Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 8 December 2013: Year A, The Second Sunday in Advent

Texts: Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Matthew 3:1-12

Time for a U-Turn!

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

John the BaptistLet me take you out into the wilderness. Let me take you out of our own small, Palestinian town, along unfamiliar country roads, out beyond the farms and the good grazing. We follow a narrow track downwards- down below sea level into the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea. Here few people live- a few soldiers on frontier duty, or strange, otherworldly sects such as Essenes of Qumran. But something is stirring in this wilderness, something strange is blooming in this desert. We are not the only ones who are curious enough to be going to see what’s going on.
His name is John. He has had a strange career. He’s the son of Zechariah, a priest of the great Temple in Jerusalem, who heard about his son’s coming from an angel. They called it a miracle when Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, conceived, for the two of them were too old. Such a miracle that it left old Zechariah speechless for nine months afterwards! John was brought up by parents who were old enough to be his grandparents. Good, god-fearing people they were, who loved their unexpected son. So it seemed ungrateful when one day, John literally ‘desert-ed’ then- he went off to live in the desert. We’re not told how old Zechariah and Elizabeth felt about it all. They may well have been shocked in disappointed. But, remembering the mysterious circumstances of his birth, did they perceive saw the hand of God at work in their son’s life, even if the neighbours gossiped that he’d flipped.
Perhaps John had even gone and joined those unorthodox Essenes, those scroll-writers of the Dead Sea- no-one was quite sure. But after a few years, it looked like he’d started his own sect. He had a following, folks who had gone out into the desert with him. And unlike the Essenes, John was outward looking. His preaching was directed to anyone who’d listen, not just a select few.
The Essenes, we think, believed in cleanliness- not that cleanliness was next to Godliness, but that it was necessary to Godliness. At Qumran, archaeologist have discovered the great baths they built; for they seemed to be washing themselves all the time, so as to be pure and clean for the coming of the Messiah, which they thought was due any time. But these ritual washings were for the sect members alone- for the really committed (or the brainwashed!). John offered a ‘washing’ as well. But John would wash anyone, in public, in the waters of the River Jordan. People who knew they had souls which needed cleaning up came to John.
There he is now- that strange figure in the middle of the river, getting ready to baptise another repentant sinner. He’s a strange figure, like an Old Testament prophet born 200 years too late. Wild and unkempt, dressed only in camel skin with a rough leather belt round his waist. They say he lives on the food of the desert- locusts and wild honey. And his preaching has drawn us, and many others, down into this hot, stuffy river valley.
Why do they come? What’s the attraction of John ? You’d think he’d put them off! For his cry is ‘Repent! Turn your life around. The life you are leading now is all wrong. God hates your lifestyle, the way you make yourself comfortable with your sins. You need to repent!’
John doesn’t just call for people to give up their bad habits, stop doing things they know they should do. John wants them to turn their backs on their old lives, to turn around, from concentrating on themselves to concentration on God. He wants radical obedience. And when people confess that they need God’s help to do that, he baptises them- he washes them clean, signifying that God has cleaned them up, and now they are ready to start anew.
Lots of people come to see John. There’s the religious nutters, looking out for the latest new experience. There are the merely curious, coming to see what the latest fuss is about. There are those who recognise that what John is saying is true for them- the ones who realise that, yes, it’s true, nothing less than a clean slate is required. And all this fuss brings along the traditional religious leaders, the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
Leaders of established religion are always suspicious when something new comes along. They want to find out what’s going on, who it is that’s leading their flock astray, what new heresy is this that they have to deal with. But some of these Pharisees and Sadducees seem to have been moved by what John has to say. Look- here they come, down to the water’s edge, asking if they can be baptised! Even John looks shocked! He doubts they are serious about his message. So he has a sermon for them especially:
What are you all here for? Do you want to be baptised, just to be on the safe side. Do you think you can avoid God’s punishment, just by dipping in the water? But I only baptise those who repent, who turn away from their own selfish desires and turn to God. I’m not sure that you lot are capable of that! You’re all so smug, with your Law and your Prophets, your secure position in society, judging what’s right and what’s wrong, pronouncing on who’s in and who’s out, who’s righteous and who’s a sinner. Of course, you all think you’re righteous, don’t you? ‘God’s on our side because we’re children of Abraham. God’s not going to punish us. But just in case, we’ll get John to baptise us- as an insurance policy’.
Well, it’s not enough being children of Abraham. God could turn these riverbank stones into children of Abraham if he wanted. God’s not interested in your status, in what your ancestors did, in whether you stick to the minutiae of your religion. God wants a clean soul, a good heart, a person to obey him. Otherwise- well, you’ll have to meet God one day. You’ll have to give an account of yourself. Otherwise, one day God will cut you down like trees.
Tell you what- you say you’ve repented, that you’re sincere, that this isn’t some kind of a trick. Well then, I’ll baptise you. I’ll baptise you to show that you have repented. But it’s what you do from now on that matters. If you really have repented, if you really have turned sincerely to God, your life will show it up. You’ll start living life in a completely different way. You’ll be new people, changed, better, cleaner.
And be warned, this isn’t the end of it. There’s another coming after me, better than me, greater than me. He’ll sort out the wheat from the chaff. He’s on his way…
Let’s leave the wilderness, that fiery preacher up to his knees in water, and return to the familiar. Back up the windy road from the Jordan valley. And since this is an exercise of the imagination, lets fast-forward 2,000 years, head for Jerusalem’s airport, and fly back to Inverness. We have left John behind us- back thousands of miles in Palestine, back 2,000 years. But today, here in Inverness in 2013, his message breaks into our consciousness, as it does almost every year at this time. Just before we celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace, here comes that strange figure in his camel coat with his unsettling message.
Unsettling? Why? Because of his message. He invites everyone to change the direction of their lives. Some folk will realise that they have to change, and they’ll come and respond positively to his message. What better way to keep Advent than to turn to God, turn away from following your own agenda, and start to follow God’s path. ‘He’s coming,’ says John, ‘and you should be prepared for him’. John’s preaching foretells the coming of Jesus, and urges us to be ready for him, his message, and the judgements he is going to make about us.
It is an unsettling message, but sometimes we miss just how unsettling it really is. I like the Good News version of the Bible, because it usually translates the original Greek and Hebrew into very direct language. But today, the way it translates John’s message rather blunts its impact. In the Good News version we heard read for us, John’s message is rendered, ‘Turn away from your sins… because the Kingdom of heaven is near’ (Matthew 3.2, GNB). However, other translations of the Bible, such as the New Revised Standard Version, translate the turning from your sins bit with an English word which was used in the Authorised or King James version. Here, John’s message is much more direct: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matthew 3.2, NRSV). Now, if we understood ancient Greek, we would realise that John is saying much more than simply turn away from your sins. ‘Repent’- the Greek word is metanoein- certainly has that element of turning in its meaning. But it is much more than simply turning away from a few bad habits. It is, as one reference book puts it, ‘a whole reorientation of personality’1. It involved not just turning from sin, but turning to God. To repent is certainly to turn away from whatever keeps us from God. But as we turn, this turning becomes a turning to God. Turning away in repentance becomes turning to God in faith.
We’ve been reminded this week just how world-changing it can be when people find the courage to turn their lives around. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison, he showed by his own example what ie meant for people to turn around their attitudes. People needed to turn away from bitterness, from racism, from resentment, from violence, so that South Africa could move forward. And that is a process which is still not yet complete. But even for secular people, Mandela is an example of why it is important to be able to turn our lives around, to turn away from beliefs and attitudes which might be very embedded in us. And so Mandela, like John the Baptist, was indeed a kind of prophet, challenging us all to turn around so that the kingdom might come.
Ascription of Praise
To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.

1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible

© 2013 Peter W Nimmo