So for those who like to play 'spot the difference' - the end is quite changed!
Advent 2: Isaiah 11: 1-10, Matthew 3: 1-12
Of all the characters we might find on our Christmas cards – Mary, Joseph, Kings, Shepherds, angels… I have never once seen one with an image of John the Baptist. Of course at the time of Jesus’ birth he would only have been a baby himself, but although he’s recognised as a prophet who points us to Jesus the Christ, he’s really not the stuff of Christmas cards – wild, scary, with a rather daunting message of repentance. In fact just this week a friend sent me a picture of John the Baptist looking suitably wild & woolly and saying ‘Merry Christmas you brood of vipers. Now repent’. Not available in all good card shops anytime soon.
John’ message isn’t an easy one. “Choose” says John – choose to repent and be baptised or choose to perish. And don’t think you can hedge your bets by
being baptised but not really changing anything else about your life: to the Sadducees and Pharisees who come for baptism with no mention of repentance or change of life, John spits out vitriol in abundance. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance”.
I have spent quite a lot of this week wondering why we bother with John the Baptist – I’m certainly not going to be using his baptism policy in any of the four churches. But I have eventually concluded that the question of choice is as relevant now as it was to John’s hearers.
On Wednesday I heard George Carey, from Archbishop of Canterbury, promoting ‘Not ashamed day’. He was claiming that Christians in Britain today are in fear of being persecuted as a minority and was encouraging people to stand up for their faith. Now as it happens I disagree with him about the persecution part: Christians in Iraq are being driven from their homes by violence against them because of their faith – that is persecution, not anything we face in this country.
But maybe this campaign has a point: that Christians are asked to choose to stand up and be counted. If you choose to follow Jesus, you need to be unashamed to declare your choice.
We might find the prophecy from Isaiah much easier to live with than the one from John. Isaiah brings a message of peace and safety for all when the Lord comes.
“He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”
Isaiah describes the Lord choosing between good and evil and choosing for the poor. In the kingdom of God even animals will choose the right things to do – to save rather than to harm. So the lion and the lamb will lie down together, munching on straw; and little children will dance around the nests of dangerous snakes without coming to any harm. This is a time of peace with freedom, a time and place where no harm will come to God’s people.
It might seem that John – with his blood and thunder message, is out of step with this peaceful image. But John’s role is to tell the world about the coming of the Messiah – to declare the way of the Lord. And Jesus comes not just offering peace, as Isaiah foretells, or pointing to the choice of others – whether God or wild animals - to do the right thing. Jesus comes declaring that now is the time when all people must make a choice.
The Lord, says John, will separate the wheat from the chaff – he will offer people the choice of being for him or against him.
The coming of the Lord is the coming of freedom - but the freedom to choose well in life and learn to follow Jesus Christ.
So in Advent we are given the freedom of choice and the ability, if we will use it, to take time to clear some space for ourselves so that we can choose to follow Jesus, the Prince of Peace.
John’s message to us is that we are offered the chance to turn, to repent and to follow Jesus, the one to whom John points the way.
We’re coming to the time of year when no doubt we will be offered many different screen adaptations of Charles Dickens’ story ‘A Christmas Carol’. I used to think that it was a shame that this story, and not the story of the birth of Christ, seems to be the one which dominates our televisions. And yet I never fail to be touched by the story of repentance. Ebenezer Scrooge is faced with the reality of who he is and chooses to changes his ways. Dickens novel ends with this description of the repentant Scrooge:
“and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”.
Advent is about being prepared to see God with us. We can choose to live as those who are following Jesus; we can choose to see God in the world – intimately involved with and linked to all that is; we can choose to keep Christmas.
God bless us, everyone. Amen.