Notes from a sermon preached on 14.12.08
Those that are astute amongst you may have noticed that today’s reading was the same as last weeks. This is not a mistake! Nor is it to say that Michael didn’t do a good job last week! At the end of his sermon last week, Michael left us with a question – why don’t we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist. This question has niggled away at me, and I want to come back to it again today.
John was certainly a man who courted controversy and grabbed people’s imagination and attention.
He had an arresting appearance, a somewhat wild man dressed in clothes made from camel hair, crunching on locusts and wild honey.
He was a charismatic speaker. His preaching was urgent. Even though he was based out in the wilderness of Judea, people flocked to him from throughout Judea – from the rustic villages and sophisticated city. In many ways he was a living fossil, a throwback to the prophets of old. His message was a stern reminder to live Holy Lives, to remember their covenant with God, and this urgent call was accompanied by drama, baptising those who responded in the Jordan to symbolise the forgiveness of their sins. His message was not just confined to ordinary folk either. He was not afraid to criticise the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day.
John wasn’t just concerned with spiritual issues either. He was not afraid to mix religion and politics – he was quite an activist. Even King Herod was not immune to his judgement because of the evil that he and his family had done – to the point that John ended up being imprisoned for his efforts. More than that, he ended up being beheaded! (Was he in a way the first Christian martyr, not Stephen?)
No doubt a great man. And yet when we celebrate great men today, whilst we remember Jesus, where is John?
There were also similarities between his birth and Jesus, as Michael mentioned last week.
Let’s take a moment to look at some of them:
· To start with, they both belong to the same extended family. If anything, you could argue that John’s immediate family, with Zechariah being a priest, put him in a better position.
· Both their births were prophesied by angels – how’s that for a claim to fame! A touch more class than a pregnancy test at the doctors…
· In both cases, the birth was impossible – Mary was a virgin and Elizabeth was beyond child bearing age.
· To cap it all, the Holy Spirit was involved – in Luke 1:35 Gabriel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will come upon her to bring about her pregnancy, and in Luke 1:15 he tells Elizabeth that the Spirit will be upon John from birth.
There’s no doubt that John had a spectacular start to life. The circumstances around his birth were as spectacular as his leadership and life. So why then do we celebrate Christmas but not Johnmas?!…
If I’d been John, I’d have been really quite frustrated! All that hard work, all that he gave up, the cost of living in the public eye, all for nothing. Who wants to play second fiddle! So where did it go wrong for John?
Let’s get to the passage for today, the prophecy by Zechariah given in response to the question about John, ‘What then is this child going to be?’ (66) What does he have to say?
Read Luke 1:68-75
· John has been brought by God himself to rescue his people, to buy them back (68)
· He is a horn of salvation! Horn is a symbol for strength. (69)
· He has been planned for generations, announced by the prophets (70)
· He has been sent to deliver them from their enemies (71)
· He is God’s way of fulfilling the promises he had made to the Fathers of Israel, the promises of being a great nation, of blessing the world (73)
· Through him they will be able to serve God without having to look over their shoulders at others, worrying about their safety or what might be done to them (74)
· And not just go through the motions, but serve with holiness and righteousness – to be right before God, to enjoy a proper relationship with him (75).
This sounds spectacular doesn’t it!
But wait a minute. What does he say next? ‘And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High’ (76) Can you believe it! All along he’s not been talking about John, but Jesus. How must it feel to realise that even your Dad sees your cousin as being more important then you. How depressing!
My experiences of being second trombone – sometimes longed to be first trombone, to get to play the melodies, to get the best parts. Realised though the importance of being second – without a second trombone, the music sounds empty. Needs the harmonies and bass notes to fill it out, to enrich it. Besides, I wasn’t good enough (as some of you might find out next Sunday evening…)!
John was called to be Jesus’ second trombone – or to put it in more usual language, to play second fiddle. This is not unimportant – for the lead person to be successful, those under them and around them need to play their part too.
Read Luke 1:76-79
He was to be a prophet – pointing to God’s will, showing them the coming of God’s kingdom. He was to go before Jesus, preparing the way for him. He was to reveal to them the ways in which they had failed to follow the law – so that when their saviour came they knew they needed one.
But that question still remains. Although Jesus clearly has the more important role – John’s work is still important. His birth is dramatic, his life forceful, and yet in many ways he remains forgotten. Why is that? Why don’t we celebrate his life and birth?
Rather than call him Jesus’ Second Fiddle, another way of seeing it would be to call him Jesus’ warm up act. A warm act is also important, necessary to prepare the audience for what is to come, to help them relax and be ready. But what is the worst thing that a warm up act can do? I can’t think of anything worse than having the warm-up act play better than the main act. If they upstage the headliners, then they have failed in their job. Or how about a pace-setter in a race? If the pace setter outruns the person they are setting the pace for, they have failed in their job. Or how about John McCain and Sarah Palin? I wondered during their campaign if she failed in her job as everyone was talking about her and not the Republican candidate for President. John’s job was to prepare people for the coming of the Messiah, and if everyone was so caught up with following him that they failed to notice Jesus when he came, then he would have failed. As he himself put it, ‘He must become greater; I must become less.’ (John 3:30) John did his job well.
Perhaps this is where we fail in many of our Christmas Celebrations and nativity plays? We have Mary and Joseph, the Wisemen, the Shepherds and their sheep, donkeys, innkeepers, drummer boys, Lords a Leaping, angels – a cast of thousands! Our meals are lavish, our traditions rich. This is all fine – no problems with that – until we discover that we’re talking about them and not Jesus…
You see, if I’m not mistaken, John’s calling is also our calling – to point to Jesus, to prepare for his coming. We’re called to play second fiddle, to be his warm up act, and to play ourselves down. When people see us, they are to see through us to Jesus. When people hear us, they are to hear Jesus speaking through us. When we do good, we do it not for ourselves, but for Jesus. This is not to say that we are unimportant, or that we don’t count, but our value, our importance is to be found in who it is we work for.
There’s something very counter-culture to this isn’t there; something radically different. Can you think of anyone or any movement that sets out to be forgotten? For that is the challenge of the birth and life of John. Its not that we aren’t to have any impact – quite the reverse in fact – think back to the impact John had – but the result of the impact is not to bring glory on ourselves.
When people think of us, what do they think about – our happiness etc.? Or do they remember God being with us, remember us as being the ones that showed them to him? How do I measure how well a service goes? For me a good service is not one where people greet me on the way out and say that was a fantastic talk. No it’s when they say on the way out that they met God this morning. What would it mean for you? How do you measure how successful you are at work, at home, at play?