John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. (Mark 1:6-8)
This morning at church today we thought about John the Baptist and his ministry. We had great fun dressing someone up with a leather belt and a bit of sheepskin carpet. (Sadly, the charity shops of Sheen couldn’t furnish anything in camel’s hair!) We also offered round a locust and honey sandwich. (Sheen, remarkably, could provide locusts.) I was very impressed when one member of the congregation was brave enough to try a bite!
This is the Sunday in Advent when we traditionally think about the prophets who came before Jesus. John the Baptist was in many senses very typical of these prophets, even though he was separated by several hundreds of years from people like Isaiah and Jeremiah. Like them, John spoke with great authority. He spoke words both of comfort and condemnation. He challenged his contemporaries to return to a true observance of God’s commandments. And, like so many of them, he ultimately fell foul of the rich and powerful, who did not wish their deeds done in darkness to be exposed to the light (Isaiah 29:15).
The question I posed this morning, to myself as much as to anyone else, was ‘Would we listen to a man like John the Baptist?’. This strange man, dressed oddly, living in the wilderness, eating locusts and honey. The other gospel writers make clear that he was certainly not a speaker who tried to please or flatter his audience.
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? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. (Matt. 3:7)
Would we really have gone out into the wilderness to hear this kind of abuse from a strange hermit? Yet, we know that many, many people did. Because they recognised that John was a real prophet. A man truly inspired by God to shake them, and their rulers, out of their complacency.
Are we willing to hear prophetic voices today? Are we willing to put aside our prejudices and preconceptions to open our ears and minds to those who do not meet our expectations? When I worked in the field of politics, I was continually disappointed by our unwillingness to do this. I would always hear people telling me that they wanted politicians of substance and conviction, ‘real’ people, unafraid to speak the truth. Yet, whenever they were given the choice, they always seemed really to prefer the person who spoke ‘nicely’ and wore a decent suit. Politicians who came across well on the television and who, basically, said what they wanted to hear. It is why I fervently believe that, despite our complaints, we invariably end up with the politicians we deserve.
The same is true of church life. I was almost rejected as a local preacher in the Methodist Church because one of the people hearing my trial service, while believing I preached very well, thought I should have worn a tie! So often, we judge speakers, ministers and others by the way they dress, their accent or the colour of their skin. We make up our minds about whether or not someone has something worth saying well before they even open their mouth!
The challenge of the prophets, of John the Baptist, and indeed of Advent, is to open our hearts and minds to the true bearers of good news. To recognise God speaking and acting in our world, in the most unlikely places and among the most unlikely people. It is the challenge to believe that God still speaks to each one of us, if we have the courage to hear. To have the humility to recognise that we do not have a monopoly of the truth and that God challenges us still to change our hearts and minds. To accept the challenge that God may speak to us through a tiny baby born in Bethlehem, or even a locust-eating wild men in the desert.