Sermon: John The Baptist
Preached on 10th December 2006
by The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove
We are now in the Year of St Luke, and for the next 12 months the eucharist readings will take us on a journey through the third gospel. Last week we pitched in with his teaching about the end-time: signs in the heavens, seismic convulsions on earth, fear and foreboding on every side. It's a curious way to begin St Luke, because tribulation and terror are not at all where this gentle evangelist starts from. Mark, maybe, but not Luke. It would be better for the lectionary to begin where Luke does, with the promised birth of John the Baptist. As it is, today's reading and next week's keep alive the edgy electric atmosphere of last week's apocalypse with its warning to ‘be on guard', ready for what is coming upon the world. We do not know yet what it means. But as John the Baptist sweeps in from the remote desert places like some fierce archaic prophet, we sense that he is the fore-runner of some mighty act of God that will change the world forever.
But before we get to that point, we need to pay attention to how Luke introduces John's arrival. ‘In the 15th year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was ruler of Galilee', he says. What have they and the other rulers he lists have to do with this man from the wild places? To begin with, Luke is saying that the events that are unfolding belong to the largest possible context, which is nothing less than the sweep of world history itself. In Luke's books, his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, the stories of John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth and the early church are all seamlessly woven into this great tapestry. It is not earthly potentates like Tiberius, Pilate and Herod who control the ebbs and flows of history, be they never so strong or cruel. It is almighty God himself who disposes. I see Luke implicitly contrasting the dissipation and corruption of Tiberius' reign (did you ever watch I Claudius?) with the purity of God's coming kingdom; hinting at how Herod Antipas will bring John's career to an end by beheading him; and how Pilate, Herod and Caiaphas will end Jesus' career at the cross. Two cities, two kingdoms: the clash of civilisations human and divine, mortal and immortal, is written into the gospel from the beginning.
And this turns out to be the message of John's preaching. We'll hear next week how he tries to cajole and persuade his hearers into fleeing from the wrath to come by turning away from injustice and wrongdoing, for the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Strip away pretence, he says, look at how you really are underneath the trappings of privilege and power. Change while there is still time. Let justice roll down from heaven like waters, righteousness like a mighty stream. Uncomfortable, uncompromising words to hear, for them and for us. But Luke is careful not to cut to the chase too quickly, not before he has let John set this wake-up call in a bigger context. He does this by identifying himself with one of the Hebrew prophets, that great un-named poet and preacher whose sayings are preserved in the second half of the Book of Isaiah.
Listen to it in Hebrew: nahamu, nahamu ‘ammi. You can hear how soft and soothing those labials sound, for it's a message of reassurance: ‘comfort, comfort my people'. The prophet's word to a beleaguered, abandoned people exiled in Babylon is this: take heart, rekindle hope, look forward with expectancy and joy, for life will begin again: your exile is at an end, homecoming is near. This journey home, he says, is nothing less than a new exodus. And just as the first exodus revealed the glory of Yahweh in cloud and fire, so now ‘the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together'. So decisive and dramatic will this coming event be that the whole creation is drawn into preparing for it, raising up a highway across the desert so that God may lead his people home: ‘every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain'. I hear you humming the music of Handel's Messiah.
This is the background against which we need to hear the preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus. When they are severe, challenging, disturbing, angry, as Jesus was last week, and John will be next week, remember this: that before you get to warnings and threats, the mandate Luke quotes at the outset is of deliverance, salvation and hope. Luke is a true evangelist who begins with godspell. The good news is that the kingdom of truth and justice is coming, God's messiah is at the threshold, and the day is dawning when the world will at last be put right. The crooked timber of humanity is on its way to being straightened out. God's advent will set the world free, set us free from the chains that bind us, apply the surgery that heals. So there is hope in abundance, even in John's call to repentance: for repentance is driven by the hope that life can be transformed, that we can. The messiah summons us to welcome him by turning away from the old in order to embrace the new. It is difficult. It is costly. But hope drives us to it, our hope in the God of Israel and the God of Jesus who is the compassionate, the merciful.
There is one more aspect of Luke's godspell that we must not overlook. All four evangelists quote that great Isaiah passage about the voice crying in the wilderness, ‘prepare the way of the Lord'. All four of them apply it to John the Baptist the king's herald. But only Luke takes it to its conclusion: ‘all flesh shall see the salvation of God'. All flesh! Luke is true to the prophet with a universal vision of God's salvation embracing not just Israel but all the peoples of the world. For Isaiah, it's the fulfilment of God's promise that through Abraham all the nations of the earth would bless themselves. And throughout his gospel, Luke sees how this is true of the words and works of Jesus. He understands how, in the law, the prophets and the psalms, Yahweh is a missionary God, always moving out in love and mercy towards the world he has made. So Luke's Jesus comes to bring release and delight to all people: gentile as well as Jew, poor as well as rich, sinners as well as righteous, captives as well as free, sick as well as whole, children as well as adults, women as well as men. This is the magnificent theme of Luke's Gospel that we shall travel during this coming year.
So how do we ring the bells of waiting Advent in Luke's way? With joy, because Advent is rooted in the nature of God himself who will raise up his power and come among us as the one we long for.
He will lift our spirits at this year's midnight and bring light in our darkness. We celebrate his coming as redeemer and judge who forges destinies and makes history. He will return chaos to cosmos, who is our hope and the hope of the world. As for us, we shall make him welcome, embrace him with love, and trust that his bountiful grace and mercy will speedily help and deliver us.
Durham Cathedral, 10 December 2006 (Luke 3.1-6)