John the Baptist Advent

Begin by shouting out . . .

“REPENT, THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS NIGH!

REPENT AND BELIEVE IN THE GOOD NEWS!

ONE IS COMING AFTER ME, WHO IS MORE POWERFUL THAN I, I AM NOT WORTHY TO CARRY HIS SANDALS; AND HE WILL BAPTISE YOU WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT AND WITH FIRE!

HIS WINNOWING FORK IS IN HIS HAND, AND HE WILL CLEAR THE THRESHING FLOOR AND WILL GATHER WHEAT INTO THE GRANARY; BUT THE CHAFF HE WILL BURN WITH UNQUENCHABLE FIRE!”

Don’t worry, DON’T WALK OUT, it’s just me, an insignificant little curate, pretending to preach in the style of a Victorian or Edwardian preacher, prophesying hellfire and damnation

But these words aren’t Victorian or Edwardian... they are words you will recognise from readings over the past couple of weeks; the words of the great prophet… John the Baptist.

Not even the religious people of the day could escape his notice: how do you think important people today would feel if they heard someone shouting at them:-

“YOU BROOD OF VIPERS! WHO WARNED YOU OF THE WRATH TO COME! EVEN NOW THE AXE IS LYING AT THE FOOT OF THE TREE!”

All these words are really rather frightening, well at least I think they are… especially if you like me believe that there is a judgement to come; yet they are words which probably have lost some of their force down through the centuries, because of the way in which we read them in church.....politely, correctly and without too much expression.

But what we have here are John’s expectations of the new era the Messiah would bring in.

John expected a time of Reckoning! He prophesied that God’s kingdom was imminent and it was coming with force, ruthlessness and power. He expected Judgement with a capital J !

He expected wheat separated from chaff! The axe was indeed at the ready.

And then suddenly. . . John was imprisoned by Herod.

From prison he heard no doubt of the teaching and preaching of Jesus.

In Mark’s gospel we know that Jesus’ healings were reported to him there.

But as far as he could see no visible kingdom was being set up .... no big ‘sort out of the people was happening.....no powerful judgement was taking place! So, it’s no wonder, really, that John sent the message to Jesus that we read in our gospels today!

“Are you the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Expectations... we all have them. Wives have them of their husbands, husbands have them of their wives. Parents have them of their children, and vice versa . We have them of our vicars, of friends, of neighbours, of family.

We even have them about how Christmas should be spent.,etc.

A man was once was once travelling along a lonely country road, when he had a puncture. When he looked in the boot of his car, he realised that he had forgotten his jack, so he couldn’t even mend his flat tyre.. It was a cold, dark night, and there was no help in sight anywhere.

Then he noticed high on a hill, at the other side of a field, a light shining from a farmhouse window. So he set off to borrow a jack, so that he could mend his tyre.

As he trudged over the waterlogged field

he began to have his doubts.

“The farmer probably won’t be in! And if he is he’ll tell me he doesn’t open the door to strangers. Or he’ll say he doesn’t believe in lending other people his tools.

No, he’ll tell me what an idiot I am for forgetting the jack in the first place!”

He might even shout at me and tell me to get lost!

By the time the traveller reached the door, he was feeling really angry. When this cute, little farmer eventually opened the door, he was shocked to hear someone yell at him:-

“You know what you can do, don’t you? You can KEEP your stupid jack. I wouldn’t take it if you BEGGED me to!”

John the Baptist being human, must also have had doubts, just like the traveller.

He needed to know if Jesus really was the One? In one sense ....it might have been that in finding that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, then his own mission and life’s work has not been in vain!

We have no idea what conditions were like in prison for John, or what John’s morale was like, and he died shortly after this, so we can’t really speculate if he had been wondering to himself if his life’s work had all been for nothing? But I suppose, if he could establish that Jesus truly was the One that God had sent, then he was indeed who he thought himself to be.

In finding Jesus he he would be able to find himself, and there would be no more need to doubt.

It is probably true to say that most people go through periods of doubt and low self-esteem.

They doubt their own abilities and gifts… they doubt whether others could possibly love them or they may doubt their own value.

They may even doubt about God himself…perhaps their faith is hanging by a thread, and they wonder whether God really is there, watching over them, caring for them, especially when things are all going wrong for them. They wonder whether their lives of service have been lived in vain.

It is also probabaly true to say when we look at the state the world is in, that many of us doubt whether God is really in control of it?

Like John the Baptist we echo this question to Jesus, “Are you really the One who was to come, or are we to expect another?... in other words....(I’m also in the darkness of prison here, and I just can’t see?) Please send back an answer!

So what was the answer that Jesus gave back to John’s disciples.

He told them to look at the evidence before them.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see; the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them.

(Incidentally this is a good checklist of whether Jesus is at work, in us, in our churches today.)

On our service sheet today we find that this part of the prophecy given by Isaiah 61 on the first page, is being fulfilled overleaf. In other words he is telling the disciples...God’s kingdom has come! It has begun. The cogs are turning, all has been set into motion, and it will move on to completion albeit slowly through time!

When we doubt too, we too only have to look at the evidence God has provided. His beautiful creation!

The beauty of his son’s sacrifice for each one of us!

The beauty of lives lived together in love and fellowship.

If we doubt God’s real presence in this world, try imagining what kind of world it would be if there was no such a thing as faith and love and caring. Rather like the thoughts expressed in the song ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon.

I can’t imagine that kind of world. It would be too horrific to imagine no God, no rules, no love.

It is also worth noting that in this reading Jesus waits until John’s disciples have gone, before he delivers a strong affirmation of John’s ministry. I wonder why he didn’t praise him in front of them, then they could have returned and built him up.

“This is the one about whom it is written,

See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.

I tell you no-one has arisen greater than John the Baptist............

I don’t think he did this deliberately, but he stressed that the very least of the people he was ministering to, at the time, were actually greater than this very important prophet.

John would have been heartened by this message, but it was probably enough for him to learn that the kingdom was in place, and beginning to grow, and that the least of God’s people were being given a new status!

We may spend a lifetime serving God, and never feel encouraged or affirmed by others, but surely it is worth it that God knows our thoughts, our love , and sees our actions. We should rather rejoice that God’s kingdom is in place..

We each like John have a part to play.

Similarly I’m sure that God has great expectations of us, and there is much to do! It is the kingdom of God that must keep on growing, and there are many who need the presence of Jesus in their lives, the sick, the outcasts, those who are blind. God’s love mustn’t stop at our door or John’s, and remain there.

We, being part of that kingdom must reflect such love to others..