Vicar's Sermon - 9th December 2018
Let’s step right into the gospel reading this morning.
‘The word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.’…and the effect was that he moved, ‘He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’ John’s public ministry begins.
Note that its not ‘the word’ that drives John out into the wilderness. No. He is there already. To be honest, that’s where he was left at the end of Luke chapter 1: the child grew (we were told) and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel. What does this say about John, the one to whom the Word came?
Well, we know that he presented himself as something of a wild figure. Camel skin, curious diet. He probably didn’t go the barbers very often. He lived out in the heat and the dust of the desert so was as brown as a berry and, by virtue of his diet he probably didn’t carry much weight: a wiry frame. No doubt he had contact with others in the desert but he comes across as someone with very few airs and graces: a ‘spade is a spade’ in John’s world. There’s nothing ‘soft’ about him. Not a lot of compromise in his message. He doesn’t tolerate fools…he is no respecter of persons. Later in his life he doesn’t tone down his message for royalty, rather he sharpens it to a point that becomes offensive to those who hear it. Out in the desert what does he do? He has time and space to think and pray. He becomes ‘clear eyed’, seeing the world through a different lens that has been stripped of the daily busy-ness that gets in the way of our relationship with God. Out in the desert he can ponder the scriptures and their meaning – albeit that it was unlikely that he had any copies of them. No, he had learned the scriptures as a boy, sacred texts passed down the ages and held in the memory of believers. When the Word comes to Him he draws on the scriptures to frame His understanding of what God is up to. The Word drives him to preach but the message he preaches comes from his reinterpretation of the texts from Isaiah (in our case this morning). Ancient texts now being given a new meaning: God’s action in the past providing the template for what he is about to do in the present.
That Word, the Word of God, took it’s time to make itself heard. Luke, in this chapter, sets the coming of the Word of God to John within world history so momentous an occasion this is. The Old Testament scriptures seem to have charted the gradual withdrawal of the Word from Israel. The great prophets of the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries before Christ had recorded the Lord’s words in their books – page after page, but the Minor prophets that followed them so live up to their name that eventually God is all but silent. The years turn, the decades turn to centuries and God does not speak. The people seek to remain faithful but God keeps silence and they do not know why.
So when Luke writes that ‘the word of God came to John’ we are meant to notice that this is new, the end of a silence that has gone on far too long. God is at work again….something is about to happen. That ‘something’ is actually a someone: Jesus is about to begin His public ministry, but there is no sense of John knowing that this is about to happen when he hears God’s word in the wilderness. There’s no prior discussion with Jesus about timing the beginning of their ministry, no hint of collaboration between the two men. No. John, out in the desert is gripped by a sense of God’s presence that forces Him to act without knowing how his action fits into God’s purposes. Even when Jesus does begin his ministry John, at times, wonders whether he really is the One who is to come.
It’s difficult to read across from John’s experience to our own. Luke seems to present what happened with John as a key turning point in salvation history (and who are we to assume that we might find our way into the history books in the same way). But what does happen out there in the desert?
To me it seems that John has learned how to listen to God…or possibly more precisely how to ‘listen for God’. His years of spending time alone, his years of silence rather than speech have attuned him to the things of the spirit. He has learned how to live in the desert, which suggests that he has learned how to notice, to observe what is taking place around him to enable him to live - to survive and thrive here. That ability to be alert to his environment has trained him to be alert to the presence of God around Him and equipped him to be able to notice God on the move.
God’s word, when it comes, is not a prepackaged message or ‘set text’ for John. The word of God in Judaism is primarily another way of speaking of God’s action and movement within His world. It’s this that John is aware of. It’s this sense that God is on the move that he must respond to. And for John this is not an everyday occurrence: he has been in the wilderness for years, possibly decades ….praying, contemplating the scriptures as he knew them, offering himself (as best he could) to God for His purposes. This one moment would change the pattern of his life from being a hermit in the desert to that of a preacher surrounded by crowds. It would lead ultimately to conflict with Herod, imprisonment and death. These big moments don’t come to us all. If they come at all they are not everyday occurrences but the turning point of a whole life – we’re told nothing about John’s years in silence, nothing about him between his birth and this awareness of the word of God coming to Him. So this is the ‘exceptional’ not the normal pattern for people of faith. I have no doubt that John was aware of God’s presence in and through the small things of life around him but it was by paying attention to the small that he learned to be able to respond to the big: so it is with us. For us it is daily faithfulness that is required.
So John faithfully, patiently waits on God. He clears the decks of his heart and soul to attend to Him. Most of the time God does not speak but John is still ready, listening. The people of Israel had been waiting on God’s deliverance for years. Some had given up the wait and sold out to the ways of the nations around them, others felt the need to take the desire for redemption and to use it to incite rebellion against Rome, in effect giving up on the hope that God might come to His people. Not so with John, there in the desert he waits for the wind of the Spirit to blow, and when it comes he moves.
This is where we might emulate him. In this season of Advent, pushing back against the crush of materialism, the onrush of frenetic activity and making the effort to carve out time to be still, to know God. We can’t take ourselves away from our families and obligations but without that sense of space, of quiet, the hush of words, without the opportunity to reflect on the scriptures and to allow them to shape our lives, without the chance to pray we will in all likeliness miss the movement of God amongst us. This is a life’s work for us as individuals and as a community: a continual waiting upon God that trains us to be alert to His presence. The spiritual discipline required is attentiveness: a ‘looking’, a ‘being aware’ of the things and people around us, ‘seeking out’ God’s Presence, ‘noticing’ Him at work. As we look, as we seek, we find and the finding brings a sense of Him speaking. God speaks…but usually only in whispers that can sometimes leave us wondering whether it was His voice or our imagining.
John’s ministry marked a shift in God’s dealings with His people, it would go on to herald the coming of Jesus: there may even be a sense in which Jesus took His cue from what John was doing and sensed through it that now was the time for Him to act too. We too live in interesting times (as the Chinese proverb says). I wonder what word we might hear from God as His people here in this place? I wonder how we might hear it…or might we miss it altogether? Might he be speaking already? Are we listening?