Posted by: owizblog | February 18, 2013

Forerunner – Sermon 7th December 2008

Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8

I suppose I have many slightly strange childish memories, but one recurred to me today when i was thinking about the Gospel reading we heard a few seconds ago. I’d been, with my mother, for a hospital appointment at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Rhyl – Paisley isn’t the only place with an RAH, you see – and we had just come out to wait for the bus. I seem to remember that it was a chilly winter’s day. We found ourselves in a sizeable little crowd of expectant people, with no idea what they were all waiting for.  Some recollection was kindled at the back of my mother’s mind by the fact that some folk were waving union flags, and some were waving red dragons, but still we couldn’t work out exactly what was going on.

Suddenly, a frisson ran through the crowd. Round the slight bend in the road, came a roaring sound, which turned out to be several police motorbikes with flashing lights, and when these were followed by a big, sleek limousine, the crowd broke out into cheers. The big car swept past to enthusiastic applause and flag-waving from the crowd, who then began to disperse, the way crowds do when the Big Event is by.

This was a shame, really, because after another lot of motorcyclists came Prince Charles, sportingly waving from the back of an open vehicle, largely at the backs of people who were turning for home. By the time they’d reacted to the shouts from the people who had grasped what was going on, he had swept by, no doubt on his way to be entertained by the Council at Rhyl Town Hall. I suspect that Prince Charles’ memories of my native town are about as mediocre as most people’s.

Mind you, whoever was in the first big flashy car, waving at the crowd, had their day made, I would imagine!

John the Baptist. The Forerunner.

Another recollection I had as I read over the Gospel for today was of perhaps John Sergeant’s most famous moment before Strictly Come Dancing. He was outside the British Embassy in Paris, just after the first round of voting in the leadership contest that would see Mrs. Thatcher, who was at that point in the Embassy building behind him, ousted from power as Prime Minister. Standing with his back to the Embassy door, he was explaining that she had won a majority, but that her position was still very ambiguous and “it is thought now that there will be a long series of consultations backwards and forwards to London…”

And of course, at that point the Embassy door opened. I was able to relive the moment endlessly on YouTube – Sergeant’s surprise, his awareness that something is going on, and then his complete horror as the Prime Minister sweeps past him and on towards the serried microphones, leaving him to scramble for a place among the scrum of journalists as she begins her interpretation of what has just happened.

The point about this little scene, of course, is that there was no preparation for what was about to happen. John Sergeant wasn’t any kind of forerunner. He just summed up the confusion into which Mrs. Thatcher stepped out. Nobody had a clue what was happening, and clues were what everyone was desperate for.  Instead of his being able to offer a commentary, instead of his being able to make sense of events – and they were pretty seismic political events – poor old John Sergeant turned out to be in the same situation as the rest of us. Opinions, but no real idea. Of course, there’s something very endearing about that. It makes us identify with him. I suspect that that’s why he had such a head-start in terms of popularity when he did come to do Strictly Come Dancing. And of course, we laugh especially at the way in which he is completely eclipsed by the person who is standing behind him; Mrs. Thatcher, it has to be said, when one watches the clip, all but elbowed him aside on her way to the microphones. In that second, outside the Paris Embassy, the seasoned political commentator turned out to be as clueless about what was going on as the rest of us, and just as much at the mercy of events.

John the Baptist appears on the scene amid a chaos of expectation. And he draws attention to himself, and he holds it there. The way he dresses, the way he speaks, the way he calls Israel back out into the desert, the great symbolic action of John’s Baptism, all these things hark back unmistakeably to a context – the prophets of the Old Testament, the whole prophetic tradition that runs through the history and religion of Israel like a red thread.  And of course, he takes on his lips the words of perhaps the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, ironically the one whose name we don’t know – the Second Isaiah.

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’

Matthew has the same quotation – Luke even expands it, continuing:

Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

But it’s John’ s use of the same text – Isaiah chapter 40, the beginning of the Second Isaiah’s prophecy – that really draws out the implications.

And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, he did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” And he answered, “No.” They said to him then, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”  He said, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, `Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”

Having got their undivided attention, John says “I’m nothing. Just a voice, crying in the wilderness. In myself, I have no importance at all…” Just like the nameless prophet, whose huge proclamation to the exiled Israelites of what God is about to do, it isn’t John, but what he points to, that is all-important.  He focuses our attention not on himself, but through himself. Having made sure that everyone is looking in the right direction, he makes himself completely transparent.  Who and what he is only ,makes sense in terms of the one who is to come after him. But everything he does is so that the coming of that one makes sense.

And it’s really important for us, Christ’s Church, to grasp this. Because, traditionally, it’s been understood that John’s work, John’s activity, John’s ministry, if you like, is a pattern for ours. John is the one whose calling is to be completely transparent. The one whose job it is to say “Not me, but him.” The one called to point beyond himself. John is regularly depicted in high art pointing, directing the gaze away from himself, and towards the Christ. Our job, as the Church, our calling, our function, is to point beyond ourselves towards Christ. If we don’t do that, we’re just another group of human beings, clustered around a set of common interests.

Actually, it’s worse than that. If we don’t point towards the Christ, we are inevitably pointing away from him. And usually, that means that we are pointing either towards ourselves, or to something that interests us more.  It means that we are actually a distraction. I don’t want to draw the parallel too tightly, but I find myself thinking of that first posh limousine spending past the Royal Alexandra in Rhyl, towards the end of the sixties, its occupants basking in the attention, waving self-importantly at the crowd. And that same crowd, dispersing as they passed, muttering “Phht! Was that it?”  How many people are put off Christ by the Church? By its preoccupation with things that nobody else is thinking about? By its failure to point beyond itself, to Christ?

And haven’t we asked that question a lot, in the last couple of years?

But there’s more to be said than that, too.

We hear the story of John the Baptist as part of a one-off story, the story of the Gospel. Two thousand years ago, there was this guy… Yes, John was the forerunner. Then Jesus came, and the story went on…

But that isn’t how the stories of Scripture work. That isn’t how Christians traditionally have understood and used them.

We’ve said it before; the Bible is a book of patterns. And these patterns are what we use to construct the meaning of our existence, today, in the twenty-first century, out of the resources of our tradition.

Think of it this way; one of the basic patterns of the Bible is expectation-fulfilment. It starts, if you like, with the promise of a homeland to Abraham, and that leads to the entry into the Promised Land. And that looks like “End of Story,” but it isn’t. The Israelites, a divided, tribal people, are hardly in possession of the land. In fact, when the Philistines, with their iron technology, come along, the bronze age Israelites are in a real fix. Until God provides them with a king, an anointed one, a Masiach – David. And David not only pulls the tribes together, but actually succeeds in creating a fair-sized dynastic empire, incorporating several surrounding kingdoms. “End of Story.” But again, it isn’t. After Solomon, everything goes to pot, Israel and Judah separate under different monarchies, the empire dissolves – and then, after a mixed history, the realities of geopolitics kick back in. The Assyrians re-emerge as a superpower, and at the end of the eighth century they sweep away the northern kingdom of Israel. Judah survives the Assyrians, but not the Babylonians, who come after them. They are conquered, their intelligentsia, the people who maintained their culture and ran their state are exiled to Babylon, and that seems to be that. “End of Story.” But no, that’s just when the anonymous Second Isaiah begins to proclaim, among the victorious gods of Babylon, that there is only one God, that history is in his hands, and that he will bring out the exiles just as he brought out the Israelites from Egypt.  And so God’s promise rolls on.

And so, John the Baptist appears, half a millennium later, and proclaims the One who is coming after him. And we know the story, and we know where it fits in to the Gospel narrative, and we know that after John comes Jesus, and Jesus’ ministry, and Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, and Pentecost. “End of Story.”

But it’s not.

Because this story catches us up, too.  And instead of pointing back, to a Christ whose coming was two thousand years ago, and is over and done with, end of story, our job as the Church is to point forward, to the Christ who comes, to the God whose purposes are not yet fulfilled in his creation. Our job is to say that this is absolutely NOT the end of the story – that the story catches us up, along with the whole of creation, and goes on.

That’s why Advent is a time of expectation. Yes, because we are looking forward to the coming of Christmas ’08. Yes, because Christmas rushes up so fast that we really need to make a deliberate effort to grasp it as it whizzes up.

But far more, because our job is to point beyond where we are now, to fulfilment of creation in Christ that has yet to come.  To the fact that the story is not ended.

The Christian faith is more, far more, than a mindset. It’s trust, and love, and the knowledge of acceptance, and forgiveness and liberation.  But it does involve a mindset. Not a closed one, but a very open mindset, which turns around an understanding that the story of God’s involvement with his creation in Christ hasn’t come to an end, and doesn’t. Our job as Christ’s Church is to point beyond where we are now, to what comes, and to proclaim that God hasn’t finished with his creation yet.

‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”


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