Centuries before Christ, the prophet Zephaniah said to the people of God: “The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory.” Every year about this time, we hear from one of the most powerful figures in the Bible: John the Baptist, a man who could certainly be described as a warrior of God. His powerful voice was not (is not) an easy voice to hear. For one thing, I suspect that the language he used, translated into today’s terms, would have had parents covering their children’s ears and maybe their own. The names John was using to insult the religious leaders and people of the time were meant to offend and to shock – he was trying to wake them up, get a rise out of them, in order to effect change.
Challenge and confrontation was the style John the Baptist adopted, and he serves as a stark reminder that Christianity is not primarily about being nice or making people nice. As CS Lewis said: “A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world—and might even be more difficult to save. For mere improvement is not redemption . . . God became man to turn creatures into [children of God]: not simply to produce better people of the old kind but to produce a new kind of person. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better, but like turning a horse into a winged creature” (Mere Christianity).
John’s voice, harsh as it may seem, might remind us of the parent who on occasion needs to be more emphatic with one of his/her children, and finds him/herself yelling at the child. Of course they love the child, and the urgency in their voice is a sign of how important the child actually is. So John’s underlying message might be: Don’t treat your life like it doesn’t matter, don’t be careless with something so precious as a human life, because God cares about you — more than you do yourself.
In modern terms, John says: Get a life! Come out from all the artificiality and phoniness; come out from behind your closed doors and stuffy lives; come out from all that is contrived and controlled. Come out and smell the flowers and feel the heat of the sun and let the wind blow through your hair and through your soul. Give yourself some space and time to hear the voice of God, instead of always drowning it out with some sort of noise or busy-ness. Let the water wash over you and through you so you can look at yourself in the mirror again and see your true self – so you can look at yourself with respect because your life has a real purpose.
There is nothing as inappropriate as an insipid response to the gift of life and the presence of God. John seems to say: Stop walking around like zombies! Stop wasting your life! Start living for something real, something meaningful! As Zephaniah says: “Sing aloud …. Shout! … Rejoice and exult with all your heart . . .” St Paul, writing from a prison cell, still urges Christians to “Rejoice — always!” and promises a peace which exceeds anything that we might be able to comprehend, no matter what our outward circumstances might seem to dictate.
Can you imagine being that enthused, that excited and urgent, about your faith – about the importance of your choices and the implications of your actions? Anglican church culture has not exactly been overwhelming in this regard! Polite, yes, predictable, yes, respectable, yes. But exciting and dynamic? Transformational? Think about it.
John the Baptist spoke to a church closed up and smug in its conventional ways, a church that was not open to the real issues of the time, and unwilling to move beyond ancient definitions, assumptions and practices. Of course I am speaking of the Jewish Temple tradition in which John was raised but it applies equally well today. Like a lot of people today, John was raised in the tradition, but he found it irrelevant, because it didn’t help him to deal with the kinds of issues he saw going on that needed to be addressed. He obviously felt the church leaders of his time were preoccupied in dealing with matters which were more self-serving than spiritual, more institutional than personal. John wanted to help people connect to God.
John, perhaps more than anything else, points us toward faith in the living God rather than faith in a system or institution, because a system can delude us into thinking we can comprehend, we can be in control, and John won’t let the church rest on its laurels or treat God like some commodity. John is an ongoing and sometimes painful reminder of the need to face into and seek the raw power and presence of God.
Every now and then, we need to be shaken out of the old model and encouraged to look toward the future. John is the one who is willing to tell us that the church is not being what it is intended to be, and his concerns about injustice, elitism, apathy, and the need for equality and honesty suggest to us the kind of community John would like to see.
John reminds us that it is essential to recognize those moments and opportunities when change needs to occur. We are facing a similar era and a similar challenge to the life of the Church, and to the ways in which we have tended to believe. We are in the midst of a huge paradigm shift, one of those moments in history when old assumptions are giving way in the face of new realities and questions, and completely new ways are emerging. Many of us in the Church find we would like to respond but find ourselves rooted in the past, bound to fixed ways of doing things, and find it difficult to be creative in pointing the way forward. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, at times it seems we are bound by heavy chains that limit our freedom and our capacity to be present.
Nearly 500 years ago, the Christian Church underwent a massive transformation, in which many broke away from the past and its traditions; many broke away from the Church entirely and formed new faith communities – Lutherans, Anglicans*, Calvinists, etc. Many of them got rid of anything – any church practice or doctrine — that could not be found in or justified from the Bible. In a few short years they jettisoned 1000 years of accumulated tradition. We call that era the Protestant Reformation because it began with a huge protest against the way things were, followed by a huge change and reform.
This is exactly what John the Baptist does. John confronted the religious assumptions of the Jews and offered the disturbing image of an axe laid to the roots – an image which suggests totally getting rid of the past, so that there is not even a stump left above ground as a conscious reminder.
“Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” If the religious people going out to see him thought they would be treated with respect and politeness, if they thought they were going out into the country for a church picnic, they were hugely mistaken, because John was virtually screaming obscenities at them, comparing them with poisonous and repulsive reptiles, and demanding that they repent, i.e. change. He cared nothing about their claims of being spiritual heirs of Abraham, because John knew very well that being a “cradle Anglican” or the son of a priest, or grandson of a bishop, is no guarantee of anything. Who you are is what matters; John warns that we stand before God on our own merits, not the sanctity of others.
As we reflect on the low level of spiritual life around us, we might be led to wonder how we might cut through the apathy and indifference, the checked-out, “I don’t care attitude,” and the callous and self-centered attitudes that have emerged in recent times. I wonder what John the Baptist might say about a society in which mass killings of school children have become commonplace? How would he speak to a world like ours in which violence and division are promoted in every aspect of our culture, even in the ways religious groups deal with each other?
There are times when we need to acknowledge what a fallen world we inhabit and yet not become fixated on evil or hopeless in our outlook. John Baptist was not afraid to confront and denounce the sick and destructive tendencies of his era, because he cared deeply about such things. But more importantly he saw through to a better way and he announced it; he described it; he identified it. John chose to become part of the divine solution that was coming into the world. John contrasted his dramatic, powerful and life-changing baptism with that of the Messiah, and insisted that his baptism was mild in comparison with the one that was coming. John baptized in water, but the baptism that was coming would be in fire – and we know what fire does.
So when I think of the casual and complacent way we dole out baptism, I am embarrassed, reminded that this is all supposed to mean something, that we are talking about a transformation of the whole person, and instead of generating fire – passion, enthusiasm, excitement – we seem to be dousing it if anything, sleep-walking through a dated and useless approach in which Baptism is given no more significance than your morning shower. We’re like Frodo and Gandalf (in The Fellowship of the Ring) moving quietly through the great halls of an ancient cathedral, deathly afraid we’re going to wake up whatever lives there.
And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’
What should we DO? Yes, the accountability of results! Advent is about “great expectations” but one of the faults of our church is that we don’t expect much of anything from people. As someone said, the pews are not supposed to be like shelves full of vegetables. The first thing to do is embrace the need for change and personal transformation, to allow yourself to really hear the challenge – the summons to a new life – and to allow yourself to step out of your usual respectability and security so that you actually can experience something on a spiritual level. Then, be prepared to DO something about it!
I remember attending a conference in Texas many years ago – a conference for clergy – and it was a powerful moment for many of us – preaching and music that lifted you onto your feet – in fact, the sight of 600 clergy marching around a huge auditorium, blowing the roof off the place singing, “When the Saints Go Marching In,” is not a typical sight – and not one to forget. But to know that that is in us somewhere is important. At one point in the conference, there was an opportunity to come forward for prayer. As many went forward, I sat there, hesitant, unwilling to step out and perhaps make a fool of myself. But something persuaded me to get up and move. And again, I don’t think I’ll ever forget how it felt to go forward with that sense of intention, that sense of an impending change, that sense of openness to what God might do with my life if I really handed it over . . .
John, the spiritual warrior, puts the sword back in our hands, the sword of truth, and says stand up, show courage, and make a difference. John’s way isn’t polite and demure, and it isn’t sophisticated and intellectual. It confronts us at a heart level, a gut level, and demands that we wake up and pay attention, that we begin to notice the people around us, that we stop playing games and start paying attention to the way we treat people, that we open up and share with others. John reminds us that the world around us is not just a backdrop for us. He called for honesty and integrity from those in authority; he called for mercy and compassion from those with power; he warned about the violence that stems from envy and greed. He pointed toward Jesus, and he was humble enough to stand back from the door that he opened so that Christ could actually enter. We too always need to be aware (and be reminded when we are not) that we are preparing the way – that what we do now carries implications into the future – creates the future.
John’s witness urges us to create communities in which people are able to deal with their real questions and issues, and not be forced into phoney conformity. He calls for a community that is active, that gets people off the pews and out into the community to serve, to heal, to care. We need to encourage our people to care – in every way possible. Apathy is our worst enemy. One of my favourite people didn’t let age become an excuse or take the edge off her feistiness – she continued writing letters to government officials until she was past 90! We need to raise our voices about issues that matter, and there are many of them. Our teaching needs to be allowed and expected to be transformational, not just coddling people, making sure we make people comfy and cozy, making sure we never offend anyone, but, like John, sometimes disturbing the peace, raising some dust, changing people, and in turn changing the world.
John’s voice is hard to hear, especially for those who want to restrict what scripture can say to them – hard for those who only want to hear messages that tell us we’re OK – don’t worry – it’s normal to sleepwalk through life.
Advent reminds us, as John did: “The Lord is near!” It’s a time to awaken and come alive. The question is, will we let our religious practices open us up to the reality and possibilities of Christmas, or will we choose not hear the voice of God calling us to new life, and allow our attention to be diverted elsewhere?
What do you mean when you say, “Come, Lord Jesus”?
The Reverend Grant Rodgers+
*The Church of England did not actually begin to use the term “Anglican” until some time after the Reformation, but that is the most familiar term to reference the Church in England.
RCL appointed readings for Advent 3:
Zephaniah 3:14-20 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD.
Philippians 4:4-7 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Luke 3: 7—18 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.9Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’11In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’12Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’13He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’14Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’ As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,*16John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with* the Holy Spirit and fire.17His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.19But Herod the ruler,* who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done,20added to them all by shutting up John in prison.