviour, it is a substantial change and not something superficial. The whole panorama would be changed by Christ, the valleys would be lifted up and the mountains laid low. Charles Royden