I really enjoy preaching about John the Baptist. He is intriguing – there’s a lot you could say about him, which is just as well as we say something about him on a couple of Sundays in Advent usually.
I’d like to pose a few questions today. The first is, why on earth did people flock to be baptised by him? After all, the wilderness was a very dangerous place – lions and the heat and no roads or anything. What’s more, thousands, upon thousands flocked to him. They took their precious families with them – young and old.
The reason will help us to understand the role of John the Baptist. The reason people took this huge risk was that they knew there was something dangerously, drastically wrong with their society, their world and themselves. They wanted healing – a fresh start. To be baptised.
The people were downtrodden, under occupation, poor and the land was full of collaborators and spies and false dawns. Every time a person came along saying they were the messiah they were shown to be jokers. And the screws tightened again.
It must have been hard to bear for the chosen people of God. And so they took the dangerous trip out into the unknown – much more than a family outing to the garden centre.
I admire them and I wonder if we would do it ourselves. It required a level of vulnerability and self-knowledge and even desperation.
They believed that John the Baptist was the fulfilment of ancient promises and they grasped at the chance to go. What would it take for us to do that?
And then there is John the Baptist and another question or two? What was his role? Why was he needed – this the great warm-up man for the Lord?
Some have painted him as a proto-hippy. After all he looked the part with his wild hair and clothes and alternative diet. But really that can’t be true.
The camel hair clothes would have been agony to wear. He wore it because he was an aesthete – the pain was deliberate to remind him of his own sinfulness. His diet was a sign of his total dependence on God to provide.
He had chosen a very hard life. He was born into some privilege, but it had got to this.
And what he was, was a prophet. It is a word, a role that we simply don’t understand these days. We tend to associate it with prophesying the future or a kind of fortune telling. Looking into the future.
And as we know that kind of thing makes us a laughing stock. Even the brightest minds have a dismal record when it comes to crystal-ball gazing.
No, the real role of a prophet – then and now – was to, is to, comment with searing insight and honesty into the way the world is. They sound the warning bell. They are never ever popular. They tend to end up in jail or with their heads chopped off and delivered on a plate.
And before we unpack John’s prophetic message for his people, I am struck with another question – who are today’s prophets? Sadly, I have to say it isn’t the great leaders of the church. I am not sure people are listening to them. I’m not sure it is politicians or captains of industry.
Before Covid we used to go every year to the Edinburgh Fringe. We loved it. Traipsing round seeing all the shows – mostly terrible, but occasionally wonderful. It struck me that today’s prophets might be comedians.
Yes they tend to come from the same political leanings, but the good ones, whatever their perspective help us to see our lives and our society in a very fresh light. But then who would follow a comedian?
Which brings me finally to John the Baptiser, the odd man in the wilderness. His comments, prophetic words, on his society are excoriating. He doesn’t mince his words. God is coming and coming soon – his name is Jesus and I am not even fit to clean his shoes.
What’s more take note that he is going to ask something of you and that will mean making yourself vulnerable. More precisely the old idea that out ethnicity, our privilege our history will be no protection. It does not make us superior or mean we can ignore God.
My goodness this would have been seismic. The people felt that they had a free pass to God simply because of their birth. He is uncompromising and spiky and is unafraid to say it as it is.
John says – think again. And that I think is the function of prophecy in two words. Think again!
I wonder when was the last time I was stopped in my tracks and had to question my assumptions about God and his promises?
So advent is the great season of preparedness. It is the time we think again too. Where we shake off the familiar and allow ourselves to see the wonder of God. Of the God about to be born as an infant – as vulnerable as it is possible to be.
Think again my friends. Think again.