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8th January 2023

The Forerunner: John the Baptist

Passage: John 1;19-34


So- on a scale of 1-10, how would you rate John the Baptist’s life? He was the only child of very elderly parents; born into an enemy-occupied country. His family were highly religious; his father a priest in the temple. With all due respect to religious upbringing, this does not sound exactly like a bundle of laughs.
As a young man John went to live in the desert, almost certainly joining a monastic community called the Essenes. They lived in caves, ate whatever was available in the desert wore rough clothes made of animal skins and spent their time in prayer and study of the scriptures. Again, with all due respect to the monastic life, this was no “party, party” lifestyle.

After a few years, John emerged from the desert to proclaim that God was coming to his people in the person of a Saviour. John’s ministry was hugely popular. Hundreds flocked to hear him, asking to be baptised- washed in the river- as a sign of wanting to clean up their lives, ready for God. John was surrounded by people who listened to him, cheered him on and affirmed his ministry. Good times…
But, of course, this ministry was not about him. It was about preparing people for Jesus. John was the forerunner, the voice proclaiming someone other than himself. When Jesus arrived on the scene, most of John’s followers went to him. If they did not, John told them to. “He must increase; I must decrease.”
John’s final years were spent alone in prison because he had dared to criticise the King’s immoral behaviour and John died because an evil woman tricked a weak man into signing the death warrant. Score out of 10? Not high by today’s standards.

But John the Baptist was a man of faith and faith gives you a different perspective on life. It is not about being naïve; living in cloud cuckoo land. People with faith often recognise potential trouble a lot earlier than those without. Nor is it about being irresponsible- just sit back and leave everything to God. People of faith will be found generating serious new initiatives of justice, peace and goodness.
But faith does give you a different perspective. John the Baptist knew that he was where God wanted him to be and that, for him, made all the difference.

You see, John is described as the “forerunner” and, OK, that sounds a bit second class to we of the super-ego culture, where, if we cannot be right out there at the front we feel we have failed. But actually, in this life, we could all be described as forerunners, even the most powerful of rulers or the most celebrated of celebrities. I remember at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, hearing how King Henry 8th designed the most magnificent tomb for himself, with angels sculpted in gold at each corner. But none of his children ever got around to producing it. Even the memorial stone in the centre aisle-“Here lies the body of King Henry 8th”- is in the wrong place. His coffin is situated underneath several yards further down the aisle. There is a lesson there: Henry was a hugely powerful monarch while he lived but even he had to make way for others who would come after him.

Nothing we do will last for ever. No position we hold in society endures indefinitely. We are all “forerunners” of those who will come after us and, if this makes depressed and under-motivated: what is the point of my working hard and achieving high if it will all have to be handed over in thirty, fifty years’ time to people who will mess it all up; faith is about believing that there is a purpose for your life which goes beyond your lifespan. It is about believing in a power which can use every single life, no matter how brief or how apparently worthless by our standards, to create a purposeful future for the world and for humanity. Faith is about believing in a power which values you as a person who counts high in the overall scheme of things. So yes, John the Baptist knew that he was where God wanted him to be and that, for him, made all the difference.

Does it make a difference to us? In my previous church we had a wonderful man called Harry, responsible for the stewarding arrangements at every service and those arrangements were always impeccable: every chair, every Bible, every hymnbook, every steward was in exactly the right place.
I could not fault him. But could I leave him alone? Of course, I could not. I was forever going round after him checking that everything was OK. I said once to the Church Secretary that if Harry had not been a teetotaller, I would have driven him to drink, to which she replied that yes, Harry probably did go home every Sunday and pour himself a stiff orange juice….
Most of you here today have experienced my inability to leave people to get on with things. We have a laugh about it. I laugh at myself. It just stops being funny when it starts to apply to God, when I cannot even trust God to get on with his job.

I have learned through my ministry that when we become totally fixated on our own agendas, our own expectations of what should happen, our own scale of 1-10 by which to measure a successful life, we are in so much danger of missing the insights God offers into complex situations; the messages God is trying to guide us by; the signs of hope God is showing us; the cries for help we should be hearing and in so much danger of self-hatred when things do not go according to our plans. Because we are not really looking at God as God anymore. We are treating him as a vending machine in our space, hoping to get exactly what we want if we press the right buttons, whether we are looking at our personal life, our church life or our national life.

John the Baptist’s great challenge in ministry was that he was working amongst people who were trapped in their past; in concepts handed down to them of how religion should work and how God should act. Yes, they were looking forward to this Saviour who was coming but only if he came on their terms. Which meant that many totally failed to recognise the reality of God himself in Jesus Christ. &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

Accepting our status as “forerunners,” children of God taking their place in the ongoing grand narrative of human history can actually set us free from that crippling anxiety and black despair which is sending so many people’s stress levels dangerously high in today’s society. Yes, we each have our own unique place in the narrative but it is not down to us to control or to take over that narrative: it is too big for one person; too vast even for one generation. Only God can see the whole procession. Only God can take the steps of each life and move them toward the ultimate goal.
And because Jesus came right into this world to walk the procession with us; because he was the light that would never be overcome by darkness; because he was the love which taught the value of every single human soul, we can trust him to lead us, to hold us, to carry us even, on the procession through life, through death and beyond death.
John the Baptist promised that in Jesus we would not only be blessed by baptism in water, which is about cleaning up our outward, active life but also blessed by baptism in the Holy Spirit: receiving the power of God in our hearts, souls and mind.

So, when we invite Jesus Christ into our lives as Saviour, Guide and Friend; when we allow him to do his job as the living presence of God in us; then, whatever happens we can be sure that we are where God wants us to be; that even in times of pain and failure God will be holding our lives and giving us a place to be his people where we are.

I would like to end with some words from two different people: first from Paul Woolley, CEO of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, asking what is our response, as Christians in a time of crisis to things falling apart – whether politically or on our own everyday frontlines?
Firstly, we should not be fearful. That is not a platitude. Ultimately, our significance and security are located in the God who has created us and revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ. ‘God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble’ writes the psalmist. ‘Therefore we will not fear.’ Secondly, we should take responsibility for any mistakes we have made. We should admit when we’ve got it wrong and offer forgiveness to those who have as well. Thirdly, we should make amends and act in ways that are redemptive for all concerned – our country, our workplace, our community. Those who follow Jesus should always act in the way that is most redeeming in any given situation. And fourthly, we should pray for God’s kingdom to come – that what God wants to be done is done. This sounds like good stuff to me. …..
And a short Christmas Prayer by Rudolf Steiner: Come, Child, into our hearts and still the storm Made by selfish wishes wrestling there.
And weave again the fabric of mankind Out of Thy Light, Thy Life, Thy Loving Fire. Amen.
PAUSE FOR REFLECTION. This time tomorrow- where will you be? Why might God need you to be there?