Menu Close
6th December 2020

The To-Do List

Passage: Mark 1;1-8


So, what do you use for your to-do lists? I have tried lots of ways – the notebook….the Filofax- that brilliant way of keeping your financial lists, your project list, your Christmas Card names and addresses, there are even maps of inner London and the Underground in mine. Then there were post-it notes- you wrote what you needed to remember on one and then you could stick it up somewhere where you would see it. Trouble is, as fast as you stuck it up, it unstuck itself and floated down again so your room was a mess of brightly coloured scraps on paper, on one of which you had written “clear up the post it notes.” Then there were wipe-clean boards. And now of course you can store everything on your phone.

This is the season of the to-do list- lists of present to buy, lists of cards to send, lists of food to buy and bake, lists of people to contact, lists of jobs to do to make the house look festive.
It is good to be organised. It gives us a feeling of being in control of our lives. As Shirley Conran said- you feel so virtuous as you tick each job off the list. You feel virtuous just making the list and doing nothing….

But of course, we do know, don’t we, that the feeling of being in control of life as we brandish our to-do list, is to a certain extent, an illusion. We prepare our to-do list for tomorrow, maybe even with a timetable- this at 8 o’clock, this at 9 and so on. But all it takes is for us to wake up with a headache or feeling sick or just plain bad tempered (what they used to call getting out of bed the wrong side) and the to-do list is, shall we say, vulnerable.
Then, let someone really annoy us or let there be a traffic jam or let the delivery on which our day’s work depends fail to arrive and the to-do list is doomed. It is in the bin- virtual or real.

If you add to this the more serious crises which life throws at us: the breakdown of a relationship, being sent home from school for two weeks because someone has tested Covid positive, being told you are losing your job, facing a serious illness and all to-do lists are right out of the window. Which is why, like most of you, I suspect, I seem to have spent the best part of 2020 writing to-do lists, only to tear them up again.

Funnily enough, this experience made me understand John the Baptist a whole lot better. John the Baptist is not an easy person to understand. He did not do to-do lists because he did not have anything to do a to do list with. He lived in the desert, probably in a cave. He ate whatever he could find- wild honey, which sounds quite nice and locusts, which do not. He wore rough clothes made from the skins of animals and he was a wandering preacher. So, he had no shopping lists or DIY lists nor even a timetable. Basically, his life was prayer followed by preaching, repeat.

John the Baptist’s lifestyle is not mine but think for a moment about his message. He was telling people that they needed to get themselves ready because someone incredibly important, sent from God, was on the way. And John made it clear that God was not so much interested in lavish decorations and wonderful music and perfectly organised worship as He was in seeing goodness and justice and peace and faith.

People listened to John and they took on board what he said. They came to him asking for baptism- that is a kind of ritual washing, which symbolised their desire to turn their lives around and make significant changes in the kind of people they were. Elsewhere in the Gospels, John offers a few practical suggestions, such as not cheating in business, not bullying if you were in a position of power. And this was all good stuff. No matter how much we love our church and how much we are missing its usual Christmas worship, we know that what really matters to God is how we live out our lives, day by day. And yes, we would like to celebrate the coming of Jesus by becoming better, kinder more faithful people.

But is not this taking us straight back to the to-do list? Only this time it sounds more like a list of New Year Resolutions: 1-I will tell my partner I love them at least once a day; 2-I will not shout at my children when I am tired and they are getting on my nerves; 3-I will stand up for the people who are being bullied at work; 4-I will write more messages to my MP about peace and justice and ecology; 5-I will try to talk nicely to that bad-tempered man at the bus stop.
But it will not be long before your partner has a several bad hair days; your children fight each other over the last piece of cake; the bad tempered man at the bus stop makes a rude gesture when you try to talk, all this combined with incredible pressure at work and a bad cold which might or might not be Covid and the New Year resolutions are out of the window. What has changed?
Jesus may be on his way, but I don’t want to see him any more than he wants to see me because I just make a mess of everything.

John tells his people that although he baptises them with water, the one who is coming will baptise them with the Holy Spirit and with fire (that is, not literal fire but, in their tradition, a sign of the real presence of God). I think, because John speaks quite forcefully, it comes across as a threat -sort of “wait till your father gets home.” Jesus is coming- hide!
But it is not a threat. It is a promise. And it is a promise that is going to make all the difference in the world to us.

Change, real change, has to start on the inside. No amount of good resolutions on paper (or on our phone) will change us. We need a power to transform us from the within. John the Baptist had that kind of power. He had given his life to a totally dedicated ministry and when he saw that the coming of Jesus would mean the diminishing of his own influence and following, he took this on board graciously, sending his most loyal supporters to follow Jesus instead of him. That is not easy for such a public figure as John was. And then, when the King of the land openly flouted the laws of the nation, John fearlessly spoke out against him, knowing that his own life was on the line.
Pain, loneliness, hardship, fear- all those things which play havoc with our good intentions- had little or no power over John. His strength came from deep within. And could we not all do with some of that right now?

But this, John promised, is what Jesus Christ will do for us. As the Son of God, He can transform us from the inside with the power of God’s own Spirit so that strength and courage, faith and hope, love and grace remain in us, no matter what is happening on the outside. This is why he is called our “Saviour.”

Do you realise what this means? It means that the crucial to-do list is not ours- it is Christ’s. It is not we who have to keep struggling to be as good as we think Jesus wants us to be but Jesus who comes to us asking, “what is it you want me to do for you?”

I’d like to tell you about a little exercise we used to do before meeting for Solace- that time of silent worship in church. Chris Fosten used to place a dish of glass pebbles in front of us and invite us to take two or three as a symbol of whatever was particularly bugging us, that we needed to set aside. We would take the pebbles, hold them quietly for a few moments, offering them to God and then we would place them in a box and Chris would shut the lid, as a sign that we were leaving all this with God for Him to deal with.
You might like to try this later. It is a good prayer exercise.

Jesus asks you “what is it you want me to do for you?”
So, what is scaring you most right now? Bring him that fear.
What is stressing you out? Bring him that weariness.
What is bugging you with dark thoughts and doubts? Tell him what you are thinking.
Who has hurt you and still hurts you? Bring him this pain.
Which mistakes keep haunting you? Be honest with him about that guilt.
What do you most need to take place in you in order to live as a child of light even in a dark and difficult world? Ask him to make it happen.

John the Baptist was right, wasn’t he? The one coming after him-Jesus Christ- would bring the power of the Holy Spirit into our lives. So, the to-do list for that inner renewal we so desperately need should be in his hand and not in ours. Maybe the only resolution for us to make right now is to hand it over, trust him to get on with it and may we learn what it means to say “Jesus is my Saviour.”