A Sermon preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham
Sunday 1 September 2019- 4:30pm- 11 After Trinity
Isaiah 33: 13-22 and John 3: 22-36
John the Baptist is a fascinating character. Normally we picture him as a prophetic figure, a radical and lone voice crying out in the wilderness, wearing strange clothing and eating locusts and wild honey. He must have been a striking presence, with his off-beat style of dressing, frightening but attractive to the many followers who felt drawn to him and followed him into the desert and received his baptism. Presumably his direct way of speaking would be deemed a little un-p.c. in our own age. And yet we too, like his earlier followers, if we met him would most likely find ourselves weirdly compelled by his stark uncompromising message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, even if it also made us feel uncomfortable or irritated.
But John is more than a prophet. In the New Testament, he has something of a special status. Referred to some ninety times, only Jesus, Peter and Paul are referred to in more passages than he is. All four Gospel writers give him a prominent role, underlining his importance at the same time as stressing his inferiority to Jesus. As our reading makes clear, Jesus and John were active at the same time; their ministries overlapped, John baptising in the abundant waters of the Judean countryside where Jesus and his disciples also travel. In the other three Gospels, we discover that John even baptised Jesus. But for John the author of the fourth Gospel, the most important thing isn’t that John baptised people but that he came to bear witness.
The Prologue, the famous beginning of John’s Gospel, introduces John rather unexpectedly “as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe” (1:7). Later in the same chapter, John’s witness to Jesus as the “the Lamb of God” encourages two of his own disciples to follow Jesus (1:35-37). In our reading today, the role of the John the Baptist, for all his prominence and preparatory work of calling people to repentance and baptising, is exactly this- to bear witness, to testify to the light. For this Gospel writer, John shouldn’t be called “John the Baptist” so much as “John the witness”. In the Gospel of Luke as well, John, Jesus’ kinsman is also his first witness, leaping in the womb when the pregnant Mary visits his mother Elizabeth.
The Greek word for “witness” is the root of our word “martyr”. Of course, John was a martyr, imprisoned and eventually beheaded by Herod for speaking out against all the evil things Herod had done. John is accorded high respect; like Jesus, he’s a man sent from God.
And yet he was only doing what we all are meant to do, testifying to he light, not taking centre stage but fading into the background in order to let Jesus shine out. “He must increase, but I must decrease,” he says of Jesus, in the lesson.
But that enabling of someone else didn’t cause John to retire and embrace a quiet life. In preparing the way, and witnessing to Jesus, he’d chosen a way that would continue to cost him, that was tough. Most of us aren’t like John. We’re not firebrands or prophets; we prefer a quiet life; we don’t like sticking our necks out. But at some time or other God needs us to speak. It might be to explain our faith. It might be to challenge and injustice at work. It might be to join a protest or march for something we believe in- I’ve felt challenged this weekend hearing reports of protests against our own government, and from a friend who lives there of the protests of the young people in Hong Kong. There are all kinds of situations where witness is required. And with nearly all of us, our sin isn’t speaking too soon; it’s not speaking at all because we are too cautious or maybe scared.
John the Baptist is an impassioned figure- someone with a powerful message to share, who isn’t afraid of speaking out or of making enemies. For him, preparing the way and making room for Jesus, isn’t just about standing back; it’s about standing up and being counted alongside him. John the author of the Gospel ends by telling us that Jesus himself is a witness- “he testifies to what he has seen and heard, yet no one accepts his testimony”. And in the first lesson the Lord calls to those who are far away and those who are near (Isaiah 33:13). God cares passionately about all his children, off beat firebrands or not, and he calls each of us to a impassioned ministry of witnessing to Jesus- who gives the Spirit without measure and pours upon us the abundant waters of new life.