07 December 2014
Revd Hannah Smith
Isaiah 40. 1-11; Mark 1. 1-8
At this time of year, many people ask what would it be like if Jesus was born not 2000 years ago, but in our world today – in Yorkshire in 2014? Would he be born in a service station or a cheap B&B? Would cafe workers come and worship him or maybe asylum seekers? Would he placed in a sink in a blanket or laid in a supermarket trolley? Perhaps you have your own ideas?
However, I rarely hear people conjecture about what John the Baptist would look like if he emerged in our wilderness preaching his radical gospel of forgiveness of sins, offending the religious leaders and eating bizarre foods?
In our gospel reading today, John appears abruptly in the wilderness, typically for the gospel of Mark everything happens in a hurry without much background. But from the gospel of Luke, we know a little of a history of John – the boy born to a barren Elizabeth who is destined for great things, yet as soon as he is old enough, he goes and lives in the wilderness, where we find him beginning his ministry.
The wilderness is a motif used throughout the scriptures – an important image for the Jewish people, who wandered for 40 years in the wilderness, going round and round in circles before they eventually arrive in the promised land.
The wilderness is a complex place – a place where little grows and few people are; a place of fear and hunger and longing; a place where few choose to go and there is a sense of abandonment; but also, paradoxically, the wilderness is often seen as a key place to encounter God – when distractions cease and we have the space to go one on one with the almighty.
John was perhaps the kind of bizarre character you would expect to find in the wilderness. He wore bizarre outfits – camel hair, ate bizarre foods – locusts and honey, and in some ways had a bizarre message – one that would turn the world upside down. He spoke a gospel of repentance – and repentance that is not simply being sorry, but of turning your world around, changing the way that you think, altering your world-view. The Greek word is metanoia, to turn and face in the opposite direction, a complete about-turn.
So John speaks out in the wilderness, looking different and strange, and telling people to turn their lives upside down – it’s a radical calling, but it is simply an act of service to the one who comes after him. John perhaps doesn’t fully comprehend this Christ who he is preparing the way for, but he is happy to dedicate his life to doing so.
So, can we begin to imagine what a John-like character might do today? Where are the wildernesses in our culture and society? Where are the surprising places where we can encounter God despite an outward barrenness? Well I dare to suggest that I work in one. I work for a new church, perhaps you may call it a fresh expression, called Riverside, that is based in the centre of Leeds. We meet in an old church, Holy Trinity and our neighbours are a little different from yours here – on one side is Burger King and the other is the Trinity Shopping Centre where I am also chaplain.
The church where we are based is beautiful, one of the best examples of Georgian architecture in the north of England, and somehow it does look beautiful next to the domed glass of the shopping centre. Yet this place is also a wilderness. On a Friday and Saturday night, the Leeds Street Angels work out of our building, helping vulnerable and very drunk people get home safely after they have drunk themselves senseless – this seems an obvious place of wilderness for thousands of people in our society. Yet, also, in a world where shopping is the great religion and around 300,000 people visit the Trinity shopping centre every week, perhaps someone looking for purpose and meaning by using a credit card is in just as much of a spiritual wilderness as the ones who are making themselves ill by trying to find meaning at the bottom of a bottle.
That is our wilderness – I wonder what yours looks like – in your workplace, home, street, community – where are the places that seem thirsty and abandoned, yet have a glimpse of potential for God to encounter people?
We are being constantly surprised by the number of people in that context who simply are walking through our doors weekly to start asking questions. Some are drawn by the beautiful architecture or by a family link to the building. Some are looking for peace and space in the midst of the cacophony of a busy city. Some are seeking a reason to keep going or a deeper meaning in their lives. Some come once and then leave, but increasing numbers keep coming back as their search deepens.
What then is our calling if we choose to make our home in places of wilderness, if we choose to risk the encounter with those seeking an encounter with God? What would John do if he were here today? John was different and stood out. I challenged our Church a couple of weeks ago that if someone looked at the way they used their resources, their time, money and effort, would people be able to see what they really value in life – would people see that they value the things of God? Our congregation found that challenging and I find that challenging, but if we do start to live like Christ with our time, money and effort we will stand out like John did. If we are the ones who will befriend the person in the community who all else rejects, or if we drive a smaller car so we can give money away to a charity, or if we choose to turn off our TV and instead spend time in prayer, we do look odd to our society, but perhaps that is a very good thing.
John’s message was repentance, a call to see the world differently. I believe he would be surprised at what shapes the way we see the world. In our society we are so deluged by advertising, books, the internet, TV, radio – we have so many influences thrown at us each day, that we are overwhelmed by information overload and it is difficult to filter. Perhaps the first step of repentance that John would offer us today would simply be to start to assess what shapes our worldview, what we read and watch and take in, and choose that more wisely. If we spend time reading magazines about slim celebrities, we are going to worry about our self-image; if we read newspapers that sell fear we are going to live lives shaped by fear. Repentance is letting how we think to be shaped by the person and work of Christ primarily – something that is very hard to achieve in our 21st century world.
Finally, I believe our OT reading from the wild prophet Isaiah gives us insight into how John might have behaved today. Isaiah brings words of comfort from the wilderness. In this beautifully poetic passage, we hear shouted out the words of hope, words that are later used to describe John himself. In the midst of this prophecy about the preparations that are made for the coming of God amongst us, there is a beautiful theme of tenderness. God calls for comfort for the people in the wilderness and words of tenderness to be spoken. The words see ahead to Jesus the good shepherd coming among them, gathering the lambs in his arms and gently leading the mother sheep.
Even though as Christians we follow John in his calling to prepare the way for Christ in wilderness places, by being different and speaking of repentance, Isaiah reminds us that the wilderness is always a place we encounter God for ourselves as we seek to enable others to encounter him too. And the encounter we have with God is challenging and sometimes scary like John, but it is also full to the brim with tenderness, comfort, gentleness and most of all the outrageous love of Christ.
And perhaps that is where I should have started and where we all must start. Life as a Christian is perhaps simply, learning to be loved by God and learning to love him back, and learning to love others as ourselves – a journey that lasts a lifetime. And it is only out of that abiding in God’s love that we can find the courage and vision to dwell in wilderness places and to draw others into the deep tender love of Christ.
John must have encountered that love radically during his years in the wilderness and his insight into the person of Christ and the love of Christ without him even knowing Christ yet must have been what fuelled John’s ability to be different, to be repentant, and to call others to change the way they viewed the world.
So, my prayer for you all this Christmas, is that you may be renewed by a fresh encounter of the love of God made visible in the visit of Christ to us; and that that love may inspire you to be present in wilderness places, and to have your eyes open as to how you may draw others to encounter Christ there, even when that calling is costly to us and requires us to be different and to see things differently. May you experience the tenderness and comfort of God in every wilderness you encounter.