St Bride's: Sermons

Call to Repentance

Mark 1: 1-8

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The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God;

As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.

The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.

And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.

And John was clothed with camel's hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey;

And preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.

I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.

In Birmingham, where I lived for many years, there is a place in the city centre which regularly attracts a certain kind of street evangelist, who would set out his stall (and interestingly it always did seem to be a he, rather than a she) and, armed with a megaphone and leaflets, would call passers-by to repentance - rather like John the Baptist in our gospel reading, you might think.  However, interestingly enough, it always struck me that, if anything, the differences between them were rather more telling than the similarities.

Let me explain what I mean.  You see, modern street evangelists of that kind do what might be regarded as the obvious thing: they go to the busiest place they can find, in the heart of a city centre, hoping to bellow their message to the maximum number of people possible.  But John the Baptist does the exact opposite - he takes himself out into the wilderness, as far away from people and civilisation as he can possibly get - which does, at first sight, seem a rather curious strategy for one who seeks to call people to repentance.

Likewise, if you have ever observed the impact of a megaphone evangelist on the shopping public, it tends to resemble the parting of the Red Sea, as passers-by give the speaker the widest berth possible, desperate to avoid catching his eye.  One or two might take a leaflet out of politeness - but you seldom, if ever, see anybody actually stopping to listen.  Contrast that with the impact of John the Baptist.  We are told that crowds from the countryside of Judaea and Jerusalem went out in their droves to seek him.

And I have yet to see a megaphone evangelist with clothing and lifestyle as weird as those of John the Baptist, who was clothed with camel's hair, and survived on a diet that was unusual and challenging to say the least.  And yet, interestingly enough, it is abundantly clear that nobody at the time regarded him as mad.  The New Testament knows all about people who were not in their right minds: such individuals were shunned by society and excluded from civilised life, like the demoniac who was forced to live among the tombs, because he was regarded as dangerous.

Whereas, John the Baptist was not shunned by society - on the contrary, people flocked to him.  Because far from regarding his wild and unorthodox appearance as a sign of madness, it indicated to them that he was living a life that was utterly counter-cultural, and completely dedicated to God.  It placed him within the great tradition of Old Testament Prophets, like Elijah - and of course, as our reading from Isaiah reminds us, it was from out of the wilderness that news of the coming Messiah was destined to come.  So to those living in first century Judaea, it all made perfect sense.  Their increasing desperation, as an oppressed people living under occupation, led them to seek him out. As it happened, the Messiah they were to encounter was not at all the Messiah that they were expecting - but nevertheless, their starting point was a recognition of their own need.

Last week, I was asked to give a written interview for a magazine, and one of the questions I was asked was both insightful and thought-provoking.  Which was this: what did I think was the biggest challenge facing the Church in the West.  To which I found myself responding with a single word: 'Affluence'.  Because wealth deludes us into thinking that we can be in control of our destiny, and that the solution to our problems can be found through either material possessions, or through the choices that wealth brings.  Because the ultimate good in our society is that of the self-sufficiency of the individual.  I myself grew up in a culture that regarded religion as basically a prop for sad and weak individuals, who were in need of that kind of help and support, but was of no use to strong well-adjusted individuals.

Whereas nothing could be farther from the truth.  As I have mentioned to some of you before, my parish in Edgbaston included one of the wealthiest areas of the West Midlands - and yet I took more funerals of suicides during my time there, than during the whole of the rest of my 30 year ministry.  And most of those tragic deaths were of individuals who found that, once they had exhausted everything that money, and success, and power, and independence, and freedom, and choice could bring them, and yet they still experienced despair, they knew of nowhere else they could go.

Wealth enables us to lose touch with the vulnerability that is both an essential part of our humanity, and which leads us to recognise our need of God.  Which is why affluence can be so profoundly corrupting - and why the voice of a John the Baptist, crying in the wilderness, is so compelling in its authenticity.  And far from providing a prop for the inadequate, as G.K. Chesterton put it, 'Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; rather it has been found difficult and not tried.'

In matters of faith, particularly in a society such as our own, shielded by its affluence, shouting at people, however honourable your intentions, is never going to be anything but utterly counterproductive.  Indeed, it is worth remembering that Jesus didn't do that either: his ministry was always ultimately rooted in his relationships with people.  Yes, he was a compelling storyteller; yes, thousands did flock to him when they heard he had miraculous powers; but at its core was his encounter with individuals, and the sadness, and tragedy, and complexity, and vulnerability of their lives.  And it is noteworthy, by the way, that even when he heals people of their illnesses, it is not in order to enable them to return to the lives they lived before, but rather it comes with a summons to a new kind of living altogether: 'Come, follow me.'

One of the reasons why St Mark's gospel is my favourite gospel of all, is because he never spells things out to his readers; he doesn't provide us with the answers: instead, he leaves us with a job to do: to work out for ourselves what is really going on; to ask ourselves how we fit into the story that he is recounting.

So I wonder where we are in relation to this morning's Gospel reading?  Are we prepared to follow, symbolically, the Baptist into the wilderness, to hear again those challenging words calling us to repentance; his invitation to recognise the darkness that remains in our hearts; urging us to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ? 

Because if we do hear his words - really hear them - then we shall find ourselves needing to respond.  That response is likely to take different forms for each one of us, but at its heart is a simple call to open our hearts, wherever we happen to be, and whoever we happen to be, and make ourselves ready to receive God's gift of love and grace.

The priest and poet John O' Donohue describes the true nature of that kind of spiritual awakening with these words:

Once the soul awakens, the search begins and you can never go back.  From then on, you are inflamed with a special longing which will never again let you linger in the lowlands of complacency and partial fulfilment.  The eternal makes you urgent.  You are loath to let compromise or the threat of danger hold you back from striving towards the summit of fulfilment.

So be warned: if you do find yourself ready to do that, and to heed the Baptist's call, your life will probably never be quite the same again.

Amen

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