We reach the second Sunday of Advent and so the gospel is about John the Baptist. Here’s what I said.
I’ve often thought that our elder daughter, when she was a teenager, would have got on with John the Baptist like a house on fire. The thing is, as an early teenager, she went through a grunge phase. Now, for those of you who have no idea what grunge is let me explain. Grunge was a combination of music and lifestyle that became popular in the early 80s. And the first thing you noticed about teenagers who were into grunge was how they dressed. Mainly black and dark coloured clothes, often second-hand and generally tatty, to go with the deliberately unkempt appearance of those who wore them. Along with that went the lifestyle. Those who followed grunge tended to opt out of a conventional lifestyle. They rejected normal social conventions, career choices, ways of living, and opted for alternative lifestyles. In the early to mid 80s, a time when wealth inequality was increasing, and the concepts of sustainability and organic agriculture were still fairly new vogue, grunge culture rejected normal everyday culture for a way of living that rejected the norms that most people accepted as a right and proper way of living. Our daughter became a vegetarian, and even on one occasion demanded to be taken to Brighton because there was a shop there where she could buy vegetarian Doc Marten boots.
And then there was the music that had given rise to the whole movement. And one of the bands that rose to prominence at the time were The Levellers. Our daughter went to see them along with the Manic Street Preachers and Billy Bragg at a big open-air concert in Brockwell Park in Brixton in 1994. Bear with me – this is going somewhere, and we’ll link up with John the Baptist in a minute. A lot of grunge music was about dealing with social inequality, poverty and so on. And The Levellers were named after a radical political movement that was active during the English Civil War. And the Levellers – the political movement, not the band – were on the side, not surprisingly, of Oliver Cromwell, and preached the sovereignty of the people, extending the vote, the equality of everyone before the law. Very much a group that proclaimed raising up the valley and bring down the mountains – overturning the establishment and challenging the established way of doing things. A similar stance to the grunge movement.
John the Baptist would have fitted in with the grunge movement with no problem whatsoever. With his coat of camel’s hair, his diet of locusts and wild honey, his message that all were sinners and needed to repent, change their way of life, his challenges to those in positions of power, he wouldn’t have stood out at all at that concert in Brockwell Park. Grunge would have been his thing. And in his own day he would have stood out from ordinary everyday society just as much as the followers of grunge and our daughter did – you couldn’t miss them, or him, walking down the street.
But let’s go back to The Levellers – the band, not the political movement. One of their most popular songs is about a man who wants to escape from the factories, from the chasing of wages, and find a new freedom – and it ends with him rejecting the calling of the bright lights of his home town – they don’t look so appealing to the eyes of this poor sinner. John the Baptist might well have heartily approved of that sentiment – rejecting the attractions that the world has to offer and recognising that you are a poor sinner.
And then comes the chorus:
There’s only one way of life and that’s your own, your own, your own.
There’s only one way of life and that’s your own.
That’s quite an attractive sentiment to people today. And that’s where John the Baptist would have parted company. Because for John there is only one way of life, but it most definitely isn’t your own. There is only one way of life, and that way is the Lord’s way. The only way of life is the way of the Lord that the prophet Isaiah proclaimed. I think he would have wanted to sing:
There’s only one way of life and that’s the Lord’s, the Lord’s, the Lord’s.
At the heart of the message that John the Baptist preaches is something hugely important. And something that every year Advent reminds us of. Something so important that we get John the Baptist not just on this Sunday of Advent, but next week as well. John the Baptist – this unkempt radical with his strange and dishevelled appearance and even stranger diet who had no time for the rich and powerful, came preaching the words of the prophet Isaiah: The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’
Interestingly, Matthew has John stopping there, but in Luke’s account John goes on with Isaiah’s words: The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ A message the Levellers – the political movement of the Civil War, not the band – picked up on. And John the Baptist says, ‘Now is the time.’
Now is the time to prepare the way of the Lord, to raise up the valleys and bring down the mountains, to make the rough ways smooth and straighten out the crooked paths. Now is the time to rouse yourselves from your complacency, to examine your sinful lives and to lay them before the Lord, turn away from your sins and repent, say to the Lord you are sorry, and be baptised as you prepare to see your salvation for the Messiah is coming. People sometimes talk about ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ – not that he was when you take a closer look. But you could never make that mistake about John the Baptist, no way you could ever think that John was gentle, meek or mild. His message was harsh and without compromise. Acknowledge your sin and repent, because every one of you is a sinner, or you are doomed to be thrown into the fire of punishment.
It’s easy of course to forget that John’s message is as directed to us as it was to those who flocked to hear him preaching in the desert of Judea. It’s a message for all people and in all times. He wasn’t picking on his audience on today’s gospel reading in particular because they were worse than everyone else. Don’t be tempted to think that those who came to John to confess their sins and be baptised were somehow particularly wicked people. They were ordinary people like you and me. But John reminds them that they need to stop being so complacent about life, to recognise that they have strayed from the Lord’s way and that it is time to start following it again.
Look at the Pharisees and the Sadducees – John reserves particularly harsh words for them. Yet even they, on the whole, don’t deserve the reputation that they have gained. Many were deeply religious people who really did try to do what was right – but they too had lost their way. And it’s simply isn’t enough, John tells them, to make the excuse: But Abraham is our ancestor so we’ll be okay. ‘Don’t kid yourselves,’ is his message, ‘having Abraham as your ancestor doesn’t automatically make you especially holy. You’re no different to anyone else.’ Were he talking to us here today he might say: Don’t think you’ll be okay because you have been coming to church every Sunday for twenty or thirty years. You’re in just as much need of repentance as anyone else. The issue is not what your religious heritage is but what is in your heart. The axe, he says, is ready to cut down every tree that does not bear good fruit.
So here we have it. John, the original proponent of grunge, out there in the desert with his message from Isaiah of the need to prepare the way of the Lord. John, the great Leveller of social distinctions, with his message that we are all equal before God and all in need of repentance and forgiveness. John, with his promise that one is coming who will baptize, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit and fire. And how do we prepare for his coming? How do we make ourselves ready for the arrival of the Messiah? How are we preparing for the coming of God to us this Christmas? How can we prepare the Lord’s way? For John gives no options, no choices – simply the message that you must repent and prepare the way of the Lord or face being cast aside as chaff when the Lord gathers the harvest. John says to you this morning: There’s only one way of life and that’s the Lord’s.
Across the wilderness of our lives we need to build that highway to God. Perhaps there are valleys that need raising up – things that have become unimportant and neglected. Times of prayer, perhaps, or Bible study, or quality time with friends and family and our church community. Perhaps there are mountains and hills that need to be brought low. Things we do, or commitments that have become too much, or a love of luxury, that get in the way of living the kind of life God calls us to. Things that have become more important to us than other people, or our worship, and so create a barrier between us and God, or mean that we no longer find time to radiate God’s love to others.
We all have things that we need to deal with. We all need to do some levelling of our lives, making the rough ways smooth. Prepare the way of the Lord. Prepare a straight path that will lead you to him, that you may see the salvation of God, for ultimately there really is only one way of life and that’s the Lord’s.