Reading the stories about John the Baptist I sometimes think I’m going completely the wrong way if I want to be a popular preacher. The Gospels tell us that ‘the whole of Judaea’ went out to the wilderness to hear him preach, but when you read what he preach you wonder why. According to Luke, John spent quite a bit of time telling his hearers that they were a ‘brood of vipers’! I know there are some restaurants in the US where customers go because the waiters shout at the customers and are rude to them, but mostly people run a mile from fire and brimstone preachers or people who insult them. I wonder what you would say if I had interrupted the notices today to let you all know that I think you are like snakes… I imagine I wouldn’t still be preaching the sermon and that you would have asked somebody much nicer, like Denis, to take over instead.
And John the Baptist didn’t just insult his audience. He told them in no uncertain terms that they had no privileges when it comes to getting into the Kingdom of God. They might be descended from Abraham, but they might as well have been children of Jezebel for all it would help them get on the good side of God. He told them the axe was raised and about to fall. Your only hope was to repent – and repent in a worthy way too – not just any old flabby kind of repentance. And he didn’t just tell his audience things. He also made himself a visible sign of an extreme kind of life. He had left behind the soft city or even village life to live in the desert. He ate very little and he wore clothes that not even the poor would have wanted. It strikes me that I have met people a bit like John the Baptist, and I don’t find them very attractive, even if part of me knows they are technically right.
David Mitchell (you know, of Mitchell and Webb fame) has written about how he feels about vegans – and I have some sympathy. He doesn’t mean the nice, quiet kind of vegans who have a rather delicious lunch at The Planet down the road, but the campaigning sort, the people who argue that they are ethical vegans and that should be protected. There are vegans who have no truck with leather, silk, wool, zoos, aquariums, anything that uses captive animals in its advertising, or even dating non-vegans. And David Mitchell says he can see that they are ‘right’, but somehow he finds it hard to like them. He knows that his views have been shaped by the world he’s grown up in and that the views he instinctively holds may well need to be challenged – and they will likely be challenged by those he finds it hard to like. He says, it often happens that things we once thought normal are later understood to be wrong; slavery, homophobia, burning fossil fuels… And, if we are serious about our own living, our own ethics, then there will certainly be times when we have to recognise that we were wrong, and that we need to change our ways. But it’s worth reflecting on how we are inspired or led to change our ways… and how God seeks to do it in us.
John the Baptist was one of those people who challenged other people to make radical changes to their lives. And he did it by telling them about the judgement to come. He did it by what today we would call ‘virtue shaming’, by standing out from the crowd in the way he lived and dressed and ate. Today he would be a vegan in Fairly traded clothes, cycling into the desert with an ethical tent and the lowest of carbon foot prints. And it would be hard to say that any of that was wrong… I couldn’t say it was wrong at all.
But Jesus, it seems to me, had a different approach. And I find myself drawn to him much more. Jesus was not very much, if ever, into virtue shaming. He was much more into getting alongside those who were going wrong and being with them in all the complexity of their lives and the world. John the Baptist told sinners that God was coming down on them and soon, but Jesus told people that God was more like someone who is a host a great party, or a father who can’t bear to throw anyone out even when they have as good as turned their back on him and taken their inheritance cheque early. John warned people that they had better save their skins quick. Jesus said that God was coming to save our skins, and indeed that God has already come to us by putting on human skin to be with us. John said that people would surely pay for their sins. Jesus said that whatever you had done, even if you were like the Prodigal Son and had blown your life completely, it was still never too late to change. John was constantly fasting, but Jesus ate whatever he liked, with people no-one respectable would have eaten with. John shouted at sinners and called them all sorts of names. Jesus said that God rejoiced over sinners more than the righteous, and to show he meant it spent much of his time with those who were thought to be notorious sinners; taxcollectors and sex-workers and Roman soldiers to boot. John called for repentance. Jesus called for repentance too, but somehow made it sound more like a chance to find forgiveness.
I don’t know about you, but I am far more drawn to Jesus. I am drawn to someone who doesn’t condemn from a high place, doesn’t virtue shame or denounce, isn’t rude and shouty. I am drawn to the one who wrote gently in the sand while others called for stones to be thrown, who told stories about forgiveness and redemption, who healed people rather than condemn them, who seemed to understand sinners and thus forgive them, who looked on so many with mercy and grace. And the strange thing is that being drawn to Jesus doesn’t at all mean that I’m content to stay being a sinner – in fact it makes me want to be worthy of his love and regard. It inspires me to become a better self, to make my life better, to be, if you like, saved and redeemed. Because I know that Jesus loves me as I am, it doesn’t mean that I want to stay as I am – I want to be changed, to be more like him, to be more like the me God wants me to be.
The funny thing is – and I’ve only really just noticed this – that John the Baptist in a way asks less of us than Jesus does. If you look at the passage we heard this week from Luke’s Gospel, John the Baptist rages like a radical, but when people actually ask for his advice it’s turns out to be quite ‘mainstream’. He asks people to share what they have if they’ve got two coats (fair enough…). He tells tax collectors to avoid corruption and just do their job. He tells soldiers to avoid extortion and blackmail and to be content with their salaries. After all that ‘brood of vipers’ rhetoric it’s a bit meek and mild really. He doesn’t tell the tax collectors that they are working for a corrupt government or tell the soldiers that pacifism is the only correct and faithful way of life. These are modest reforms that even Theresa May might have got through parliament… John the Baptist, when it came to it, wasn’t quite so radical after all. It’s Jesus, it turns out, who is the one who prepares us for a quite different world, a world in which the poor are blessed and meek inherit the earth, in which a rich person might sell all they possess and give it to the poor, a world in which a child might model the best way to live, a world where sex-workers enter the Kingdom of God first. In being drawn to Jesus I am actually, it turns out, called to a much more radically changed world. But I am drawn to it because it is a world that welcomes me and others just as we are, that promises us a welcome, that proclaims us beloved of God, that presents such an attractive and compelling picture of a new way of living – that I would give my all to live in it. It does not win me by shaming me, but by accepting me. It does not win me by condemning me if I don’t’ co-operate, but by assuring me that whatever I’ve done there is always, and will always be, room for forgiveness. It does not win me by argument and by being ‘right’, but simply by love. I am won by Jesus Christ who came to be God among us, opening the way to a new way of being human.
How are any of us changed? How do any of us become our better selves? How, you might say, are we saved? Perhaps it’s worth thinking about that great Christmas story of salvation, the story for Ebenezer Scrooge. I am sure that he had heard many people tell him he ought to be less mean, more generous, a better employer. I expect he had heard countless sermons on the Christian virtues and, in Victorian England, perhaps a good deal of fire and brimstone preaching even if only on the street corners. But it was only when the ghosts showed him a clearer picture of how life is, only when they inspired in him some real compassion, only when they unveiled a possible future to him, that he discovered his better self. He was moved at last, his heart was warmed and he became a new person.
Both John the Baptist and Jesus were about renewing the world. In Jesus we hear one who shows us so beautifully what human life might be like. It may never be pure in the sense that John the Baptist wanted it to be as he escaped into an empty place to live a life untainted by the world. Jesus showed us a vision for how life can be different today, right where we are, when we find the grace to forgive and be forgiven, to be moved by compassion rather than righteousness, to open ourselves in hospitality towards others and to wait for the God who is bringing us home again. Amen.