According to the story which I understand is one doing the rounds, a certain farmer was out the front of his house fixing a fence when a police car came up his drive. An officious policeman climbed out and announced he was there to search the farm for possible marijuana plants. “OK by me” shrugged the farmer,” but you had better not go into that paddock over there”.
“Listen!” snapped the policeman, “I am going anywhere I like and you can’t stop me”. He pulled his warrant card out of his pocket and waved it in the farmers face. Then he tapped the badge on the side of his arm. “See this badge, Sunshine. That says I can go anywhere I like! Couldn’t care less what you don’t want me to see in that paddock”.
“Well suit yourself”, said the farmer. And he walked away to continue with his fence maintenance.
A moment or two later he heard some panicked shouting from the paddock and saw the policeman running for his life followed by the farmer’s snorting bull. The farmer dropped his wire-strainer and ran across to the fence. “The badge, the badge!” he shouted. “Show him your badge!”
Can I suggest that the uniform, the badge and the warrant card would never excuse the policeman for his silly behaviour. And yes that was a nice story. But here is the kicker. It ceases to be just a nice anecdote and becomes a parable for us when we realise how it isn’t just arrogant policemen, but we too who might be need to be called out for our failures.
John the Baptist pointed out just because the Jews called themselves the chosen people and just because in their history they had wise outspoken prophets, that didn’t excuse the Jews in Jesus time from forgetting their promises to follow what they believed their God had been calling them to be. For us that is just the easy bit. It is not just a two thousand year old story of John the Baptist calling out those who had been letting down the ideals of their faith. The same logic should apply today. We may not have a badge on the sleeve or a warrant card but telling others we are followers of Christ doesn’t make us followers.
While we might claim we are “born again” if we keep a score of wrongs, don’t forgive our enemy and fail to welcome the stranger in our midst we are not much different from an arrogant policeman who doesn’t live the intentions of his career. Even a membership certificate gives us no special right to fail to respond to the message of the one for whom we celebrate his coming..
At least you might say that as described in the reading from Luke, John the Baptist didn’t muck about. Luke’s version of John the Baptist would be most unlikely to be offered a preaching spot in our Church 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.
There is also a bit of a puzzle as well. In some ways John the Baptist with his rough and direct urgency might seem a strange figure to turn to for the Advent season.
Certain the details of the gospel writers differ when it comes to this story. 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.
Luke reports John warning metaphorically that the axe is lying at the foot of the tree ….Then talking 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 church based 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 would have seemed radically different for his listeners from the expected order of things. Should we be surprised that in Jesus’ day 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” and even less, traditional synagogue prayers of repentance. Luke’s version of John the Baptist’s teaching was the more direct injunction to “Put your money where your mouth is.”
True, we have to now have to see it with very different eyes. The world has moved on. Extortion and hypocrisy has a different face. But the same challenge to check to see if our background of faith matches what we would hope that others would see in us – in other words people like us, may still apply. So for a moment think what John the Baptist might notice if his modern equivalent was look honestly at our present personal and collective inappropriate actions and short-comings as members of a Church.
Last Sunday the Sunday Star Times was talking of a woman wanting her child pulled out of a class where Jesus’ birth was going to be discussed. Why do you think it was the woman wasn’t so grateful for the actions of the Church in her community that she wanted her child to learn about the Christian story? This week we have the tourist girl being murdered in our friendly nation. Do we as a Church offer support to such tourists? The hard truth is that our age has serious problems and if we as a church are not facing up to these problems there is little point in expecting the community to be turning to the Church for guidance.
True, that today’s tax collectors are not the extortionists. We now have the easy buy trucks cruising the poor suburbs offering via over=priced goods, what turns out to be high interest loans for those who can’t afford the repayments. 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 demonstrating fewer effective tangible efforts to reduce this violence. No doubt there are exceptions but most Churches I know locally are not sponsoring courses to work with known offenders. What we might ask are we doing 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 kindness. 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, or offer a fair deal for women in the community..
At our Methodist Conference this year, there was an attempt to prevent homosexual Church leaders from offering communion. It doesn’t take a John the Baptist to tell us that this Church no longer leads the way in any particular area when secular society appears to be doing better than the Church.
I am sure that a modern John the Baptist would definitely find some amongst us who have taken up the message of Christ . 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 perhaps we all need still need to hear the a modern version of John 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 community now has the leading spot in the OECD for suicide rate. Home violence is at near record rates. Do we need reminding that saying we care, is not quite the same as launching programmes that support dealing with this issue, 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 the Baptist 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.