Christmas is coming
It is difficult to escape the fact that Christmas is coming – almost everywhere we turn we are bombarded with Christmas music, tinsel, fairy lights, or the seemingly incessant stream of adverts for the perfect present or the perfect ingredient that without which our life would be utterly incomplete or our Christmas festivities would be completely ruined and we’ve even got some ‘seasonal’ weather (although only seasonal in the sense that it matches Victorian Christmas card notions of what Christmas should be like – in the middle east they don’t see much if any snow)
If your house is anything like ours, much of December is focussed on getting ready for the Christmas celebrations – it is a time of preparation. Sadly, however early we start, there always seems to be a maelstrom of frenetic last minute activity. So far we have at least managed to buy the Christmas cards (in fact we bought them ages ago we just haven’t yet managed to write any and I’m sure mine will be amongst the last to arrive (I always prefer to wait until the Christmas rush with the post has passed)). We’ve even bought a few presents (the trouble is if you buy them too early, you forget where you’ve hidden them), ordered the turkey and made the Christmas cake yesterday so I guess that all things considered we’re well on the way egged on by a very excited four year old who insisted that the Christmas tree went up yesterday.
Here in church, our preparations for Christmas are marked by the season of Advent, a season which traditionally looks both back – to the first coming of Jesus, the Christ-child laid in the manger amidst the smell and squalor of a stable and forwards to the time oft promised in Scripture when Christ will come again clothed with all the might, majesty, dominion and power that are his by rights to judge the earth and its people and establish his rule for all eternity.
Our reading this morning from Matthew’s gospel looks back not quite to the preparations for the first Christmas but to the ministry of John the Baptist who prepared the people to meet Jesus as he began his public ministry
Unlike Luke who, in his parallel account of these events gives us very specific information about when John began his ministry (you can find that at the start of Luke Chapter 3), Matthew prefers to stick with the prophetic term ‘in those days’ – that is the days appointed by God for great events to happen – an expression that is found time and again through the Old Testament as a prelude to events of great significance.
In those days Matthew tells us, John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea saying Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near. This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah “A voice of one calling in the desert, Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him”
What a contrast to our Christmas preparations – for the preparations here are not about buying food or drink or presents or putting up Christmas trees but about changing lives, about recognising and acknowledging sin and repenting of it in order to meet the long-promised Messiah.
John came to herald the coming of his cousin Jesus – to prepare the people to meet their Saviour. Just as Jesus came as the fulfilment of the Old Testament promise made 1000 or so years previously to king David, so John too comes as the fulfilment of the promise made by God through the prophet Isaiah about the one who would come to prepare the way for the coming Messiah.
Today the visit of any dignitary is preceded by security personnel to search and make safe the area to be visited and then we get the armies of radio, television and newspaper reporters descending and setting up their equipment but then the tradition was very different. The arrival of an important person would be prefaced by the arrival of the herald, the one who was to prepare the way for the dignitary and it was John who fulfilled the role of herald for the coming Messiah – encouraging the people to be ready to meet their Messiah.
Matthew who was writing to a predominantly Jewish audience was at pains to show how John was indeed the fulfilment of these Old Testament prophecies in order to further convince them that the events unfolding before their eyes were indeed the fulfilment of God’s promises.
To emphasise this, Matthew goes on to paint a picture of John as an almost stereotypical prophet – His clothes were made of camel’s hair Matthew tells us and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.
Here were all the things that were expected of a prophet – unconventional dress sense (and just for a moment think how uncomfortable clothes made of camel hair would be (to say nothing of the smell)), unconventional food and living in barren inhospitable places. John was every inch the Old Testament prophet and his message was equally uncompromising, equally reminiscent of the message of the Old Testament prophets – Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.
John was uncompromising in his appearance and uncompromising in his message and yet the people flocked into the wilderness to hear him going out from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.
We don’t know what it was that drew the crowds out into the wilderness to hear John’s message but the gospels are clear that the people flocked to hear him.
And it is clear that the people didn’t just listen to John’s call, they responded to his call, confessing their sins and being baptised there and then. This wasn’t baptism by means of sprinkling a few drops of water on the head, rather this was baptism by full immersion in the River Jordan – an extremely symbolic demonstration of the washing away of their sins.
What is all the more remarkable is that there was no tradition of baptism as we have in the Christian church today. Baptism was reserved for Gentile converts to Judaism so the response of the people in submitting to baptism out there in the wilderness in response to John’s call was even more remarkable than a first reading might suggest.
To be clear, this baptism was a symbolic washing away of sins as preparation to meet the coming Messiah rather than baptism as s sign of passing in to membership. The people remained Jewish but were preparing to meet the coming Messiah.
Until it closed recently, we used to take a service once every month to the local elderly people’s home just down the road from the church and one of the great joys of that was getting to know some of the amazing characters there and to hear something of the events that had happened in their lives. One lady remembered seeing Zeppelins flying over the Mersey at Runcorn but another lady recounted how as a youngster growing up in Llanelli in South Wales, the tradition was that the river was dammed up under the town bridge and you were baptised in the resultant pool.
Given the nature of the heavy industry that dominated the town at the time, I suspect that you had to be made of pretty strong stuff to survive.
Switching back from the banks of the river Lliedi to the river Jordan, John wasn’t overjoyed to see everyone who came out into the wilderness to where he was baptising and he has some especially harsh words for the Pharisees and Sadducees accusing them of being nothing less than a brood of vipers – hardly the sort of language we would use to encourage people to come to church today so why does John reserve such particular criticism for this group?
These words are the prelude for some challenging teaching on judgement, never a popular subject at the best of times then as now but the second half of this passage should challenge each of us today just as they challenged the Pharisees then.
The Pharisees and Sadducees were the religious leaders and teachers of the day, they exercised a position of responsibility but time and again through the gospels we see how Jesus castigated them for deliberately burdening down the people, of leading people astray largely because of the way in which they had, over the centuries, taken God’s laws, the Torah and so embroidered it and developed it that the original point had been lost completely and it hindered the people from finding God.
The classic example is the furore that ensues when Jesus heals someone on the Sabbath. The Pharisees had taken the 4th commandment that the seventh day should be observed as a Sabbath on which no work should be done and developed an elaborate set of rules to define what did and did not constitute ‘work’. Thus you were allowed to walk a certain distance but no more, you could rescue an animal that had become stuck and so on. What you most certainly couldn’t do was heal someone (however miraculous that healing was) because healing was work and so you ended up with the absurd situation of Jesus restoring a man who had been crippled from birth yet the Pharisees, rather than praising God for the miracle that had been done before their very eyes, calling for Jesus to be put to death because he had done what they deemed to be work on the Sabbath.
Rather than lead people to righteousness, the Pharisees and to a lesser extent the Sadducees were putting obstacles in their way so no wonder John reserved such ire for them.
As well as challenging the Pharisees and Sadducees to produce fruit in keeping with repentance, John challenges them for their confidence in what might be termed ‘inherited religion or inherited salvation’ The Pharisees and Sadducees thought that they would be saved simply as a result of being Jewish, of claiming their descent from Abraham in just the same way that many today regard being British sufficient to make us Christian and therefore right with God.
Whilst we do enjoy a wonderful Christian tradition in this country that stretches back more than 1000 years, that does not make us individually a Christian or right with God. Just as simply going to live in America doesn’t make me American or living in France doesn’t make me French; so living in a country with a Christian heritage doesn’t make me a Christian.
If I wanted to become a citizen of America or France or any other country I would have to meet various requirements, and pass certain tests. In just the same way, I have to do something more than just go and live in a country with a long Christian tradition to become a Christian. Thankfully I didn’t have to pass a complex set of tests or achieve certain results in a citizenship test or even pass a test in theology to become a Christian. All that was and is required to become a Christian is to acknowledge our sinfulness, to repent of those sins and to turn to Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Simply being British and C of E isn’t enough to get us into heaven, we need to acknowledge Jesus for ourselves, we need to respond to Jesus just as those who flocked to the wilderness to hear John responded to his message through repentance and baptism.
John ends with a warning, a warning of impending judgement, a judgement that will start with God’s own people. Being Jewish alone was insufficient to ensure salvation for the Pharisees and Sadducees, even as God’s chosen people. To be God’s children, then and now, we need to bring forth good fruit that reflects that we understand what it means to be a child of God.
The Pharisees and Sadducees thought that as God’s chosen people, they were guaranteed a place in heaven yet John tells them that in reality, such is God’s power that he could raise up children for Abraham from the stones that littered the desert. Their heritage was of no value of itself.
John uses the analogy of the woodcutter’s axe being ready at the root of the trees to chop down and destroy all those that failed to produce good fruit to describe the coming judgement here on God’s people.
And this is only a portent of what is to come for John goes on to explain that whilst he, John, baptises with water, the one who is to follow him, that is Jesus, will baptise not with water but with the Holy Spirit and with fire and that he stands poised with his winnowing fork ready to clear his threshing floor, to gather the wheat into the barn whilst burning up the chaff with fire – a dreadful image of the judgement that is one day to come.
This is a message that is far removed from the traditional Christmas story of the Christ child in the manger and yet the Bible promises us time and again that one day Christ will come again to draw a close to history and to judge the earth and all its people yet it is this that is the message of Christ’s second coming that is the other part of the message of Advent.
The message of impending judgement would be bleak and hopeless if it were not for both Christmas and Easter. The true wonder of Christmas is not opening presents on Christmas Day or a sumptuous Christmas Dinner but is the wonderful reality of God giving his only Son to be born on the earth amidst the darkness and squalor of a stable in an obscure backwater of the mighty Roman Empire. Jesus is God’s most precious gift to a dark, cold, sinful world but the wonder of God’s love doesn’t end there for without Christ’s death for our sins on Good Friday and his glorious resurrection on Easter Day, Jesus would remain just another great teacher or prophet.
By dying and rising again, Jesus bears the punishment for our sins and opens the way to eternal life.
The challenge for each of us is what is our response to the Christmas story? Have we heard it so many times that it just washes over us or each time we hear it, do we wonder afresh at God’s amazing love shown to us at Christmas time?
The late John Betjeman wrote of the reality of Christmas like this
And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?
And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine
It is my hope and prayer that this Christmas you will know that simple truth that God was man in Palestine and indeed lives today in Bread and Wine and that you will respond to that message.
I know that it is still a little early but may I wish you all a very happy and Holy Christmas.