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Advent 3  John the Baptist

Sermon by Mr John Stubbs

Putnoe/St. Marks Advent III 2006


A few weeks ago I was at the annual conference for Anglican and Methodist denominational ecumenical officers at Cliff College. Among our speakers were the Baptist and Roman Catholic National Ecumenical Officers. One of them – and I can’t remember which was telling of a meeting between a prominent Baptist minister and some Catholic nuns, one of who asked “Why do you Baptists follow John the Baptist and not Jesus Christ.?”

There is perhaps some excuse for the misunderstanding when one remembers that there were clearly disciples of John recorded in the gospels, and that the habit of factions seems to have started very early on in New Testament times. Paul writes of some being followers of Apollos, or Cephas and some of him. And leaving aside any discussion of factions as well as questions of humanity and divinity, it does seem to me that there are some differences between what John was advocating and what Jesus taught.

Let me be clear – Jesus did not disown John’s teaching, but he went further. What John brought to people by way of challenge still holds good today and we would be doing well if our lives consistently lived up to those challenges.

I was reminded of a story I heard in my student days of the couple in a railway carriage who got talking, and when it became clear that they were both Christians the lady asked the man “What do you do to serve God” He replied “I bake bread” “No”, she said, what do you do to serve God”. He said “I bake bread”. John would, I think, have approved of that answer, for what he demanded of people was not that they gave up on their normal day jobs but that they took a far more honest, ethical approach to what they did.

I had a go at some possible modern versions of John’s challenges. Money lenders don’t rip off poor people but charge fair rates of interest. Shopkeepers be honest and straightforward about the goods you are selling. Professional footballers, don’t dive. Parents stay together for the sake of your children because single families may lead to problems in society. Is your home and way of life carbon neutral ( do those last two sound familiar)– one can get quite political as one looks at modern world in which we all live. You might care when you get home to have your own go at thinking of challenges to behaviour which John might have made – not least to your own personal circumstances. And remember John’s comment about two cloaks, for example and look at your own riches.

John was, of course, in the great line of the prophets who brought God’s demands for justice, and peace, for care for the poor and needy, coupled with the vision of the new Kingdom, which the Messiah would usher in, being a place where the whole created world would live in harmony. To live up to even a part of this is not easy

Bishop Tom Wright in his commentary on St. Luke tells the following story “a cartoon shows a sceptic shouting to heavens “God, if you are up there, tell us what we should do” Back comes a voice “Feed the hungry, house the homeless, establish justice”
The sceptic looks alarmed “Just testing” he says
“Me too”, replies the voice.” We have been warned!

We don’t sing the hymn “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” much these days, but I suspect that we still sometimes have a picture of Jesus like that; a picture for which the baby in the Advent crib may well encourage us. But remember the words of John. Talking of Jesus, or at least the Messiah he says “He will have his winnowing fork to hand , ready to sort out the mess on his threshing floor and gather the corn into his barn. Any rubbish he will burn with a fire that will never go out.” Not a cosy picture. The God of justice makes pressing demands on us.

Did you notice the other fascinating comment about which Luke reminds us in John’s teaching. He wrote “With many other words John exhorted the people and preached good news to them.” How do you equate the demands John makes with good news? Hardly at first sight a promising picture. But remember the Gospel is not baby food liquidised for easy digestion. It is hard going, challenging, probing into every part of a person’s life. Playing our part in building the Kingdom will test us. We need to ask ourselves – Are we up for it?

And so it is especially appropriate to look at John’s teaching at this time of year when we remember the birth of Jesus, God’s most decisive act in the history of the world.

I came across an aphorism recently which I think John might have approved of. “Confession without repentance is mere bragging”. What John sought was repentance, a change of heart and mind, symbolised by baptism, without which there would be none of the revival in society which he sought. And what was true then is still of course true today for us, even though we may not use baptism as the outward sign of repentance. And in any case, life has probably taught us that we need real repentance very often.

I suggested that there were differences between John’s teaching and Jesus’s own teaching.
In coming for baptism it is not clear what Jesus had in mind – if we believe him to be without sin he cannot be coming for the cleansing implied by the use of water. But whatever his reasons his coming represented an endorsement of what John was saying. And his ministry frequently achieved the very actions which John had sought from his hearers. Zaacheus is a case in point for he undertook to change his way of working, and to make restitution for all his misdeeds.

And both Jesus and John showed a fearlessness in what they did – John accusing Herod which landed him in prison and ultimately death. And Jesus pursuing a path which would lead to crucifixion.

But Jesus went further than John, for although John’s words implied the need for a change of heart, Jesus used a variety of different images. He explored motive which John did not. He suggested that we needed to be born again. You can find out for yourselves many of the differences.

We do not have in the Gospels any other picture of John’s work apart from that of the fiery preacher in the wilderness, living rough and drawing people to his words. But Jesus ministry was of a different sort, besides fiery words. When John sent from prison to ask “are you the one who was to come or should we expect someone else” Jesus. according to Luke sent back the reply “Go back to John and report what you have seen and heard. The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the good news is preached to the poor”
Jesus life presents to us love in action, a commitment to all who need.

John stood in the line of the prophets. He came bringing the sort of messages which over the centuries they brought, and we ignore his challenges at our peril. Grace and forgiveness, the extra dimension which Jesus brought, are not a licence to live lives like those which John Stigmatises. But John had not heard the gospel as Jesus proclaimed it, with grace and forgiveness alongside the challenge to love our neighbours as ourselves. That is the gospel which challenges us again this Christmas to live in love and fellowship with our neighbours, recognising that what John asked of his hearers becomes possible with the strength of Jesus supporting us and God’s grace and forgiveness underpinning us as we play our part in building the kingdom of heaven.