04 December 2016
10.30 Sung Eucharist and Baptism
Second Sunday in Advent
Canon Simon Cowling
Isaiah 11. 1-10; Matthew 3. 1-12
Which is the only professional football team in the United Kingdom to be named after St John the Baptist?
Well, I hope that question has piqued your interest in my sermon sufficiently to ensure you don’t settle too comfortably in your pew for the next few minutes, because I shan’t be revealing the answer until later on – though I can disclose that it has a connection with our baptism candidate, Emily’s, maternal grandparents.
You might view that as a pretty shameless way for a preacher to try to ensure your attention, but at least it is fairly innocuous. John the Baptist’s style, like his retro, Elijah-like, dress sense and distinctly odd diet, was rather different. Not for him a polite Church of England greeting to those approaching him in the wilderness of Judea, hoping to receive his ministry of baptism. Instead a fiercely uncompromising and immediate judgement: You brood of vipers! he exclaims. In John the Baptist’s eyes there is something rotten in the state of Judea, and the Pharisees and Sadducees are the groups in which he locates that rottenness. Not even their status as descendants of Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, will be able to protect them from the wrath to come. Matthew gives us a vivid description of John and his ministry, and it was not only in scripture that John’s reputation lived on after his death. Here is the Jewish historian Josephus describing John a generation later: (John was) a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism.
Josephus’s description is rather milder that Matthew’s but his summary of John’s ministry supports what we have heard in today’s Gospel reading: John called people to repentance, to a full conversion to God, and to purification through baptism. John eventually, and famously, paid with his head for refusing to collude with Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee. His understanding of his call to exercise a prophetic ministry to God’s people took precedence over concern for his own life.
Yet beyond the fierce denunciation of his contemporaries’ hypocrisy and complacency, beyond even the baptism with water for repentance that he offered in the Jordan, John was offering something else: hope. The kingdom of heaven is near, announces the prophet. The one who will inaugurate that kingdom, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; the one who will baptise not with water but with the Holy Spirit and fire – he is coming after me. The sense of expectant, extravagant, hope that John created in those days, as St Matthew puts it, went on to shape the whole narrative arc of his Gospel. Do John’s words create a similar sense of expectant and extravagant hope in us as well? Are we able, in these days, to imagine for ourselves, and for the whole of creation, a future that is shaped by confidence that God is doing a new thing among us too?
St Catherine of Siena, a theologian of the fourteenth century, believed that the worst sin of Judas was not his betrayal but the subsequent despair that caused him to end his own life. To despair, after all, means literally to abandon hope. There is much, in these days, that might tempt us to abandon hope. There are the human tragedies we see nightly on television news, typified by the woman in war-torn Aleppo who gave birth to a son three months ago but who said to a journalist last week, Did I give birth to him to see a life like this? . There is the apparent abandonment in much of the western world of any scintilla of political idealism, dignity, or courtesy, typified by the election of a US president who during his campaign publicly mocked the disability of a journalist attending one of his press conferences; typified too by the alarming degrading of political discourse in our own nation since the EU referendum on 23 June. There are the heart-rending accounts in our media of haunted and broken middle-aged men telling for the first time of the extent to which their trust was betrayed by the football coaches of their youth. Yes. There is much that might tempt us to despair. Yet in the same passage to which I referred earlier, St Catherine of Siena reminds us that to despair is to show scorn, both for the value of repentance and for the unfathomable mercy and forgiveness of God. It is in and through that forgiveness that hope, expectant and extravagant hope, hope for the whole of God’s creation, can be born.
Emily, in a moment we will rejoice with you as you are baptised. Your lovely middle name, Iris, is the same as that of the mythical goddess the ancient Greeks thought of as a messenger between the heavenly and the human realm. So your baptism reminds us here in the Priory that St John the Baptist was a messenger too – a messenger from the living God of expectant and extravagant hope born of human repentance and God’s forgiveness. The people of Perth, where our baptism candidate Emily’s grandparents used to live, took this biblical messenger so much to heart that they made him their patron saint and called their town ‘St John’s Toun of Perth’, which is why their football team is called St Johnstone. May all of us, as the baptised people of God, take to heart and proclaim John’s message in these times so that, in the resonant words of a contemporary Lutheran writer, we and all God’s people may rethink, re-imagine, and reorder our lives by the power of God’s presence.