Isaiah 11: 1 – 10 and Matthew 3: 1 – 12
John the Baptist was different, very different! Let’s start with how he dressed.
He wore a leather belt, nothing unusual there, I have a leather belt. His clothes were of camel’s hair! When did you ever see anything like that for sale in your high street shops?
And what about his food? What did he eat? Locusts!
Which supermarket should we go to for those? It sounds more like a challenge on ‘I’m a Celebrity… get me out of here!’
And the way John spoke was out of the ordinary too. What was it that he called the Pharisees and Sadducees? A brood of vipers!
Not the sort of language to use if you want to endear yourself to people! He doesn’t seem to have been on the ‘how to win friends and influence people’ course!
You see, John preached a challenging message, particularly challenging to those people who were, shall we say, religiously confident!
He was on a mission and he had a message, a message about repentance. So, what does the word ‘repent’ actually mean?
‘Repent’. It’s a little word, packed full of meaning, and it’s a word we use quite a lot in church.
The word ‘repent’ can confuse and even frighten some people. But it shouldn’t do, because repentance is a life-giving, liberating word. The root meaning of the word is positive: Its Greek meaning suggests that it’s about a radical changing of mind and consequently a change of behaviour, or in Hebrew it’s a ‘return’.
So, put simply, it means to change direction, or behaviour, or to change our minds, to re-orient ourselves towards God, to ‘return’ to God, focussing on Jesus and what he taught us about God, viewing God in the light that Jesus shines on God.
I say ‘put simply’, but it doesn’t always seem simple. There are too many distractions in life, there are so many reasons why it’s difficult to change direction, or to change our minds, focus on Jesus and to return and re-orient ourselves towards God through Jesus. I’m reminded of words from the hymn ‘O Jesus I have promised’ and the line that goes ‘I see the sights that dazzle, the tempting sounds I hear’.
Life is full of distractions, full of clamour, clutter and clatter, but if we can manage to turn towards and remain attentive to God, and if we can clean our lives up as we respond to Christ’s call then our lives, and the life of the world will be the better for it.
The former Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, once described Advent as a time to ‘Wake up! Clean up! and Grow up!’
Last Sunday’s Lectionary readings were about Jesus calling us to ‘wake up!’. Today it’s the ‘clean up’ message!
For the Gospel writer Matthew, ‘the kingdom of heaven’ is very much a down-to-earth concept. He wants to see heaven on earth, as in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’.
And the Prophet Isaiah, whose words you read earlier, presents an idyllic vision of a heavenly earth, characterised by peace and harmony throughout creation.
When we put the Isaiah and Matthew passages side by side, and read them against the backdrop of creation – which is at risk right here and now, in every respect, due to human selfishness, greed and power struggles, all of which lead to conflict and climate change – Matthew’s reminder of John the Baptist’s call for repentance seems just as necessary now as it ever was, if not more so, because of humanity’s apparent lack of care of and responsibility for creation and humankind.
Now as much as ever we need to focus on God’s intention for us to live at peace with one another… taking responsibility for all that God created out of love and gave to our care.
John the Baptist wanted people to clean up their lives, declutter, change the way they thought and lived so that they, and others, could experience the kingdom of heaven on earth.
So, I wonder, if John were here today, what do you think he would be saying to us?
‘Get, ready, change the way you think and live, so that you and all people can enjoy a repentant world, a world changed, cleaned up, and re-oriented towards God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, right here, right now.
So, as we prepare for Christ’s coming as a baby again, let’s use this time of preparing and waiting to make sure we really get in touch with God’s way of thinking and notice the difference that can make to our lives and the lives of others too.
Thankfully, we don’t have to wear camel’s hair or eat locusts to do it!
The kingdom of heaven is at hand!
But God needs our hands to help build it;
Renewed, transformed, and with your zeal restored,
go and build the kingdom, here and now,
wherever you are, however you can.
Prepare the way of the Lord!
Revd Janine Atkinson