In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:1-2)
The Yuletide season is well and truly upon us!
I suspect that it is slightly different for each of us – the trigger that brings us to that realisation that indeed there are only sixteen shopping days left before the furious shredding of gift-wrap begins – but I no longer pay much attention to the department stores, where they generally start putting the Christmas paraphernalia up as they take the Halloween material down (and sometimes with a fair degree of overlap).
I no longer recognise the Christmas season by the arrival of cards, which are becoming increasingly rare in their physical form, but which seem to circulate in virtual form all year round.
For me it’s not the decorations nor the cards that herald the advent of the Christmas season, but rather the arrival of this uniquely unhygienic Yuletide figure – John the Baptizer – who, courtesy of our lectionary, pushes his way to the front of the Christmas stage each year at about this time, announcing the coming of the Christ.
John is wonderfully out of place in the nativity scene, with his rugged appearance, his no-nonsense style, and his wonderful disregard for what everybody else thought of him, and so I thought that since this may be my last John-the-Baptist-Christmas sermon in this parish, I might as well wheel out my traditional John-the-Baptist-Christmas-Greetings-card for the occasion.
I couldn’t find the original version, which was in black and white and featured a more dour image of the Baptist. I’ve reproduced instead the more colourful version, which was the second incarnation of this card, featuring a relatively jovial looking Baptist on the front, where he appears to be both waving to his supporters as well as baptizing.
“Christmas Greetings in the words of John the Baptist”, it says on the card’s front, and on the inside, we are treated to John’s very specific form of Christmas cheer:
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. … Merry Christmas
I can’t remember the first year I produced one of these cards, but it was definitely more than twenty years ago. What I do remember is when I stopped producing them, after one of our dear elderly parishioners said to me one year, “I know just the person to give this card to”, which sort of suggested she’d missed the point.
That’s not how Christmas cards are supposed to work, of course, but the truth is that it’s hard to know where to put John the Baptizer in the nativity scene. If the message of Christmas is ‘peace on earth and goodwill to all’, it’s pretty obvious that this is not John’s message, and so it’s hard to know what to do with him.
As I say, this is not the first time I’ve preached on his very unique Yuletide figure, though in my previous treatments of John, I’ve tended to do little more than reflect on the discontinuity between his sober and angry persona and the other characters in the nativity scene – the meek and mild Mary, for instance, the gentle baby Jesus, and, of course, the plush, red elf who always hovers in the background. I thought this year it would be worth spending some time focusing on what John was so angry about, and it occurred to me that this is not particularly obvious.
People tend to summarise John’s preaching down to one word – ‘repent’ – and if you did have to pick one word to sum up John, that would indeed be it. Even so, I don’t think it’s immediately obvious what the word ‘repent’ means, or, at least, what John meant by the word.
We tend to think of repentance as being the equivalent of ‘saying sorry’, and that is more-or-less what the word means in English, which frankly makes it a poor translation of the Greek word ‘metanoia’.
‘Metanoia’ is a combination of two Greek words – ‘meta’, meaning ‘after’, and ‘noia’, meaning ‘thought’. To have a metanoia is therefore to have an ‘after-thought’ or, more accurately, to have a ‘rethink’.
John the Baptist called on people to rethink things. Perhaps we could even use the term that I’ve heard so often in modern therapeutic literature – to ‘reframe’. This was indeed the message of the Baptist, I believe – that people needed to reframe their world so that they could rethink themselves and their future!
For those who have no idea what ‘reframing’ is, forgive me if I give an example from a movie that you may have never seen, but for some reason it’s the example that always comes to mind for me.
The movie is Apollo 13, which came out in 1995 and starred Tom Hanks. If you haven’t seen it or you don’t remember it, that’s OK. I remember very little of it.
You’ll be forgiven too if you don’t remember the original Apollo 13 mission of 1970. Those of us who lived to see Apollo 11 land on the moon in 1969 will remember that, but Apollo 13 was far less memorable, as it was a mission that was aborted due to a mechanical failure in the lunar module.
“Houston, we have a problem” – that was the byline for the movie, as everything starts to go wrong with this spacecraft as it hurtles towards the moon and viewers like myself (who had forgotten what happened in the actual Apollo 13 mission) were left thinking that there was no way these three astronauts were going to survive.
Now … the scene that really stuck with me, and the one I want to relay to you, was of the Houston control room in panic mode, where everything seemed to be going wrong but where everybody was working frantically to try to hold things together. The guy in command was losing hope, and he says something like “this is our worst nightmare” but his 2IC says to him, “sir, this may yet prove to be our finest hour!”
That’s reframing. It’s looking at your situation from a different angle and giving it a rethink. From one angle it looks like a complete catastrophe. From another, it’s the challenge your team spent their working lives preparing for!
I’ve pushed myself through this reframing process a number of times when we have problems in the church.
I start to feel overwhelmed and think “this is going to destroy us” and then I reframe and say to myself, “this may yet prove to be our finest hour!”
I can’t tell you how many times, on a personal level, the process of reframing has been critical to me. When I’ve felt overwhelmed by the chaos – and I’m sure we’ve all been there, whether it be due to grief, to false accusations, to betrayals or misunderstandings or relationship breakdowns – the temptation is always just to give up and sign yourself into the psych unit (or whatever happy place you can escape to)
The life-giving alternative is to reframe, and to view each element in the chaos as simply another challenge that can be overcome! This is easier said than done, of course, but I believe we get better at it as we get older, probably because we simply get more practice at it.
I see Saint Paul doing a lot of reframing in his writings. There was a man who was constantly being physically abused by his opponents as well as verbally slandered, and yet instead of taking these things to heart and allowing them to destroy him, he reframes each of them as elements in his participation in the sufferings of Christ.
Likewise, with Paul’s notorious ‘thorn in the flesh’ (2 Corinthians 12:7-9) – whether it was a physical ailment that he couldn’t get rid of or a struggle with his sexuality or something else that he just couldn’t really deal with – instead of interpreting this as a sign of his ultimate hopelessness, Paul sees this as his Lord’s challenge to help make him completely reliant on God’s grace!
Now with the Baptist, it’s not individual experience that John is trying to reframe. John’s role is to prepare the way for the one who is to come – God’s Messiah – and what he needs is for us to reframe our world and our lives in the light of that future – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:2)
I think the key to understanding how John wanted people to reframe, and the key to understanding why he was so angry, is to recognise that John’s vision of the future that God had planned was radically different from that of most of his contemporaries.
What were John’s contemporaries hoping for and praying for? What are most Palestinians today hoping for and praying for? The answer to both questions is the same. They look for an end to the Occupation. In John’s case it was the Roman occupation, and in the case of contemporary Palestine, it’s the Israeli occupation, but in both cases its quite straightforward.
You couldn’t go around the West Bank or Gaza today and speak about hope for the future without promising an end to the Israeli Occupation. That’s not to say that Palestinians believe that ending the occupation will solve all their problems. It is to say that they know their problems cannot be solved without ending the Occupation
It was exactly the same in first century Palestine. The Roman occupation was not their only problem, and yet they all knew that their problems would not all be solved without ending the Occupation. Whatever future John was prophesying about, a return to national sovereignty would be assumed to be at the heart of his vision.
“But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7)
What does that tell us about John’s view of the future? It tells us that John didn’t foresee a simple takeover where the Jewish army defeated the Roman army and then the Jewish leaders took over from the Roman leaders, leaving all their religious and secular leadership structures in place. No! John say a great shake-up taking place in the established order of his people as their leaders were corrupt.
“Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely and be content with your pay.”” (Luke 3:14)
Now that certainly wasn’t what they were expecting. I suspect that the soldiers expected John to tell them to sharpen their swords for the service of a new master – the Messiah – who would lead them to throw off their overlords, the Romans! Instead, John tells them not to abuse their power and to be content with their wages!
There’s a reframing going on here. John is urging people to reframe their vision of the future. No doubt, it’s a vision of national sovereignty – of God’s own people living in God’s own land under God’s own rule – but it’s also a vision of a community where people don’t abuse their power and where leaders truly serve the common good.
Walter Brueggeman and John McNight wrote a fantastic book, entitled “An Other Kingdom” where they systematically go through the different dimensions of the Kingdom that both John the Baptist and Jesus spoke of, and of the ways in which this Kingdom requires us to reframe the way we look at our world – embracing mystery over certainty, seeing abundance in the place of scarcity, valuing the common good over individual rights, upholding public sharing over private ownership and building a community on the basis of cooperation rather than competition.
I watched a movie about Julian Assange in our church hall last night, along with about 50 other people. I find it encouraging to see how many people have changed their attitude towards Julian in recent months, and I think that’s because people are reframing the way they see him. Now that all talk about rape allegations has evaporated, and now that it’s clear that he was right in saying that it was really the Americans who were after him, people are seeing him in a new light.
Julian is himself, of course, one who (like the Baptizer) calls on people to reframe their way of looking at the world. In the movie we watched last night, Julian urged us to view ourselves as being at war with the great governments and global companies who are trying to rob us of our privacy and our rights to free thought and speech. For many of us, seeing things that way would require a process of truly radical reframing!
Rethink/Reframe/Repent – if there’s one thing that comes through to us clearly from the witness of John the Baptist, it’s that this is a cold and wet and painful experience! It hardly seems very Christmassy, yet perhaps it’s the only way to reach the real gifts at the back of the tree! Do we have strength enough to be honest with ourselves, and the wisdom to be able to cut through the propaganda and embrace the truth? This is a big ask for any individual human being. Our hope must be that by the Grace of God, we’ll have the wherewithal to do it together.
First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on Sunday December 8th, 2019.