Every now and again we come across something in the gospels that we seem to have heard somewhere else in a different context. We might for example hear Jesus delivering the same words in a totally different setting – or as in the case of this morning’s reading John the Baptist saying some of the same words found in other gospels but with a different slant added.
Just as there appear to be as many different kinds of Christians as there are Church members, the four different gospel writers write revealing their distinctly different personalities. On the topic of John the Baptist, Mark and Matthew appear to agree at least that here is a sort of wild eyed apocalyptic figure crying a warning about a populace unprepared for the approaching Messiah. The difference comes in the extras they note and in editorial comment.
At least you could say John didn’t muck about. In fact I suspect John the Baptist would have had to have waited in vain for some considerable time before being put on the preaching plan in a church such as we have in this place today. Addressing those who arrive for the message with “You brood of vipers” is not what I understand to be standard preaching advice from our modern theological colleges.
In some ways John the Baptist with his rough and direct urgency might seem a strange figure to turn to for the Advent season.
But at least his listeners could not have accused him of being half-hearted. The poet author of the gospel of John presents this John the Baptist as having the eyes of a visionary who can see in Jesus the Messiah long before others make the same discovery. Luke starts out as if he shares some of the same views of John the Baptist but notice how he modifies the apocalyptic side. For the scholars present among us perhaps we should note in passing that certainly he starts with sayings that seem to have been lifted from the same document which the scholars call the Quelle document also used as the basis for part of Matthew and Mark (Quelle being German for source) but then he adds some sayings with a different flavour which appear to be unique to the gospel of Luke. For those horrified at the suggestion that Luke is not simply doing his best to reconstruct a verbatim transcript of what John the Baptist and Jesus said, it may help to remember that Luke was not writing a newspaper column based on 30 or 40 year old news – he was writing for a contemporary audience and he knew exactly what they were facing. He was in effect writing an extended sermon, pulling in the facts he knew and no doubt adding editorial comment as he went.
And yes, it is easy to spot the apocalyptic theme. Thus Luke reports John warning metaphorically that the axe is lying at the foot of the tree …. and saying of the coming Messiah …his winnowing fork is in his hand….but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. But then in the middle of this he suddenly gets practical. He moves from the warning of the future to the present of his hearers. John the Baptist finds there, not so much a shortage of what these days we might associate with religious behaviour, as it is a mismatch he sees between the religious ideals and the practice. Thus the people who have plenty are told to share what they have with those who are without. The tax collectors he warns to only take the officially assigned amounts, the soldiers are exhorted not to take advantage of those they oversee.
These are not only intensely practical suggestions, they also offer a way of life which is radically different for his listeners from the expected order of things. In Jesus’ society the normal course of events (as perhaps it is for many today) has a vast majority holding on to what they have with no thought that their religion would encourage them to do anything different. In John the Baptist’s day tax collectors were well known for their ability to skim some off the top, conquering soldiers were feared precisely because extortion and even pillage and rape were part and parcel of the age.
In dealing with these issues, John the Baptist didn’t just ask people to repent only with words to get them ready for Jesus as the other gospel writers would have it – he told them in effect what actions would be required of them to have their repentance seen as legitimate. The repentance John talked about then was far removed from the token “mea culpas” or for that matter, traditional church prayers of repentance. Luke’s version of John the Baptist’s teaching would be right at home with the injunction to “Put your money where your mouth is.”
Of course, now when we encounter this section, we have to see it with very different eyes. The world has moved on. It is all very well today to shape your words for soldiers who are using force to back up extortion, or of those who are greedy tax collectors acting outside the law, but the simple truth is that we in the West are most unlikely to encounter tax collectors or soldiers carrying out such actions in our modern home setting. It is merely holding to a distant historical memory to imply that such literal instructions still matter to us. In terms of practical advice, as those seeking to represent Christianity we need to update John the Baptist and look honestly at our present personal and collective inappropriate actions and short-comings as members of a Church.
For those of us hoping to learn something here for our own lives, we are going to have to do what Luke appears to have been doing with his reporting, in other words to modify the message for our own age. Our age has new problems and if we as a church are not facing up to these problems there would be little point in expecting the community to be turning to the Church for guidance.
So I would suggest John’s message has to be reinterpreted for each age. And there must be many genuine equivalent situations deserving of our attention. First century tax collectors are for example only one dimension of those who now practice extortion. Finance companies in our day can be honest but all too often they set themselves up to take advantage of the vulnerable. I suspect a modern day John the Baptist would not have to look too far to find plenty of other areas where we as a Church have been turning a blind eye to some fairly serious issues. For example have we as a society got on top of violence in the home? Recent statistics show violence in the home increasing greatly at the very time the Church and community are reducing tangible efforts to reduce this violence. The Manager of Friendship House has had to lay off five of her trained counsellors who have a responsibility for running courses for violent offenders because funding has been withdrawn. Have we managed to control drink fuelled teenage behaviour in the streets on a Friday or Saturday night? We certainly seem to be relatively relaxed about the access of liquor in the community to older teenagers. Will the food banks have enough food for the pressures of Christmas? Those organising the food banks claim there is not enough. If they are correct about the shortage perhaps we should be asking ourselves why.
There is an understandable urge to avoid disturbing the tranquillity of custom. Unfortunately custom can take our attention from some sad aspects of the modern world. Yet a good world needs relevant knowledge, courage to face unpleasant truths and dangers, and above all kindliness. It does not need – as Bertrand Russell once put it – a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of free intelligence by outdated philosophy.
So what would John the Baptist be drawing to our attention if he were to see our world with his eyes today? Would he find ours to be a Church with a lively and relevant faith? Would our modern John the Baptist see a church where we genuinely do watch out for one another and welcome strangers into our homes? I wonder for example what he might now say about the position of women in Church and community because although custom and past religion can excuse outdated subjugation of women to minor and serving roles, ours is a very different society from first century Israel. In those days leaders did need physical strength and even households required protection from physically bigger and stronger leaders. But what do we now have? No woman priests in the Catholic Church, a recent decision to bar woman bishops in the Anglican Church and few women in the key leadership roles in most of the other churches. It doesn’t take John the Baptist to tell us that this no longer leads the way when secular society has moved on.
I am sure that a modern John the Baptist would definitely find some amongst us who have taken up the message of Christ and all such who make a genuine effort to live the gospel would be perfectly justified in seeking to reconnect with the Christ child this Christmas. I am equally sure a modern Baptist figure would also find amongst us those whose token assent to faith makes a mockery of the message, and those of us who still need to hear the Baptist’s voice calling to awaken our conscience. If the truth be known, perhaps we are all sometimes the saint and sometimes the sinner. Do you think perhaps this is why those selecting the readings for our lectionary were right to cut through the sloppy sentimentality which overwhelms the community each Christmas and instead confront us with the uncomfortable and uncompromising message of John the Baptist?
To take a local example, the New Zealand Methodist Church conference in Wellington last month adopted the theme of Let the Children Live, a most laudable aim for the next decade given the growing gap between the rich and the poor. But saying we care, is not quite the same as launching programmes that support this cause, or if it comes to that, in-house prayers are hardly the same as using Church influence to alter Government policy in positive ways. Remember John the Baptist was never on about the need for pious sentiment. At least according to Luke, John claimed the only way to become prepared was to show our behaviour to be consistent with what we might claim our faith to be. It is only then he tells the people that they will find hope.
This is the season of Advent. It is also a season where a wild-eyed John cuts through our festive preparations with an urgent message of honesty and practicality. The Christ child can indeed be found in Christmas so we turn to John who tells us how to go about our preparation. The response is ours to find, not just with words – but with reshaped lives and hearts.