One Saturday afternoon some years ago, I ventured into Birmingham city centre to find the place packed out with crowds of teenage girls, and swarming with private security guards clad in hi-viz jackets, carrying (what we used to call in olden days) walkie-talkies.
It was obvious that something major was going on – but I had no idea what it was. And I was clearly not the only one. There were quite a lot of shoppers around me who were standing around intrigued, whom I could hear asking the same question: ‘What’s this all about?’ ‘What are they all here for?’ Given that it was a very large crowd of teenage girls, the likelihood was that the cause of all the mayhem was the imminent arrival of some teenage boy band or other that I had never even heard of – but seeing the way in which that crowd drew in so many other people, who had no idea what was going on, really did illustrate for me the power and the pull of crowds. Because I suspect that it is true for most of us that if we see a large number of people gathered in a place where we don’t expect them to be, immediately we want to know why. What is going on? And perhaps even, ‘Am I missing out’?
It is clear from this morning’s Gospel reading that, in his own day, John the Baptist had just as much crowd-pulling power as the average pop celebrity of today. Indeed, if anything, he had even more. Because far from courting popularity by setting himself up at a venue in the heart of the city, with a slick promotional organisation and guys in hi-viz jackets behind him, John the Baptist actually did the precise opposite: he deliberately chose to exercise his ministry out in the wilderness, away from the towns and the cities and the places of human habitation. Nor did he actively seek people out – on the contrary it was they who tracked him down.
And why did they come? Because they had heard the stories. They heard that this holy man was baptising people, releasing them from their sins. ‘Wonderful!’, some of them must have thought – ‘We could all do with a slice of that!’ They were, after all, already members of God’s chosen people – and clearly this was some kind of special extra perk that they could claim for themselves.
So John’s response to this excited and eager crowd must have been quite unlike anything that they were expecting. Because seeing them arrive in their droves, he greeted them, not with words of welcome, receiving their adulation with the mock humility of your average pop star – but, very startlingly, with rage and insults: ‘You brood of vipers!’
And why did he do this? Because John the Baptist knew perfectly well that so many of them were there for all the wrong reasons. They were there for the excitement; they were there because they thought that there was something in it for them; they were there to get a piece of the action; and they were there also because they were firmly convinced that they had a right to be – after all, they were descendants of Abraham, weren’t they?
The Baptist’s words to that crowd are fearsome, warning them of the wrath that is to come; warning them that those who do not bear fruit worthy of repentance have reason to be very afraid. No cult of celebrity here; no cosy rush of excitement. Just the cold hard shock of a message of judgment, and a jolt into harsh reality.
The writer and critic G.K. Chesterton once observed that, ‘The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.’ And connected with that thought is the very strange paradox that lies at the very heart of the Christian Gospel, which is this: God deals in free grace; but he does not deal in cheap grace. In other words, God’s grace is not earned: it is totally and absolutely and utterly free. It is ours for the asking. But therein lies the problem. Because the difficult bit is not the receiving; it is the asking. Because in order to be motivated to ask, we first need to have the self-awareness, and the humility, to look squarely at who and what we really are, and to recognise our own deep need of God’s grace, and our own deep need for repentance.
That, of course, is the reason why it was precisely the poor, the marginalised, the sinful, the broken, the rejected, the despised, the unloved, and the unlovable, who recognised Jesus as the bringer of hope and salvation long before anyone else did. Paradoxically, it was those who were most convinced of their own worthiness, and of their own moral rectitude; those who were most cosily ensconced in their well-ordered religious traditions – they were the ones who were least able to recognise the Messiah who was in their very midst. Indeed, not only did they fail to recognise him – they actively turned against him and brought about his death. As I am sure we all know, there is none so deaf as will not hear.
It took an individual who himself ended his days as a profoundly broken man, Oscar Wilde – of all people – who observed: ‘How else but through a broken heart may Lord Christ enter in?’
A church that is truly filled with the Spirit of God; a church in which people are able to glimpse something of God’s love, and grace, and acceptance, and forgiveness, is a church that will draw people in. Because the love and the grace and the goodness of God are highly infectious. But a word of warning. It is very easy, and can indeed be very dangerous, to play the numbers game in relation to churches and their congregations. Indeed, there have been a series of terrible scandals in recent years, involving some of the mega churches here and in the United States, where it seems it was a combination of wealth, power and undue influence corrupted those who were in positions of leadership, and a culture was allowed to develop that had very little to do with the true values embodied by Christ.
The season of Advent is wonderful, and profound, but the themes it invites us to explore are not for the faint hearted. It is so easy and so tempting to assume that we are in control of our lives and our destinies; to retain an overwhelming confidence in human progress. But, as one of my favourite authors on Christian spirituality, the American Fleming Rutledge, has pointed out, ‘How do we account for the fact that evil has not been conquered by the Enlightenment?’
We must of course rejoice in the advances of human knowledge and human scientific endeavour, which have unquestionably given those of us in this privileged part of the world a quality of life, and health care, and a life expectancy that would have been unimaginable in earlier centuries. But scientific endeavour takes no account of the complex reality of the human heart. And what is, in essence, a wonderful gift of God – the gift of human rationality and creativity – can so easily become a force of destruction, even unintentionally. Just look at the state of the natural world and the present climate crisis, that is a deeply unfortunate consequence of some of the wonderful things that human creativity can achieve. Which is why we all need redemption; and the recognition that precedes it.
The Christian gospel is life-giving, but it is also costly. John the Baptist alerts us to the fact that, where the good new of Christ is concerned, scale means little, but integrity means everything. Because God deals in free grace, but not cheap grace. And because the Christian faith is always comforting, but never, ever comfortable.