I’ve always had an affection for St John the Baptist. He seems to me to be precisely the sort of earnest but sour person we need to set against the prevailing culture of impulsive, consumerist religion that we find in the world around us.
My tongue is in my cheek! But the point is not entirely frivolous. St John the Baptist is not a prophet for those who want their religion wrapped in a soft velvet presentation box and tied up with a silk ribbon. His is a stark faith, an austere life, and one that ends by any normal standards rather badly.
He was a man who excelled at annoying people. He even annoyed Jesus. While at one level he was extremely popular, probably in his lifetime much more of a Superstar than Jesus himself, John also provoked and irritated people in power and in the end paid for it with his life.
This is the figure we celebrate on this 3rd Sunday of Advent. The prophet of preparation, the voice crying in the wilderness, the man who eats locusts and wild honey and baptises people in the river Jordan. How many of us would invite such a person to a dinner party? And what does our celebration of John teach us as 21st century Christians in a time of pandemic?
One thing, it seems to me, is that some of us are called to a ministry of provocation. I said as much at Peter’s licensing service last weekend. Of course, that is not a permission to be as annoying and as sour as you want! But it is a recognition that God places among us people whose role it is to unsettle us. Growth in faith requires change, and change is never comfortable or easy.
The natural response to provocation is to fight back, to defend one’s current position with an equal and opposite reaction. But we are called to live out our identity as baptised people by being ever ready to repent, to change our minds, to look at our lives and our faith with new eyes, to be changed by the Holy Spirit of God.
The ministry of John the Baptist warns us that the more we have to lose the harder we will find this to do. We will want to hold on to what gives us a sense of security, what makes us feel that we’re doing OK all things considering. We may well be. But God doesn’t ever leave us there.
These are not ‘tidings of comfort and joy’ – you need to wait just a little longer for those. It’s still Advent, and we’re still in that season of longing and waiting, yearning and penitence, when we allow ourselves to be made uncomfortable by the challenging messages of the forerunners of Christ.
Today, as we celebrate St John the Baptist, let’s all of us ask whether there is some aspect of our own lives as Christians that needs a bit of provocation, to be unsettled, to be opened up to the healing and transforming power of God.
May God bless you all,