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St Matthews Church Oxhey Hertfordshire

Sally Sanderson's sermon


4th December 2005

Sally Sanderson

John the Baptist

I want you to imagine you are watching an epic movie. In glorious technicolour Stephen Spielberg, or some such director, leads you into the film by panning the whole vista of the location in which it is situated, with appropriate musical accompaniment to set the scene. It’s Lawrence of Arabia land - vast desert – wilderness - and you are made to look with the eye of the Bedouin, and you realise how unpractised your eye is, because it is a few moments before you can detect the figure approaching on the horizon. One man dressed as no other. If our gospel story was to be produced and needed such a visual context, it should begin not in a small village, behind the inn, or in the cowshed, but should begin here in Advent with expectation, in the vastness of the wilderness. For that is where the gospel story begins, in a place that is an endless nothingness where it is difficult to survive.

And in that wilderness the camera zooms in on a person who is obviously at home in that landscape: a man who is used to living in a cave and appears as if he knows nothing else. He is dressed in camel hair with a leather belt, and he looks unkempt with long hair and beard. A man, who if we met him in the street, we would be tempted to cross the road and walk on the other side, in case he smelled or he asked us for money. He calls out “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Now what do you do when you hear those words from one of the street evangelists who approach you and wave their bibles in front of your face? If you are honest you probably do what I do - cross the road.

So it seems no-one in their right mind would follow this man, and whereas those self-appointed holy men stand right in your way or knock on your door, this wild man deliberately stayed in the desert to give his message encouraging people to come to him. For if we look into the horizon of that wilderness we see that not only are we drawn to that man, but others are flocking to hear what he has to say. They are streaming down the hillside from Jerusalem and outlying cities, some on donkeys, some running, others walking to hear the message he has to give.

People came out from Jerusalem, which was the centre of religious learning at the time; from the place where the temple stood, the great temple the accepted place to hear the word of God. If someone wanted to hear from, or pray to God why not stay right where they were and even talk to a chief priest there? Anyone who would turn away from all that and set off for the wilderness was looking for something else, something that the temple could not or would not supply. And surprise, surprise we even hear in St Matthew’s gospel that the Pharisees and the Sadducees were amongst the crowd ready to listen because this man intrigued them.

So what attracted the crowds? Well the Israelites did like a good prophet. They hadn’t had a prophet in Israel for about three hundred years and here was one on their doorstep – well not quite - they had to make the effort of travelling into the wilderness. John was a messenger and he dressed like Elijah (you read 2 Kings ch 1), which was very significant for the Israelites. Elijah didn’t die according to the Book of Kings but was lifted up into heaven in a chariot, from where many Israelites thought he would return again heralding the coming of the Messiah. In about 500BC, the prophet Malachi had predicted, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.“ So they were sure that God, sent John with salutary words for the people – they had before them a prophet in the classis mould: so people listened to him.

And when they listened they realised that all things could be made new. He began a new age, preaching a new gospel that offered everyone the chance to start again. He baptised people, washing them clean, in the river Jordan – that was new. He offered people forgiveness of their sins - that was new life for them. He offered religious life outside that of the temple – that was new certainly for women who were not allowed in the inner precincts of the temple; and for sinners who would not have dreamed of trying to get inside at all. John’s baptism bypassed the temple and all its rites; he was the forerunner of Jesus’ ministry, which was forever at cross-purposes with the priests with their inappropriate interpretation of the Law.

John was the herald of the new age that the people had been looking forward to for a very long time. But whereas they had thought that reform would come from their religious leaders at the temple, instead the focus of Jesus’ teaching would be out there in the world, it would involve people rather than ritual, it would involve love rather than the law, it would involve individuality rather than power. It would have a freedom that the old religion did not have. Those who remained inside the temple never heard John’s message, nor Jesus’ for that matter. Only those who were willing to enter the wilderness got to taste his freedom. John invited his followers to come clean, to start anew, and to begin a new life. He invited people into the wilderness to do that.

The tasks that Jesus calls us to do may not be the work that we feel suited to do, God has chosen some rather strange people to do his work before now. Saul the Christian slayer who became Paul the Christian leader for one! Maybe we have to go into our own wilderness to find the message or the path that will lead us to God. And we may have a long list of reasons why we should not go there. Our lives are often very comfortable, we don’t like change and we get nervous that we will be outwardly ridiculed or inwardly made to feel a fool. When you say your prayers are there areas of work that you feel uncomfortable about, and you don’t really want to have anything to do with them? You pray that God won’t ask you to do this or that. Is that your wilderness?

John preached about new life to all those who took the trouble to go out and meet him, and told the people to listen to the person who would come after him. Jesus also offered new life to all that follow him, and he will offer us new life in the wilderness of our lives. Jesus came as a comforter, a healer, a person who would make our paths straight if we trust him to lead us; but we are not very good at letting Jesus rule our lives - we are fickle and go our own way.

John called people to repent. That is turning around from what has gone on in our lives up to now. We will pray in a little while for people to be made whole. If we don’t actually come for the laying on of hands I suggest we all pray for personal wholeness, and that comes from starting anew with our relationship with God. Perhaps we have to walk out into the wilderness in blind faith trusting in God’s call. In that desolation He hears our cry to him and he sends his Holy Spirit to support us. We cannot sit still and expect the work of God’s kingdom to happen without our help.

Like John we are waiting in expectation of the coming of Jesus Christ, who died to change the world. Let us make the world change for his sake, yes each of us can walk out in faith and the Holy Spirit will support us. If we only listen for God in church, we will miss half of the message. The good news is always beginning out there somewhere in the world, for those with ears to hear, eyes to scan the horizon and hearts to go wherever the way may lead. Step out into the wilderness with Jesus Christ at your side.

Amen

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