Sunday 5th December 2010
10.30 Communion – Woodchurch
Readings Matt 3:1-12
Only a couple of years ago, after what had been many years of mild winters, Vivienne and I wondered whether our children and their generation would ever see proper snow again. Would they know what it is like to be snowed in, to go tobogganing, to break large icicles from outside their windows like what we did back in the day when the winters were properly cold, the summers properly hot and we had street parties without local authority licenses and bonfires without insurance. Well, I think we can now honestly say after last winter and now the last week or so that our children have experienced plenty of snow and ice. If this turns out to be an aberration before we return to increasingly warm weather then all our children are now properly qualified to bore on to the next generation about how the winters were really cold when they were kids. The way that higher education is being massacred at present it may be the only qualification they will get but let’s pass over that for the moment.
I don’t know about you but when the snow first comes and the country starts to close down the change in routine and the experience of something new is actually quite exciting. For a while the old order is changed and the possibilities seem endless. It is a bit like leaving the real world behind and venturing out into a wilderness – a snowy wilderness in which it is an exhilarating effort to walk to Townland Stores and a drive to Tescos seems like an impossible dream from another life. But it doesn’t take long for this sojourn in the wilderness to become a bit tiresome – the kids have got too bored being in the house and it is actually too cold to go outside for long, the once crisp snow has become compacted ice and basic provisions start to run low. The wilderness seems like a nice place to visit but living there is something else entirely.
Matthew tells us today that ‘Jerusalem, all Judaea and the region around the Jordan’ were going out to John. Where was he? He was in the wilderness, but not a wilderness of snow but in the desert, the place of beginnings where God first wooed his bride Israel before leading her through the waters of the Jordan to the Promised Land.
Why were the people leaving the comforts of civilization and traveling out into that wilderness? What was so attractive about John? It certainly wasn’t his clothes or his hair or even his manners. The gospel writers go to great pains to describe John’s uncouth clothing made of camel hair. I don’t know if you have ever been close enough to a camel to smell it but I made the mistake of stroking one once and believe me, it stank. Around this probably stinking and primitive garment he had a simple leather belt and we know that he lived a wild existence eating nothing but locusts and wild honey. And when it says wild honey it doesn’t mean jars of wild honey bought from the local delicatessen with pictures of pretty bees and flowers on. It means that he probably shinned up trees like a bear in order to raid bee colonies of their honey comb and he doubtless got well and truly stung in the process. He was unkempt looking – we know from elsewhere that he took the Nazirite vow never to cut his hair and we also know from today’s reading that he was not an easy person to be around. Perhaps contrary to most vicars when John saw the Pharisees and Saducees coming for baptism he did not immediately welcome them with open arms – mind you, given the smell that might have been a good thing – no, he starts insulting them:
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
In many ways John was the opposite of the well-groomed, cultured and slick tongued evangelist that we might expect to see out there selling the message of the church. For those who have seen the Alpha videos this man was no Nicky Gumbel!
And yet, for all that, the people went out to him to be baptized. Why? Because through all his coarseness he utters the seductive promise that has a mesmeric effect. He tells the people, ‘you can begin again, you can change; it is not all hopeless; you can start again.’ The past cannot be erased, it cannot be made to disappear, but it can be refashioned, it can be healed, damaged beauty can receive a new design.
But, whilst God’s grace is free it is not cheap and a journey to being the people that God would have us be does demands something from all who embark on it. It does not demand more than we can bear but there is a cost. Going out, tearing yourself up by the roots is not an easy business. All of these people who are coming out to John to relive the beginnings of the Exodus are turning their backs on something. They are leaving behind Judah and Jerusalem, the monarchy and the Temple, the two most powerful symbols of God’s choice of Israel his bride; the signs of his active presence amongst them. In coming out to John they are committing themselves once more to the search for the living God. They will build his Temple and find their king in the wilderness, the place of beginnings. This means that they will become strangers in their own land, aliens in the midst of their own people. Their Exodus will effectively be an exile. They will be internal exiles in the society in which they live.
Exodus and Exile are two sides of the same coin in the experience of the people of Israel. As the Exodus was the leading into the Promised Land from captivity, so exile is the leading out of the Promised Land into captivity. As the people languished in exile in Babylon they struggled to understand what had happened to them. Where was God in all of this? In fact, the exile was one of the most productive theological, liturgical and spiritual experiences of the people. What it gave them was a humble, contrite heart, a pure heart.
Sometimes, as Christians in an increasingly secular world, our experience is not so different from those who flocked into the wilderness to catch the prophetic voice of John with his talk of new beginnings as it was born on the wind. If we want to begin again, if we want to respond to the voice, we have to become resident aliens, internal exiles. That experience can hit us hard. We are not used to it. At times in the past we enjoyed belonging. To be a Christian was to be a conformist. Now to be a Christian is to be a rebel in a world which want assimilation of anything different or challenging. The trouble with assimilation is that the terms are always changing. In the end you can only really belong if you stop being yourself entirely. It is then that Exodus is replaced with Exile, the coin is reversed.
Those who went out into the wilderness, believing in John’s promise of beginning again, took up the cross of exile, of not belonging. Embarking on the Exodus of Exile; they went in search of truth even to admitting the truth about themselves: they confessed their sins.
Exile is not easy, beginning again is not easy, the French have a saying – “it is the first step of a journey which counts” and there is an Indian saying, “take one step towards God and he will take ten steps towards you.”
And being in the wilderness is not easy, and it makes no difference whether it is a wilderness of sand or snow or a wilderness of the soul. In the wilderness the comforts and the distractions of normal life are removed and we are forced to take a long hard look at ourselves. And what we find when we look at ourselves may not be comfortable and that John words, directed at the Pharisees and the Saducees may actually be directed at us and our continuing need for conversion of life.
Let us, this Advent, take the first step, let us make the journey and embrace the exile and the wilderness, let us walk in the truth, then shall we find what the people of Israel found that God was not only in the Exodus but also in the Exile, they were not only blessed in the Exodus but also in the Exile and, as we wait for the coming of Christ at the nativity let us remember that we have been baptized and seek always to bear the fruit of repentance.