Sermon: John the Baptist at Copenhagen
Preached on 13th December 2009
by The Venerable Ian Jagger
John the Baptist was a successful preacher. "You brood of vipers!" he yells at the crowds, ‘off-spring of the snake', the great serpent who first seduced humankind, the crown of God's creation. ‘God is coming with judgement- run!' Or better still, repent and change, fast. It's no use saying ‘we are Abraham's children so we are safe - God can make children for himself out of the stones. Your only chance is to repent and start to produce good fruit, quickly! The axe is lying at the foot of the tree and God is on his way to use it. Trees are not judged by their roots but by their fruits. It's not where you come from that counts but what you do.
This message clearly touched a nerve because it drew great crowds who asked him "What then should we do?" And he said to them ‘Come to Copenhagen'. Well not exactly, but imagine John the Baptist at Copenhagen. What would he be saying? Certainly he would be talking of judgement. You reap what you sow: nothing is clearer than that in the Environmental debate. You don't need a messianic judge beaming in from a Judean wilderness: actions have consequences and judgement is built in to the world God has made. The climate is changing and most people are coming to accept that this time it is a direct result of human activity. So how would John's message translate in Copenhagen? He says to the crowds "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise." When you look at the headlines about Copenhagen they are about how much money the developed nations are prepared to give to developing nations to enable them to grow in sustainable ways which do not inflict more damage on the planet to compound the damage we have already done. How many spare coats are we prepared to share? "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none." On the face of it you might think John's intention is that we should be generous, and the concept of generosity may be a way in; but it is not the destination. In view of the coming judgement, John is saying, it does not matter to the judge whose coat it is; what matters to the judge is that you think it is OK to stand there with several coats whilst someone else shivers with none. Such inhumanity is not God's intention in the over-flowing generosity of creation, and it is not the image of himself in which he created us. Something has become very diseased with your brand of humanity if you can see your neighbour needs a coat and you don't share one of your own; so diseased that the tree may have to be felled unless it starts to produce better fruit. So this generosity is not a special give-away beyond the call of justice; it is the normal way of life which we have from the Creator unless we have become diseased. "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise." For John, this is the only humanity that can stand up before the judge.
And then to the tax-collectors and soldiers John says, ‘Don't use your power to extort money and so to make yourself better off than others'. Money and might were the powers then and the global scene in which Climate Change has to be tackled is still dominated by these two types of power: economic and military. Each tries to create advantage and security for one's self (or one's tribe) in ways which are essentially competitive and potentially abusive. Of course, we have to be careful here not to be too simplistic. Economic growth has been the engine of so much that is good in our world, from medicine and health-care to crop-yield and better standards of living. And in a complex world military power sits not just in large armies but also in the hands of bombers. But at Copenhagen the fact is that global temperatures will only come down if economic and military power can be restrained and re-focused. As John says to the soldiers, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, but be satisfied with your wages."
So this is what John the Baptist might say at Copenhagen, after he has said "You brood of vipers!" in several languages. ‘Give to those who need and don't take more than your due.' It is a good prophetic message: but will it save the world? This last week I was at a gathering where someone opened the meeting with prayer, and she prayed for all the leaders of the world at Copenhagen, that they might save the world. I didn't say Amen to that. I wondered afterwards if I should have said Amen. I know exactly what she meant, and I am sure my prayers were heading in the same direction. But we already have someone who is the Saviour of the world, and there is only one, and the saving of the world is already going on in him. It started in the incarnation, carried through the cross and resurrection and will finally be made complete when he comes again. That's the Christian shape of it. So if we are praying about Copenhagen we have to pray that whatever is going on there might be gathered up into what Christ has done and is doing. We have to put Copenhagen into Christ.
I do not want to preach about Christmas when there are still a couple of weeks of Advent to go, but the fact is that for all John's prophetic clarity, energy and urgency the one who came after him was greater than he because he went further. John told people what needed to happen: Christ, in his own life, started to make it happen and started to carry us along with him. So we cannot really know what the Christian perspective is on Copenhagen from John; we have to look at Christ, and it seems to me that there are three ways in which Christ gives Christians something special to offer Copenhagen.
The first thing we want to proclaim as Christians is that "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it." Replace the word Environment with the word Creation, and feel the difference. Environment is a neutral, passive word. Creation puts us straight into a relationship. Creation belongs - to God! It is not ours to do with as we choose. More than that - we are part of it. We inhabit God's handiwork. Along with all of it we, too, are God's handiwork. We and all human beings, along with all grasses and all insects, all clouds and all birdsong, all waters and all the creatures that live in the waters - we all are God's music, his painting, his sculpture, his vision, his skill and the expression of his love and delight.
How do we live in God's handiwork? I am sure the answer we would want to give is that we live in God's handiwork with reverence, with respect, with love. But what does that mean? Where does it make a difference, from just living in the Environment? Do we need to learn all over again, like a child, to attend to God's creation, to experience it not just as a backdrop to human activity but as God's gift and delight? The Archbishop of Canterbury is fond of saying that besides all our sophisticated responses to the ecological crisis we need to attend in simple ways to what it is to be a part of the creation."Go for a walk," he wrote, "Get wet. Dig the earth". Now that sounds dangerously like ‘Hug a tree'! But you don't need to become a tree-hugger to catch what Gerard Manley Hopkins caught. "The world is charged with the grandeur of God." Get wet - it's quite easy in Britain. Some communities in the world would be out there singing in the rain if only they could get wet - but for them the rains never seem to come. We can study the seasons changing, and re-learn how to love and delight in the creation and join its hymn of praise. But let the creativity of God startle you too. Here's something to think about, next time you slip out in the rain to throw away your rubbish in the bin. In God's creation there is no ‘away' where you can throw things.
But animals and plants aside, what does it mean to share this Creation with other human beings, especially the poor and those who live on the edge? For climate change affects them far more than it affects us and it therefore becomes an issue of justice and of compassion. A couple of degrees warmer here we might not mind? For those living on the edge in Africa a couple of degrees means no rain at all, and migration to land already claimed to seek food. A few inches rise in sea level isn't going to flood much of our region: but for millions in the Ganges delta, where will they go?
How can we inhabit God's creation in a shared way, in harmony with his intentions of love and care? This being Advent we might re-phrase the question. How can we be open to the Kingdom that is coming from God, instead of the one we have been building? Here John's preaching has set us off on the right foot. "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none." One of the most insistent refrains in the teaching and example of Jesus was commitment to the poor, and that is the second contribution we Christians bring to Copenhagen. Creation and commitment to the poor.
But the third contribution is a willingness to live sacrificially. The great Philippian hymn says "Christ Jesus was in the form of God... but he humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death... death on the cross." In the very act of becoming human he engages sacrificially with the mess of humanity. In his human lifestyle he sacrifices his own security to secure the well-being of others. In seeking to save others he opens himself to abuse and loss, even to death. And he calls his followers, you and me, to take up the same cross of sacrificial living and follow him. Certainly, the change of behaviour needed to stop global warming will involve a degree of sacrifice: where shall we find the motivation for sacrifice? Love for God in his creation and in the poor ought to help us carry the cross of self-denial with Christ.
The Archbishop of Canterbury will be preaching this afternoon to all the assembled delegates at Copenhagen and no doubt he will present the Christian contribution much more profoundly than I can, but it seems to me these are three things we can bring to Copenhagen and whatever follows it. Care for Creation, commitment to the poor and a willingness to live sacrificially, shape a Christian response to the issue of Climate Change. The challenge to all of us who bear the name ‘Christian' is to live them authentically enough to be part of that saving of the world which is going on in Christ.