St John the Baptist - A call to hear and respond

A sermon preached by Fr Joe Hawes at the Patronal Festival of St John the Baptist on Holland Road, 22 June 2014

Having been brought up in Hampstead, the only ‘goys’ non-Jews in our road, from a young age I became used to Jewish family gatherings, being spoilt by Jewish Aunties, many of whom could tell hair raising tales of escaping the Holocaust by the skin of their teeth. Their sad, funny, ironic, waspish take on life has stayed with me, throughout the years, which is why I have a slightly different take on the rhetorical question at the end of tonight’s gospel: ‘What then will this child become?’, because I can imagine one of my Jewish Aunties, out of the corner of her mouth saying: ‘Oi veh, that he should cause a row already at his circumcision: vot then vill this child become?!’ and  she wouldn’t have been far wrong, for when he grows up, this John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth will be a figure of controversy, of division, blazing across the horizon of Israel’s consciousness in his brief ministry, leaving such a marked impression that the apostles of the early church in the Book of Acts are finding pockets of believers who still hold to the baptism of John.

A short ministry, but a trajectory of such power that it burned itself on to minds of Jewish consciousness and had an unexpected effect on the early church which was not always easy to contain, as evidenced by the thinly veiled dissonance between the reality of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, and the expectations of John the Baptiser. The short lived family spat at his circumcision thus lays the way neatly for the later years.

I think that at the heart of what John represents is a strand of God consciousness which is still at work today, and which, although entirely necessary, can only be seen in the light of what comes after if it is not to become pathological. Let me explain.

The reason that John is not named after his father is because his life is going to be entirely different to that of Zechariah. He will not follow his father into the hurly burly of Temple service, but will rather grow up in the solitude of the wilderness. He will not service the conventional religious needs of his people, but will rather challenge them and break them open. He will not operate within the structures of ancestral faith, but will rather, like the last and greatest of the prophets that he is, speak from outside in, a word of challenge, comfort, disturbance and grace.

When he emerges from the wilderness to challenge the people of Israel, it will be from the same starting point as his kinsman Jesus: that something is wrong, and that action is needed, but the route each takes will be different. For John, the crowds who come out of Jerusalem, ‘sucked by the demon curiosity clean out of the gates’ as Edwin Muir says, are a shifting rabble: the Greek is deliberate; an ochlos who might go either way, and his clarion call gives them focus and purpose. Unlike many religious leaders, whose call at times of uncertainty and expectation is to return to church, return to the Temple, be more holy, or among the more mad and extreme: stock pile arms and head for the hills: in other words separate yourself off from the world John’s challenge to those who come out to hear him is to put their lives right, in the world in which they live and at the level of everyday living: his response to the question of the crowds, ‘what then should we do’ is strikingly secular; ‘whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise’. And his  challenge is also for hated outsiders: for soldiers and tax collectors, the quislings, tools of hated Roman oppression. Paradoxically the challenge to them is also a word of comfort, because someone has bothered to consider that it might be worth them turning their lives round as well. So for them: ‘collect no more than the amount prescribed for you’ ‘no feathering your nest, because if everyone hates, you might as well ensure that you’ll have a comfortable if lonely old age!’, and for the soldiers: ‘no extortion, no threats, no false accusations: be content with your wages.’ There’s a ring of truth, as well as a forensic insight to these reported words from Luke’s Gospel. John’s advice and challenge to the shifting crowd, hungry for something: certainty, hope, reassurance is to take control of their own lives, make a decision of human dignity to live generously, wisely, out of love rather than hatred and suspicion. In other words to leave behind the herd mentality and, despite the oppression they suffer, to stand upright in their faith and live with integrity.

The reason for this urgent imperative to turn their lives around, of course, is that the Messiah is coming, and is coming with fire and judgment. John is clear in his imagery; the axe is laid at the root of the trees… his winnowing fork is in his hand, he will baptise with fire….he will clear his threshing floor and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.’  But when the Messiah does come, it is in a manner so completely different from John’s expectations that it seems to sow the seed of doubt in his mind. John’s stark challenges, his courageous speaking truth to power: even condemning the incestuous adultery of the royal family which has got him locked up in prison, is not being mirrored by the Messiah he had hoped for. He has handed the baton on, and it doesn’t seem to have been picked up. For one thing, his kinsman Jesus seems to be content to hang around the margins; liminal territory, the borderlands where nothing noteworthy has ever happened, and for another, there has been precious little grandstanding: precious little challenge, almost no fire and brimstone. This messiah seems to have forgotten his winnowing fork, and more disturbingly, he’s hanging around with an awful lot of chaff AND it seems, going to an awful lot of parties. So, from his prison dungeon, the challenge, and question: ‘ARE  you the one who was to come…or should we expect someone else?’ ‘Have we got it wrong about you Jesus, because it’s not the kind of Messiah behaviour we were looking for.’ The response is swift and uncompromising: to John’s disciples; ‘go back an tell him what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the poor have the good news proclaimed to them…’ and just in case John hasn’t quite got the note of challenge: ‘…and blessed is the one who does not take offense at me.’ I wonder what John, in his prison cell, preparing for death thought of this? Because at one level, it chimes exactly with what he himself has been saying about the kingdom being a moment when lives are radically re-shaped, and that the re-shaping begins at the level of everyday living.  Also, that God’s election of Israel, the dearly held conviction which has carried them through the bleakest of times, actually doesn’t hold true at all. Because as John himself has said, ‘God is quite capable of raising up children for Abraham from these stones, so don’t go getting smug about your sense of being God’s elect!’. Jesus has certainly been reflecting all of those strands of John’s message in his ministry. But the lack of the unquenchable baptism of fire, the absence of the winnowing fork must have been puzzling, galling even, for John as he goes to his grisly fate.

And therein run the two separate but complementary strands of God and world consciousness which run through the life of faith, and which intertwine and balance each other. Comfort and challenge, unmerited grace and human response, fire and water, zeal and humility. When one overtakes the other, the balance is lost and religious pathology can set in. It could be argued that twenty first century Western Christianity has lost rather too much of John’s message of challenge and of the imperative to turn our lives around, partly because we have become so obsessed with questions of who or may not belong, be ordained, how Inclusive (or not) we are prepared to be, that the loss of the ability to speak a word of power has deprived Christianity of some of its cutting edge of radical grace, demanding love and service.

The signs are hopeful though. The preparedness of Christians to stand up in practical ways to heal a polarised society is impressive. From Foodbanks to Night Shelters, to challenging payday loan sharks, by our fruits we are hopefully being known more and more. But ultimately the faith in the west will stand or fall upon the preparedness of its members to evidence, at the daily level of their (our?) everyday lives, how it is that grace transforms us, how it is that the challenge of The Baptist is being worked out in the large and small decisions we make. But perhaps most of all, by honouring that complementary strand of  grace which should run through the DNA of every Christian: we do this because we know we are loved, because we believe that grace is at work through us and in the world, because we trust that we are being changed every day, more and more into the image and likeness of the one we are called to worship as our Lord and God.

In a moment we shall kneel at Benediction. This would not have been possible at the time when this church was built. It took years of patient struggle on the part of our forebears in the faith to achieve the Catholic revival in the Church of England. But it was not achieved as the Sacramental life in isolation. It went hand in hand with a social dynamic of service, challenge and care. From the soup kitchens of the East End, the health visitors nuns beloved of ‘Call the Midwife’, the Sunday schools, social clubs, men’s groups, welfare clubs arose from and were rooted and grounded in hard won sacramental life. ‘You have the Blessed sacrament , Jesus received into your hearts in Communion,’ said Bishop Frank Weston at the Anglo Catholic conference of 1923, ‘now go out. Go out into  the highways and hedges. Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus, and when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel, and try to wash their feet.’

The call of the Baptist invites us to hear and respond.