24 June 2007

Preaching the Word

Today, as I've said, the Circuit is celebrating Local Preachers' Sunday, and all the services are being taken by a local preacher. It is also John the Baptist's birthday, so I thought we would take the readings and prayers for that, rather than for whichever Sunday in Ordinary Time it is, as John the Baptist was, of course, a great prophet and preacher!

As I'm sure our reading this morning reminded us, he was Jesus’ cousin, born to Zechariah and Elisabeth in their old age.  He was the unborn baby who “leapt in the womb” when Mary, carrying Jesus, came to visit Elisabeth.  We know absolutely nothing about his childhood, how well he knew Jesus, whether they played together as kids, or whether they only saw each other once a year when the holy family went up to Jerusalem.  What we do know is that, when he grew up, John disappeared off into the desert for awhile, to study and pray – whether alone, or with a community such as the Essenes, we also don’t know.  When he came back from the desert, he was a prophet, just as Luke alleges that his father foretold: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. “
For the people of Israel, that was rather exciting.  They hadn’t had a prophet for many centuries, not a proper one.  And John looked the part.  He dressed like a prophet, in camel-hide clothing.  He ate locusts and wild honey, just as they expected a prophet would do.  He gathered a small flock of disciples around him. And he preached God's message: "Repent and be baptized and get ready for the coming of the Kingdom!"

Well, you can imagine, the crowds absolutely flocked to hear him!  Better than the cinema, this was – such an excitement.  But what they wanted was to see the prophet.  They didn’t really want to hear what he had to say.

Few of them were really willing to repent, to turn right round and go God's way. Not even the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. Not that they interfered with him, mind you - could have been nasty, if they had. But they didn't want to know! Very frustrating.

But there were the other kind of people, too. People who really did want to listen to John, to hear what he had to say and to act on it. People who came to him, asking to be baptized in the river Jordan. And one day, his cousin Jesus comes to him and asks for baptism.

And at that moment, John knows that this is the One he has been waiting for, the One for whom he has been preparing the way. And yet he wants to be baptized - surely not! Surely it should be he, Jesus, who baptizes John? John's always known that when the Messiah came, he wouldn't be fit even to undo his shoes and wash his feet, slaves' work, that. John mutters something to this effect, but Jesus says, "No, let's do this thing by the book!"

And as he enters the water, the Holy Spirit comes down on him in the shape of a dove, and a voice speaks from heaven, "Behold my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased!"  

And John says, so we are told, “He must increase, and I must decrease”, and he spends his time pointing people to Jesus, as well as preaching the message of repentance, of turning round, of going God’s way.

And then John preaches against scandal and sleaze in high places once too often, and the powers-that-be have had enough, so they put him in prison to try to shut him up.

And then the doubts start.  Is Jesus really the  one God was going to send?  Could John be mistaken?  This is his cousin, after all – Aunty Mary’s son.  John had thought so, but everything’s gone so totally pear-shaped he can’t be sure of anything any more.  So he sends one of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”
Jesus sends John a message of reassurance: Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”  In other words, “Hang in there, mate, you’re doing great!”  And then Jesus tells the crowd that John is just about the greatest of God’s servants that there ever has been, or ever will be – yet while he’s on earth, even the least of those in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he is.
Sadly, as we know, it all ends tragically – the king’s wife seizes the opportunity to have John killed, and he is beheaded.  Jesus is devastated by the loss of his cousin, and goes off by himself to pray, but the crowd follow him and he has to feed them all, and then he sends the disciples off ahead, because he really, really, really wants to be alone with his Father to try to come to terms with John’s death – and ends up walking across the lake to join them, later on!


I love this story – the affection between the cousins, the respect that John had for Jesus, but the fact that John was also human enough to doubt, and secure enough to express his doubts.
Because we all have our doubts, from time to time, if we’re honest.  And that’s as it should be.  There are times, and I wish they came more often, when God is as real to us as bread and butter, when we couldn’t doubt his existence and his love for us if we were paid to do so.  But at other times, all trace of God seems to vanish from the universe.  
Perhaps dreadful things happen, either personally or on the world stage – I remember hearing someone on “Thought for the Day” saying, on the 14th September 2001, that the smoke rising from the collapse of the World Trade Centre seemed to come between her and the face of God.  I knew exactly what she meant!  Or when there were the attacks here a couple of years ago. And for John the Baptist, it was personal circumstances – being thrown into prison, deprived of his whole reason for being, which at that time was to preach repentance and to baptise people.
John is actually quite a good model of what to do when doubts strike.  He does absolutely the right thing – he goes to Jesus and asks, outright.  And Jesus reassures him.  But the interesting thing is that Jesus actually reassures him by saying “Look around, and see what’s happening!  Look for the signs of the kingdom!”  He doesn’t just say “Yes, of course I’m the Messiah, you silly little man!”  Or even, “Don’t worry, mate, I’m the Messiah!”  What he does is say, “Look, see what is happening, see how the blind receive sight”, and so on.  And maybe that is his answer to us, too, when the doubts happen, when we wonder whether it’s really a load of nonsense, whether it’s just wishful thinking.  Look around and see the signs of the kingdom.


We are not, of course, all called to be prophets or preachers, but we are all called to be God's people. God has, so St Paul tells us, prepared good works for us to walk in. Sometimes we feel he couldn't possibly use us: "Not me, I don't have a degree!" "Not me, I'm old and unfit!" "Not me, I've got a young family." Or whatever other reason. Usually, "Not me, I am not a good enough Christian!" I've still no idea why God called me to preach, but there you go - when I look back to when my call first came, it was before my so-called "conversion"! Took a mighty long time to be able to answer the call, going through all sorts of hoops here and there and hither and yon, of course, but eventually I was able to do so. But not everybody is so called, of course.

Sometimes we wonder, like John, if it hasn't been a huge con. We all doubt. We wonder if God can possibly use us, so full of holes and doubts as we are. Well, yes, God can! But the thing to do when the doubts hit is to do what John did. Go to Jesus and ask! After all, we aren't always, in fact I could go so far as to say we mostly aren't aware of what we are doing. We very seldom know what a smile or a "Good morning" or a "Bless you!" has meant to the person at whom we smiled. Yet it can make all the difference. Jesus told us that when the Holy Spirit comes upon us, we will be God's witnesses, whether we know it or not. So we, who are Jesus' people, are witnesses to Jesus.
And that is true no matter how old we are, or how young, or how educated or not, or how fit or otherwise. If we are God's people, then we are witnesses. Some of us will be called - maybe even have been called already - to do something more; the rest of us are just asked to get on with our lives and be God's people wherever we happen to be.

Which is just as well, really. But the thing is, if the occasion arose and God did call you to do something more - would you, could you, answer that call? Don't worry, you won't be asked to do more than you're able! We do, each year, commit ourselves to doing whatever God wants of us in the Covenant service. I sometimes wonder how I should react if God were to require more from me than I'm actually willing to give! But I don't believe he will.

John the Baptist was special to God even before he was conceived. In one sense, so are all of us. In another, of course, very few people are. John, of course, was scheduled to be the forerunner, the one who came to "prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God." He pointed to Jesus, and prepared the way for him.

In that sense, we are not special to God. But we are all witnesses, all workers in the harvest-field. God can and does use us, whether we know it or not. But let's be open to being used even more than we already are. Amen.
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