Introduction and Call to Worship
We come together today to learn from an expert the art of showing the way: how to live with our minds and hearts focused upon God and how to guide others in the direction of salvation by traditional and imaginative means. Let us exult in the thrill of our discovery and for our shared fellowship on the journey.
First Reading Isaiah 40:1-11
No matter how mighty, strong and awesome, our God has the tenderness of one who loves without restraint. God rescued the people of Israel in the wilderness and will again, tenderly and compassionately, rescue us from whatever wilderness in which we find ourselves.
Second Reading 2 Peter 3:8-15a
By living as well as we can in accordance with Christ’s teaching we become a part of the transformation of the world in preparation for the coming of the Lord.
Gospel Mark 1:1-8
The coming of the Messiah had been foretold throughout history, but John the Baptist was the first living witness to the imminent event. He was utterly convinced, articulate, persistent and faithful to his calling – a model for us in our time.
HOMILY “John the Baptiser appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4)
“How would you describe John the Baptist – who was he for you?” This was a question in an RE exam from a few years ago. But how would you answer it? I think John is a bit wild – counter-cultural to say the least. Living in the desert without any visible means of support was no doubt challenging, but it added to the theatre of his message, drawing a wide appeal. Then, as the scriptures remind us, he had unusual clothes and a sort of ‘I’m a celebrity, get me out of here’ diet of locusts, although the honey is not so alarming. Like the celebrities in the Australian Jungle that has filled our television screens these past few weeks, we may find John interesting but rather challenging all the same…just like those who lived in 1st century Palestine; going out into the wilderness to hear John preach would have been quite an adventure.
John is a complex character whose life had several levels of meaning for the ministry of Jesus and, as the last in the great line of prophets of old, John had an unequivocal message for those drawn to hear him and for all of us today. John was a very special person; he was the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were blessed by a miracle which brought about his birth, as the Gospel of Luke tells us. His family was of priestly descent, so certain rigorous requirements were made concerning his upbringing; his family would have experienced an important status in the community.
His parents knew, by the message of an angel, that John must be dedicated to God and that his role would be key in preparing people for the coming Messiah. John’s message is clear – all are to prepare the way and make his path straight – and this message required of John a lifestyle beyond our imagining as he rejected his historical priestly birthright, left his family and lived a life of asceticism. His words are full of challenge – judgement – a call to repentance and recognition that Jesus, the one who would follow on, is the person all must be prepared for. Indeed, John shows a deep sense of humility as he points out that he is not worthy to untie the sandals of the Lord who is to come.
John’s role in the great story of salvation is to attract attention and share his news that the time had finally come for the Messiah. Friends, John addresses us today as well with his words: ‘Prepare!’ In that sense John’s message is akin to the Old Testament prophets (the traditional theme for the second Sunday in Advent being the Prophets) who proclaimed God’s message to the people and looked forward to a coming king for Israel.
But John’s appearance and lifestyle were not just gimmicks to attract attention – like for the celebrities in the jungle, there is much more to John than eating locusts. John is “out in the wilderness” – this has religious significance. Those struggling with faith often describe their experiences as “wilderness”. Those who are challenged by life’s sudden changes and chances often speak of wilderness. Those who struggle in many other ways – with their weight, with addiction of many and various kinds, often speak of wilderness. Those whom we feel don’t quite fit the norms of society are made to feel like they are out in the “wilderness”. We too can feel like that. But friends in faith, I put it to you that God’s messengers are not usually the conformists among us! God does not always operate through “Mr and Mrs Nice”, but sometimes, my friends, indeed often chooses people whose attractiveness to some may rather repel others.
God wants to appeal to the whole spectrum of humanity, not just the respectable and already godly, and so calls forth the appropriate types to evangelize. Indeed, he could be calling you today to be a prophet for a new generation, to speak to us here with a new vision for Thorpe and a new hope and always the offer of salvation. I’m sorry to say it, but it could be you!
So, living in the desert and dining so frugally, a bit like those poor celebrities down under in the Australian Jungle, is probably not our idea of fun, or faith, or drawing closer to God! (The celebrities in the Jungle know all about eating nasties and creepy crawlies – and they choose to be there, not least because they are paid well for doing it!) For us today here in Thorpe, stepping outside the mould which society and the traditional Church create for us may well be essential, if we are to proclaim the Gospel to a new generation and draw people to deeper faith.
John passed up his respectable life to follow God’s path as his own. He taught by word and example, and told his message clearly and unequivocally; he lived, and stuck to God’s call of truth and, through his determination to be himself, showed us how to do the same. Perhaps it is this combination of attributes that draws young people. John lived authentically his vocation as given to him by God. He encourages us to accept the invitation to think outside the box and work for God and the message of salvation, shaking up the world around us as we effect change here in this place.
1. We should reflect upon John the Baptist and his challenging approach to the Good News.
2. John was a special child, born to prepare the way for the longed-for Messiah, but he left his status and security to live authentically in accordance with his calling.
3. John’s apparent “wildness”, his Spirit-filled asceticism and magnetic character, attracted the strong and committed people who eventually became Jesus’ followers. Could this Spirit regenerate our Church?
4. John showed us a side of God we may not expect: the wild Spirit of God who inspires and speaks through those who may live differently, but no less authentically, to be true to God’s life in them.