Tomorrow will be a milestone for me: the iPad arrived on Thursday, and so in the morning I shall preach my first paperless sermon in the thirty-five years since I first preached as a teenager. Here it is:
There’s no doubt about it: if you put together your dream team for ‘I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here’, John the Baptist would be on it. The man who lived in the desert and existed on a diet of locusts and honey would be a shoo-in for the bush tucker trials. In a cage, having insects dropped on him? Breakfast. Being forced to eat the private parts of strange Australian animals? Lunch. Any fading radio or television personalities seeking to re-ignite their careers by endearing themselves to the public through their endurance of humiliation would be blown away by J the B.
But sometimes we don’t get much past that aspect of John, those elements of his lifestyle that we condescendingly assume to be eccentric. Who has not secretly sniggered at the gospel descriptions of him?
There is far more to him, in terms of the way he prepares the way for the Messiah – which is why, part-way through Advent, we skip thirty years beyond Jesus’ birth to passages such as today’s. These six verses, which we might mistakenly dismiss as a mere preface to the real action, are packed with significance for the coming of the Christ.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene – during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Verses 1-2)
‘History is bunk’ was the foolish saying of Henry Ford, the car maker. It is a sentiment echoed by the so-called New Atheists today, who sneer at our scriptures on the basis that it is crazy to base our lives on writings from the Bronze Age.
But Luke – not for the first time – locates his story in space and time. ‘This is the year that it happened,’ he says, ‘and these are the people who were in power.’
Why does this matter? Because the coming of the Christ changed everything. There are such things as events that altered the course of history, and Luke makes the bold claim that the arrival of the Messiah is just that – indeed, the greatest such event in history. This is what we are marking. There are certain parts of our Scriptures where it is of little account whether they are historical, but this is one of many – and the pivotal one at that – where the fact of history is critical to the truth.
Well, this is not an interventionist God but the work of a God who is always at work in history, and who did his most significant historical work among the human race when he gave up his only begotten Son.
It is this God who is committed to changing history. It is this God who cares about the historical circumstances in which we find ourselves. The God who announced his Son through John the Baptist during the reign of Tiberius Caesar, under the delegated authority exercised by Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip and Lysanias, and during the times of Annas and Caiaphas, is the God who is still at work in the reign of Elizabeth II, her Prime Minister David Cameron and of Mark Wakelin’s presidency of the Methodist Conference. Here and now, in December 2012, that God is present and at work for his kingdom through his Son and in the power of his Spirit.
What does that mean for us? God through Jesus is always committed to working for salvation. That includes now. Take a moment to reflect: where do we need to see God at work? Where does our world need to see God at work? The Advent message as John the Baptist heralds the coming King is that the King is still coming in salvation, because history is the arena where he works. That means us, just as much as the biblical story.
Our second theme is power. Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip and Lysanias; Annas and Caiaphas. It’s quite a list, isn’t it? John the Baptist announces the coming Messiah in a context of these powerful people.
The snag is, John isn’t impressed by the powerful and the Gospel writers certainly weren’t, either. Pontius Pilate chose to save his own political bacon rather than do justice. Herod saved his adulterous marriage by executing John. Annas and Caiaphas conspired in the arrest of Jesus.
John, on the other hand, works on the margins, in the countryside (verse 3) and the wilderness (verse 4), far from the centres of power, just as Jesus was born in little old insignificant Bethlehem, not in the capital city of Jerusalem.
It raises a serious question for us about how we view power and influence. Ours is a culture that refers to the President of the USA as ‘the most powerful person on Earth’. We talk about politicians being ‘in power’. It is also exercised by the media and by multinational companies. We defer to the influence of celebrities.
And before we look too far down our noses at this culture, let us remember that the church falls into the same trap all too often as well. We like it when a famous person becomes a Christian, as if their testimony were more valuable than that of an ‘ordinary’ person. We think the Church is more effective when we lobby politicians. We are under a delusion that the most important people in the Church are the ministers, and especially those holding senior positions.
Does any of this make sense when John exercises his ministry off the beaten track? When the only time we know he came into contact with the powerful was when he criticised Herod’s adulterous marriage and paid with his life? It’s hardly the kind of life that would feature in Hello magazine, or get press releases in the daily papers.
Knowing this, I am fond of the expression coined by one Christian that what we are about in the mission of Jesus is ‘the conspiracy of the insignificant’. It is the sort of thing going on at Corinth when the Apostle Paul reminds them that not many of them came from influential parts of society.
So take heart if you are one of our world’s nobodies. You are precisely the sort of person God delights to use in the spread of his kingdom, as he reverses the values of our world. If he even sent his Son to be born in an obscure town and raised in another backwater, if he grew up as an artisan rather than a power broker, what do you think that says about his potential to use you in his kingdom purposes?
However, that still leaves a question especially for some Surrey residents. We include among our number people who are influential in ways that the world recognises. Should such Christians give up their roles?
By no means necessarily. There are a few such people featured among the disciples of Jesus in the Gospels, and occasionally in Acts and the Epistles. They clearly remained where they were when they were called by Christ. The distinctive Christian call to such people is surely to subvert the world’s love affair with power by not using it in self-aggrandising ways, but by seeking to use such positions for the welfare of others, as a voice for the voiceless not a cheerleader for the privileged, and in the fashion of a servant, contrary to expectations.
Thirdly and finally, having been firstly among the historians and secondly among the politicians and the powerful, then we are now among the civil engineers. Our third theme coalesces around images of roadworks:
‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
“Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.”’ (Verses 4-6)
Straightened paths, filled-in valleys, mountains and hills flattened, crooked roads straightened, rough ways made smooth. As the arrival of winter here sees the increase of potholes in Surrey roads, so a Highways Agency project rather like this prophecy of Isaiah 40 that Luke quotes sounds very appealing to us.
But we generally interpret this as an image for the kind of message John the Baptist proclaimed, namely one of repentance. Although Isaiah 40 in its original context has a sense of smoothing out the way for God to lead his people on a highway back from Babylon to Judah, in the New Testament’s use in relation to John it becomes a metaphor for repentance. John is announcing that the King is coming, and so just as a town is cleaned up before a royal visit, so we need to straighten out the roads of our lives in order to be ready for Christ.
That much is certainly true. We need to get rid of our crooked ways if we are to be fit to receive the King. Advent needs to be a time of self-examination. Preparation for Christmas is not merely about completing the present-buying, writing the cards and finishing the annual letter. It is a time of spiritual preparation, which is why there are hints in earlier centuries of the Church that Advent was regarded as some kind of penitential season, almost like Lent. As the world is filled with lights outside, we need to shine lights inside to see how we are preparing our hearts and minds for the reign of God in Christ.
Yet let me suggest there is more to this than we sometimes suppose. There is here preparation that we need to do – ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight paths for him’ but this is not just about commands to us. The rest of the prophecy is about promise – ‘Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill laid low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation.’
Not only are we commanded to change, God promises change. I believe this means a couple of things. One is the gospel reminder that the call to change our lives is never meant to be accomplished on our own. We are incapable alone of making ourselves into the people God wants us to be. But his command to turn our lives around is accompanied by the promise that he will be at work among us by his Spirit to fulfil those purposes.
However, I think there is even more here than that. If God promises that we shall change from crooked to straight, from rough to smooth, then I suggest that is not only about growing in holiness. I offer to you the thought that there is much that is rough and crooked in our lives that is not necessarily sin. We carry burdens, brokenness, damage and pain from so much of life and I believe God also promises the straightening out of these sorrows and defects, too. Is that not what Jesus also came to do, as well as call people to repentance, as his cousin John did? Just as I long for the day when I shall no longer have to slalom around the regular potholes in our road – well, I can hope! – so I long for the day when God will complete his work of restoration in every way.
If you thought, then, that everything about John the Baptist was severe, I invite you to think again. Yes, there is the challenge to repentance, but it comes in the context of the God who is always at work in history – including ours. It comes as good news from the God who is pleased to work among the nobodies and on the fringes. It comes as part of a rebuilding package for every part of our lives.
Let us celebrate the ministry of John the Baptist and every way in which he points us and the world to Christ.