St John’s, Tolpuddle
Sunday 17th December 2017
Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11; John 1.6-8, 19-28
Back in 2005 a particular television series started in the UK; its 13th final is to be shown tonight on BBC 1. Responsibility for my watching this particular programme can be firmly laid at the door of the wife of the current Bishop of Ramsbury. I’d not heard or seen the programme until I stayed with them for a few nights when they lived Canterbury, and she suggested I watched it. I’m somewhat ashamed to say I’ve been somewhat hooked since then.
As a Vicar, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit to watching this programme where contestants vie against each other in sometimes quite disturbing ways. They are very quick to blame others when their team fails, good at talking up their own contributions while deriding those of others, going all out to show themselves in the best possible light, which occasionally includes a less than honest summary of their role in the latest task. Individual desire often trumps team spirit.
I wonder if you’ve guessed what it is I’ll be watching this evening – yes, it’s The Apprentice.
Who will win? Sarah and her confectionery or James and his recruitment company ideas. I’m not sure.
It strikes me that sadly this programme is only watchable because the contestants are shown in bad light. If there were never any arguments and they all worked well together all of the time, it wouldn’t make for inspiring watching.
I’m sure the editing is partially responsible for the view of the candidates we get. But they don’t always help themselves. James, one of this year’s finalists, has said: “Intimidation is what motivates me. I want to be bigger and more successful than anyone else.”
The whole process comes across as being about me, me, me and getting what I want, however much that means I’ll trample over others to get there.
How different from the man we meet in this morning’s Gospel reading!
He’s not shy and retiring, and has made enough of an impression to draw crowds around him. He’s woken the interest of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem who aren’t quite sure what to make of him. There are quite often wacky preachers in the wilderness but this one seems to be attracting people in away that is quite unusual, and rumour has it that he might even be the Messiah, or if not, then at the very least Elijah back again.
So they send people out to question the man, but end up none the wiser. Unlike the Apprentice candidates, John the Baptist doesn’t draw attention to himself, but points to someone else, someone who is coming after him, who is greater, so much greater, that John declares himself not worthy even to have the task of the lowest of the low – undoing his sandals.
We can understand how frustrating it must have been for them when they come to John with their question “Who are you?” and he tells them instead who he is not. I’m not the Messiah. I’m not Elijah. I’m not the prophet. Then who are you, for goodness sake . . .
I’m a voice . . . what sort of answer is that?
John the Baptist could have given many answers to this question. He could have said “I’m John” or “I’m the son of Elisabeth and Zechariah from the temple”. He could have told them where he’d come from or where he lived. But he didn’t. What he did was to give his identity purely in terms of his relationship to Jesus.
His task and ministry was to point to Jesus. And as Christians that is our task and ministry too.
More often than not our behaviour seems more like that of the Apprentice candidates than that of John the Baptist.
We are much better at pointing to ourselves than we are at pointing to Jesus.
It‘s not easy – John the Baptist lost his head because of his vocation. But we often forget that the message we have been given to share with the world is a message of good news.
So often Christians forget that Jesus’s message is one of transformation and hope. It is about bringing light into our dark world.
And yet we are often so reticent to talk about our faith. If we remembered more often that it is good news, we’d probably also be more vocal about it.
The promise we heard in Isaiah is that God will bring good news to oppressed peoples, will bind up broken hearts, will bring freedom to prisoners, to turn mourning into gladness. He will raise up what has previously been destroyed. That’s a promise that John the Baptist believed in.
Though originally aimed at the exiles who have returned home, Isaiah’s words have meaning for all of us. Especially as Luke 4 describes how Jesus used them to refer to himself.
There are many dark places in our world – some far from home, but many on our own doorsteps. Technological advances bring progress, but they also lead to serious issues.
The increasing connectivity somehow increases loneliness as people interact with screens more than face-to-face; the easy access to social media turns ordinary, respectable people into rude and insulting individuals; life becomes about getting things as fast as possible rather than learning how to make the most of moment; impatience is a modern-day scourge, and those who don’t have internet access at all seem to miss out on a lot.
What good news does God have for the lonely? That God is always with them, they are never alone.
What good news does God have for those who are bullied or reviled? That they are precious treasures, unique and of infinite value.
What good news does Jesus have for those who are imprisoned? That they can be freed from whatever binds.
Imprisonment isn’t just about being stuck in a cell, and God can bring freedom even to those who will be spending a long time in jail, because freedom isn’t just about being able to do what I want when I want and go where I want when I want.
Freedom is something that is an attitude of heart and mind as much as place. It isn’t only those literally behind bars for whom freedom is a gift. The chains of mental illness or immobility or fear or physical disease can all feel like imprisonment.
What good news does God have for those whose relationships are falling apart? That there is one who will never let us down or desert us, who will never fall out of love with us or leave us.
Sometimes these ideas sound like platitudes, usually because we don’t live their truth, but they are not, they are God’s promises, and we are called to speak them aloud because that is part of the good news.
So often we limit the idea of salvation to being about who will or will not get into heaven. And, yes, judgement and eternal life are part of the message of Jesus, but the good news that God is with us is not just for heaven. It is the message that the poor and lonely, the downcast and despairing need to hear now.
What does it mean for you that the Gospel is good news?
What good news do you have for the people in this village? How will you share it with them?
Too often what people hear is that Christianity is about judging those who don’t conform to certain ideals.
No, it‘s not. Jesus had harsh words for hypocrites who do just that.
For those who know they are in need, his message was completely good news.
The best news of all is that whatever we do or wherever we are God is with us. That‘s what Christmas is all about. That’s why the incarnation is so important. God shows how much we are loved because God came to dwell among us.
As Christians we sadly close our eyes too often to God at work and present in our world rather than sharing it as good news.
In this final week before Christmas I challenge you to ask each day, where do I see God at work? Where do I see good news for people which I cannot stay quiet about?
As we teach ourselves how to focus on God’s loving presence in our world, we will find it easier and easier to share - and to be - good news.