David Walker Sermon - 16th December 2018
There’s a new version of the Robin Hood legend in your local cinema – produced by the Disney Corporation. It’s radical, grungy, re-thinks the whole concept – apparently. I haven’t seen it.
It’s an addition to the existing seventy or more cinematic films, not to mention television, books, songs and even pantomimes.
I dare say we each have our favourites –might be Errol Flynn, Richard Greene or even the Chuckle Brothers.
For me it’s Kevin Costner, ’Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves’, despite his slightly unsettling North American drawl and his apparent ability to travel from the White Cliffs of Dover to Hadrian’s Wall in the course of a day. And it’s not directly for the duel he fought with Little John at Aysgarth Falls a few miles from here. No, it’s Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham – ‘Cancel kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings and call off Christmas’.
Robin Hood, of course, is, at best a semi- mythical character. There are no contemporary accounts of his life, no eye witness testimonies of those who were with him.
Despite that, and despite the many versions of his story, there is something recognisable about him and the incidents and people who define him as a reluctant outlaw fighting to right the wrongs of the 12th/ 13th century society in which he lived. An archetypal hero of his time. If he didn’t exist he jolly well should have had.
Picture Robin. Hat with feather. Bow in hand. Green tunic. Whimsical smile. Possibly tights? His friends and companions? Well, Friar Tuck, of course, Little John, Will Scarlet – we could go on. What about Robin’s character? Good man. Fair. Fought for justice and the poor. Challenged the establishment.
Absolutely no evidence for this. But this is the power of storytelling, the grip of narrative, in whatever form.
What about John the Baptist?
Now what picture do you have? What comes to your mind’s eye?
He may not be so prevalent in modern popular culture but we have four gospels, and fine art images from Giotto to Caravaggio to Pablo Picasso. Wild, untamed, unkempt, driven, obsessed, brave, outspoken, charismatic, savagely beautiful.
Unlike Robin Hood, John the Baptist did exist for sure. The gospels tell us that. If we believe in the historical presence of Jesus then we cannot deny the reality of John the Baptist.
Who was he and why was he so important? What is the power of his story, the grip of his narrative?
It’s no surprise that it’s Luke that brings him fully to life. Luke is very keen to get things right and to tell us everything, in his Gospel and in Acts, the full story of Jesus from before his birth to the formation of the early church.
In so doing he grounds the person of Jesus and those around him very solidly in the world. This is no accident. Luke tells us at the beginning of his gospel that he has decided to investigate everything carefully and write an orderly account of what happened so that ‘you’, that is we, ‘may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed’.
This is Luke’s gospel but it is also a narrative, a historiography, written by someone who was almost a certainly close companion of Paul and who would have had access to key witnesses and all the great figures of the early church who knew Jesus personally.
Luke presents for us his version of events, telling us the comprehensive and definitive story of what actually happened. And we should forever give thanks for that.
One more word about Luke and then we’ll concentrate upon John. I don’t have a favourite gospel because it can change for me with context. But Luke is a very special book, a lovely book, carefully constructed and lovingly and honestly written and all for the one overriding purpose of desperately and passionately wanting to pass on his truth to others.
John’s story is an integral and important part of this truth, vital to an understanding of Jesus himself and to the whole project of bringing God’s kingdom to this world.
So Luke presents for us the detail of John’s parentage and birth because he wants us to know who John is so that we can understand how he is linked to Jesus.
We are introduced to Elizabeth and Zechariah, we know them as righteous and blameless people, faithful to God, and we know of their childlessness which they had probably already accepted as their lot. These events may not seem significant on their own, but when placed into the wider context of the life and work of Jesus they are of huge importance.
Luke, ever the master story teller, seeds the story of John at the very beginning, alerting us to his future significance through the interactions between Zechariah and Elizabeth and the angel of God. John is imbued with the Holy Spirit from the start and it is the Holy Spirit which reacts to Mary’s visit, to the imminence of Jesus himself. John, even as he leaps in the womb, is the precursor.
When John is born it is the Song of Zechariah, the Benedictus, that defines his mission and his destiny – ‘You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins’.
John’s destiny is set from before the birth of Jesus. He is the one who will go out into the desert and prepare the way.
And this is where we find him, some years later, in Chapter 3 this morning. Note how Luke very carefully and precisely establishes the date of his emergence as John the Baptist. He gives us the date in no less than six references - the 15th year of Emperor Tiberius etc. – because this is also the start of Jesus’ mission in the world. This is a date to remember.
Just as exactly he establishes John’s role, using the quote from Isaiah common to all the gospels.
This is Luke taking care to tell us the full story to help us to fully believe in John – because we need to believe in John as the one who points to Jesus.
What might we think of John otherwise? He is a wild man of the desert, living on locusts, wild honey, clothed in animal skins, preaching repentance. Honestly if we met him now what would we think?
And yet the story that Luke tells grants him validity and guarantees honesty in his purpose. We know where he has come from, we know his family, their devotion to God, we know their beliefs about God, we know what John’s mission has been from the start, and we know how it is destined to turn out.
And we believe because it is a story that we can believe, that helps us to believe. Luke does not use deep theological argument to convince but only the power of narrative and the honesty that comes from a true story told honestly and with conviction.
We’ve believed everything so far, how can we now doubt his role as prophet or his prophetic message which is contained in today’s gospel reading?
How can we doubt his role? To prepare the way, to foretell, foresee, to challenge, to make the paths straight, the crooked paths, to smooth out the rough and to announce the means of salvation. To point forwards to a better future, a future which is God’s future and which this time is to be enabled by the incarnate God in Jesus Christ.
How can we doubt his message? In our passage John tells the people how they must prepare, what they must do, how they must live, and it is precisely the message of Jesus himself – share with those who have nothing, take no more than you need, do not cheat others. Whatever work you do continue to do it but do it in the right way. If you must be a tax collector be a good one. If you must be a soldier be a good soldier. Serve God in the setting in which you have been placed.
But John’s message is also so much harsher. In itself it is not good news, not a gospel – because the gospel is yet to come. John spreads news of terror – he likens the people to vipers scurrying to avoid the flames that will consume them, He tells them that the favour bestowed upon them through Abraham will count for nothing unless they mend their ways
John baptises, a baptism with water as a sign of repentance and forgiveness, but he knows that his baptism is of little consequence when compared with that which is to come – and then that magical phrase, so memorable and powerful –‘the one who is more powerful than I is coming: I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals’. Jesus will baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire, projecting us forward to Acts and the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descends upon the whole world with tongues of fire.
At that point John is finished. Mission accomplished. He can hand it all on to Jesus. He is also finished in a mortal sense. His end is inevitable. His death, and when it comes it is horrific, is only a matter of time.
A good story, a strong narrative that binds us our belief. We know that what Luke is telling us is true even though we have heard it so many times before.
Throughout Advent we are waiting, anticipating. For the familiar story of Christmas. We know how it ends but we still can take delight in the story. We know how Christmas plays out but we need to hear it again year after year after year. That’s how stories work.
In ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ when George Bailey finds Zuzu’s petals in his pocket he knows that he has returned to the world, that he is saved so we can all cry a tear again, even though we know that it is about to happen. It’s a strange mix of the surprise which is not surprising which only intensifies and realises the anticipation of the event.
And it is the same when we hear of John’s story. When John clears the paths for Jesus, when he baptises him and projects him into the world we can live it all once again.
There’s a thrill in constantly returning to the beginning. And starting the story all over again. As TS Eliot wrote in Little Gidding
‘...the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.’
Even in what seems like the familiar we can find a movement forward. And we must keep journeying on. The movement is from possibility, in the marvel and miracle of conception, to probability in the embodiment and incarnation of their births, to the certainty of the promise of revelation.
I love Luke’s story of John, Luke’s lovely book of perfect love, a perfect narrative filled with perfect poetry and songs that we still sing even today, and his prophet who points us all to Jesus.
What makes narrative powerful is the movement within it. All the best stories, the ones that we know so well, that mean so much to us, that form the background to our lives, they all have this movement.
The story of John the Baptist begins before his birth and moves through Luke’s gospel until John’s beheading (and there are even echoes in Acts of the actions of John’s followers). John’s story runs in parallel with Jesus until Jesus overtakes him and becomes all and everything as he is always destined to be. John moves with him and then points him forward. It’s no coincidence that John is so often portrayed in art with a finger pointing forward, pointing to Jesus as the fulfilment of humanity’s salvation history.
This is looking forward to a new creation, a new world, a new kingdom.
And this is exactly the message we must take at this time of year. This is the time to look forward, to anticipate the coming of the Lord and the growing of the kingdom of God right here and now, the time for us to leap within the womb, to accept without question the presence of God within our lives. John knew his role and he accepted it and pursued it with all his heart and soul, and he knew that he would pay the ultimate price, that he would have to sacrifice his life for the one that was greater than him. That was John’s fulfilment, John’s life and John’s purpose. Everything he did he did he did for Jesus and, ultimately for you and me.
Cue for song, and an echo back to Robin Hood for that annoying but compulsive earworm with its final lines
You know it's true
everything I do
I do it for you.