In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1-2)
Some of you may remember the answer to the question: ‘What is green, has four legs, and if it falls on you from a tree and hits you it will kill you?’
The answer, of course, is a billiard table, though some of you may have been wondering whether the answer was ‘Christmas”, which is also green and, though it lacks four legs, is falling on us at the moment, and some of us may well be fearing what condition we will be left in once it has hit us!
Yes, there is no mistaking that day of cards and carols and Christmas condiments is fast encroaching, and maybe you’ve been aware of that for some time, though I suspect that for each of us there are different triggers that awaken us to the dawn of the ‘silly season’.
For many of us it will be the first appearance of tinsel in the department stores, which I’ve noticed in some cases takes place now in late October!
For some it will be the appearance of Frosty the Snowman, and other such completely out-of-place characters in an Australian summer.
Perhaps it’s the arrival of your first card, which for us always comes from Carmen and Charlie Grima (parents of the great kickboxing champion, Paul ‘Pitbull’ Grima), which this year arrived on the first of December!
For me though the dawn of the Christmas season is always marked by the arrival of that very distinctive Yuletide figure, John the Baptist, who comes striding on to the Christmas stage at this time each year, courtesy of our schedule of Bible readings. And he’s hardly a compatible figure when seen alongside the other characters that appear in Christmas pageants and department-store windows at this time
John wears no plush red suit, but is dressed in a loin-cloth
He is not white and wholly and fat, but gaunt and hairy, with the distinctive smell of locust on his breath.
And John is NOT JOLLY!
Hence, while the church prepares for the coming of Jesus by introducing us to John, this is not something the rest of the community has picked up on.
We do not find him included in any of the nativity scenes
No Christmas carols echo his message of repentance
No figures of the Baptist adorn our trees and
He is not featured in any Christmas card
Now, as many of you know, I have tried to remedy that situation in years past by producing my own ‘John the Baptist Christmas Greeting Card’, but I have determined NOT to publicly distribute these in church this year.
For those who have never seen the card I will give you a very brief glimpse. The picture of the Baptist is on the front, along with the heading: ‘Christmas Greetings in the words of John the Baptist’ and on the inside we have John’s own distinctive message: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come. Bear fruits that befit repentance! Even now the axe is laid to the root of the tree, and every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Merry Christmas”
Now, as I say, I’m not distributing these broadly this year, partly because, over the years, these cards, I feel, have been misunderstood (I sent one to the Bishop once. He never spoke to me the same way again way after that). Moreover though, I’m planning on focusing more specifically on the message of John next week. Today I want to focus more exclusively on the way in which John just doesn’t fit in with the other Yuletide figures with whom the Christmas stage is normally bedecked.
John is not the guy we expect to meet at Christmas. He is not the one we were looking for. Dare I say, he is not a character we wanted to meet at all! He is hairy and abrasive and is more likely to scare the children than to import Christmas cheer into the household. And that’s sort of appropriate, I think, for when I look at today’s Gospel reading, what really strikes me is that John was not really expected or wanted in his own day either!
Look at the way John is introduced to us:
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” (Luke 3:1-2)
Luke’s point is that there were a lot of important people striding the public stage at that time – people like the Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, the brothers Herod, and great high-powered priestly figures like Annas and Caiaphas – and God, it seems, spoke through none of them, but instead chose to channel his message through an obscure and unexpected desert-dweller by the name of John, son of Zechariah.
This is not what anyone had expected. As today, so then – when we are looking for leadership, we look to our leaders!
Perhaps we don’t really expect our great political leaders like Barrack Obama or even Kevin Rudd to be prophetically announcing the Word of God to us, but surely when it comes to the church we do expect our leaders – our Pope, our Archbishop or some high-priestly figure to be the channel that God will use to get His message through to us.
And yet it seems that this is not always the case. There were plenty of high-profile, well-credentialed ecclesiastical figures strolling about the first-century stage at the time of John and it seems that God chose to by-pass all of them and instead entrust His message to a complete unknown.
This is a rather uncomfortable picture, of course, for a person with a good ecclesiastical pedigree like myself. A number of people assume that I, being an ordained priest in the household of God, must inevitably be closer to God than the average pew-warmer and that I must be able to speak for God in a way that other people cannot. If only! It’s a bit like the 10-tonne gorilla joke:
Q: Where does a 10-tonne gorilla sit when he comes in to a room?
A: Anywhere he likes
Likewise, when it comes to ‘who does God speak through when He wants to get His message out?’ The answer is ‘through anyone He likes!’, and in this case it was through an absolute non-entity in the ecclesiastical scene – a person without pedigree or qualification!
Of course this pattern is by no means unique to the first century, and I know that I have learnt some of the most important things I’ve learnt about life and about God from the persons I would have least expected to learn anything from, and many of them weren’t even Christians!
As St Paul said, “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and the weak things of this world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27) As it was then, so it now and shall be forever more, I expect. God speaks through those God chooses to speak through and God works through those whom God chooses to work through!
Who would have guessed that in the reign of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister of Australia during the Archbishoprics of George Pell and Peter Jensen that God might choose to do some work of great significance through an obscure bunch of non-entities in Dulwich Hill? Yet the wind blows where it will and so it is with the Spirit! (John 3) You don’t know where the wind has come from and you don’t know where it’s heading to next, but you can’t deny when it’s blowing!
Now, I’m not suggesting that our work here will every be the epicentre of God’s work in this city, but what I am certainly saying is that we can’t anticipate where God is going to be active and we shouldn’t expect God to always work through the traditional channels. Indeed, we should always expect from God the unexpected, and assume that God will most likely turn up at the very places where we do not expect to find Him, at times that we do not anticipate, speaking and working through persons who don’t seem to be even remotely appropriate!
Are those thoughts encouraging or disturbing? A bit of both probably, which is appropriate, I think, for a sermon on John the Baptist – a man who both encourages and disturbs.
There he is – loud and outspoken, rough-looking and somewhat foul-smelling, hairy and aggressive – not the man we expected God to work through, not the guy we wanted to hear from, not a character who can be squeezed into the Christmas pageant, but God’s messenger – a voice crying in the wilderness – who prepared the way for the coming of Jesus into the world!
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, December 2009.