Sunday 8th December 2013
10.00 Communion – Hadlow
Readings Matt 3:1-12
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Even now the axe is lying at the foot of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
It is pretty uncomfortable being at the receiving end of a prophet’s fiery condemnation. Prophets are not easy people to be around – prophets tell us the truth about ourselves, they force us to take a long hard look at the people we are, at the people we have become and they force us to confront the fact that we may not be as good as we like to think we are.
We like people who stroke our egos, who make us feel good about ourselves and who tell us that everything is going to be alright regardless of what we do and how we act. But we tend to feel threatened by those who say that the status quo is not acceptable, that we need to change in order to be the people that God made and intended us to be.
Before we think about our biblical prophet it is worth remembering that prophets don’t just exist within the pages of the bible. On Thursday last week Nelson Mandela died and there is no doubt that his was a prophetic voice – he saw the evil that was endemic in the apartheid system and he spoke truth unto power and, for his troubles, he was locked up for over a quarter of a century. Fortunately, unlike John, he did not pay for his prophecy with his life and we know what he went on to achieve following his release from prison.
So Nelson Mandela was undoubtedly a prophet and I was also interested to hear his comments when people said that he was also a saint – he responded that he was not a saint unless a saint is a sinner who keeps getting back up and trying again. In my book that is exactly what a saint is and it is a helpful reminder that saints and prophets do not fall from the sky ready made and perfect but they are, like us, human beings who have to struggle through the temptations and trials of daily life but who, nonetheless, keep their eyes fixed and their fingers pointing towards something that is higher and better then others choose to perceive.
Today we are thinking about a saint and a prophet who saw the complacent and lazy religiosity of those around him and who said that God wanted them to do better, to try harder, to bear fruit worthy of their calling – and, of course, to tell them that someone else was coming who was going to change everything.
Matthew tells us today that ‘Jerusalem, all Judaea and the region around the Jordan’ were going out to John the Baptist. Of course John wasn’t actually a Baptist in the sense that we might understand that term now, but then again he wasn’t actually very Anglican either, as we shall see.
And where was John the Baptist? Of course, he was out in the wilderness, 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, but also the place of temptations and the place where it is possible to get lost and wander for years. An exciting place, a place of endless possibilities but also a scary place.
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.
We know from elsewhere that John took the Nazirite vow never to cut his hair, the same as Samson in the Old Testament, so he had long hair, rough clothes, he smelt and, as we know, when he 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!”
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 pick yourself up and 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 demand 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 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.
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 or even a prophet in a world which does not want to hear, for example, that God calls us to be so much more than compliant consumers and that there are values that surpass price.
Those who went out into the wilderness, believing in John’s promise of beginning again, took up the cross of exile, of not belonging. They went in search of truth even to admitting the truth about themselves: they confessed their sins. I will talk in more detail another day about the importance of confession as the first step towards healing and growth and it is interesting that the new Archbishop of Canterbury has said that the Anglican Church should seek to make more use of the practise of individual confession. And that is not because we are obsessed with sin but because we know the power of absolution and of fresh beginnings.
But 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’s words, directed at the Pharisees and the Sadducees may actually be directed at us and our continuing need for conversion of life.
As a Vicar I am often required to preserve the status quo and to be gentle with people and that is certainly an important part of my pastoral role – however today it is important for both you and I to remember that the oath I took at ordination and licencing also contains a hint of John the Baptist as the ordinal says that priests should “call their hearers to repentance” and, like John, the priest points the way towards the one who is coming – the one whom John baptised, the one we remember being born at the nativity and the one who will come again to judge the living and the dead.
Brothers and Sisters, this Advent let us embrace the challenge of the wilderness with all its freedoms and fears, let us remember that no matter how often we fall down the secret to sainthood is to keep getting up and, as we wait for the coming of Christ at the nativity let us remember that we have been baptized with the water of John and with the fire of the Holy Spirit and that we should always seek always to bear the fruit of repentance.
And I promise not to call you a brood of vipers again, at least until next Advent.