Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John (1. 1-4, 8-11).
John the Baptist denies being the Messiah
There was a man sent from God whose name was John.
7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light,
so that through him all might believe.
8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders[c] in Jerusalem
sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was.
20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely,
‘I am not the Messiah.’
21 They asked him, ‘Then who are you? Are you Elijah?’
He said, ‘I am not.’
‘Are you the Prophet?’
He answered, ‘No.’
22 Finally they said, ‘Who are you?
Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us.
What do you say about yourself?’
23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet,
‘I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way for the Lord.”’[d]
24 Now the Pharisees who had been sent 25 questioned him,
‘Why then do you baptise if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?’
26 ‘I baptise with[e] water,’ John replied,
‘but among you stands one you do not know.
27 He is the one who comes after me,
the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.’
28 This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan,
“I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness,
“Make straight the paths for the Lord.”
You know sometimes in a city street
you will hear sirens and lights flashing
and a car comes past …blaring its horn to clear the path..
for an ambulance or a fire engine.
Or here in the countryside at harvest time we sometimes get a car
with a light on top … and a man waving his arms around (probably Dennis)
warning us to get out of the way because the combine harvester
is coming down a narrow road.
Well that was what John was doing ahead of Jesus coming,
warning the people to be ready and get out of the way,
saying “He’s coming” and making the paths straight, as it were,
setting the scene for Jesus ministry.
I have heard people say that’s it’s a shame that in Advent
we focus on repentance in the lead up
to the happiest time of the year;
always on about judgement, the end of the world …
and the fact that we are all miserable sinners. …
When what we really want is a bit of joy and gladness.
John said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”
Over the past centuries, we in the church
have been saying: ‘prepare the way’
but people have misunderstood what the coming kingdom is all about.
We need to get better at explaining repentance –
yes, being sorry for our sins …
but also being able to put things in perspective,
really seeing that the kingdom of heaven is near
God isn’t distant and detached, he isn’t anti-fun,
but he’s here and now … kind, loving and full of joy,
and …that the kingdom of heaven is real .. and that it’s all good news.
And that’s our job in Advent too
to try to say to people
that however busy they might be
dashing about buying stuff for Christmas Day
they need to be still sometimes … and silent sometimes..
to catch the beauty of it all,
and give themselves time and space and
take a deep breath … and just to think about what it all MEANS.
We know that Advent isn’t just about decorations …
and food… and gifts (nice as all that is!)
It’s more to do with our attitude of mind,
the anticipation of the Christ Child coming to live among us,
to share our lives and teach us how to live … and how to love.
Because we want to be changed, improved… by the experience…
rather than just let it hurtle past unnoticed, in a flurry of busyness.
Sometimes I feel a bit aggrieved at the behaviour of people
who say they are Christians …
and yet behave in ways that are not Christian at all,
(and I include myself in that –unfortunately- at times).
I know we all have our own individual blind spots and prejudices
and times when we get unreasonably angry or upset
(for no apparent reason).
I’m sure we don’t have to look far back into our past
(maybe as far as last week!)
to think of something that we are ashamed of,
something that we would rather hadn’t happened,
or something we said in the heat of the moment,
or even just an unkind thought that flashed through our minds
(does that ever happen to you?… does to me!)
The Archdeacon says he is often genuinely shocked
by the way Christians treat each other …
he says it’s the hardest part of his job to unravel
the mess created by a few unkind words.
Because it’s all for nothing if the services are good,
the sermons are helpful,
if the choir sings angelically,
if the coffee is delicious and the biscuits fair-trade-chocolate….
All that is only amounts to a hill of beans
if we gossip, criticise, take umbrage, use bad language and bully people.
It’s very easy to be criticised behind our backs .. and quite rightly,
if our attitudes and lives don’t tally up with what we believe.
You know…we hold something very precious in our hands;
we hold this wonderful matchless, joyous faith
which is to be passed on to our contemporaries …
and to the next generation
and we need to be people of integrity
to be suitable custodians of the treasure that we hold.
We need to be consistent with the story, make our lives.. match our words.
because this is where the ‘straight paths’ get twisted up
and we stand in the way of outsiders having a proper view of Jesus.
It’s a shame that anyone might feel that the church burdens people
with guilt without offering some hope too,
that our faith is not all about spoiling fun –
and so much of this is a misunderstanding
of what repentance really means.
Because we so often ‘repent’ of all our sins in church,
we think that repentance is all about sin.
Of course it is about saying sorry,
but it’s wider meaning is about turning around …
and doing things differently –
even just thinking differently.
We need to live our lives
as though someone is watching,
and of course God is … but, crucially… so are other people
and if they are noticing that our behaviour doesn’t match up with our faith,
well then it’s hard for people to see round that
because suddenly we are standing in the way
they can’t see the God of Love … who is standing behind us weeping.
Tonight this church will be full of people
Who perhaps only come to church a few times a year …
and what a lovely thing it is for us… to welcome them in
and genuinely enjoy seeing them.
It’s what we do so well here, the smiles and handshakes,
the mulled wine and sausage rolls and mince pies, what not to like!
And yet it should go without saying
that we need to be so careful of
how we manage ourselves in ordinary everyday life,
in our homes, in our work and among our friends
outside these walls between Monday and Saturday.
And we do that, not by deceiving or putting on a mask,
but by showing real love, real joy, real peace, real gratitude and real hope.
We need to look like the people God has called us to be
even when we think no-one’s looking – because …believe me, they are!
In the gospel passage today John was very quick
to deny that he was the messiah.
And we need to be very quick to deny
that we are in any way a fitting representation of Jesus.
Let us say “If you want to see Jesus,
don’t look at any of us church-goers …
Look beyond us… at Jesus instead!
Because we are also the ones saying
“He is the one whose sandals I am not worthy to untie…”
The calling we have received is not easy,
but it is straightforward, and it is within us (by God’s Spirit) to do it.
When we respond to John’s preaching,
then the path for others will be much straighter,
People will see Jesus Christ and not us –
and wouldn’t that make for a truly wonderful Christmas?