Poor John the Baptist. He’s been on an amazing ride for a few years, baptising crowds of people by the Jordan River and witnessing a religious revival. It gave him the confidence to confront King Herod about his adultery—and got him thrown into jail.
One of the highlights of John’s mission was seeing Jesus of Nazareth come into his own. It seemed that Jesus may be the one they had come to hope for, the deliverer, the Messiah, the coming one. But now he was in jail.
There, he has time. Lots of time. Time to think, to reflect, to ponder. Time to wonder if he is on the right track or not.
It must be hard to stay confident when you’re imprisoned, your future uncertain, and there’s nothing much happening on the outside.
John wants to hear that things are happening on the outside. He has begun to doubt what he had proclaimed, which was:
the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Confronted, converted, consoled
The spiritual writer Richard Rohr says this in his series Preparing for Christmas:
‘The Word of God confronts, converts, and consoles us—in that order.’
I’d like us to think about our preparation for the coming of Jesus into our lives and into our world with those words in mind:
The Word of God confronts, converts, and consoles us—in that order.
The Word of God confronts us:
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t like to have John the Baptist as a neighbour. I reckon he’d be an argumentative old… thing. If you invited him for a barbecue, he’d insist on bringing his own locusts to chuck on the barbie rather than have snags and kangaroo steaks. And he’d want to talk about the state of my soul all the time.
He’d be a confronting neighbour. He’d always be telling me to repent of this and that and the other thing.
I’d get annoyed at his continual going on and on. After all, I’m a minister of the Word. I’ve got a PhD in theology. I work full-time for God! Surely I’m ok?
And John, for the last time, I don’t want a piece of barbecued locust! I don’t care if it does have your special wild honey marinade! I just don’t want to eat locust!
Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 42.1-7 & 49.1-9
‘Ich dien.’ This is the motto of the Prince of Wales, currently of course, Prince Charles—Ich dien, ‘I serve’. I worked some years ago now at the Prince Charles Hospital; its motto is taken from the Prince of Wales: it is, ‘We serve’.
I remember a conversation with a member of staff way back then, over 25 years ago now. He said he hated the hospital’s motto. ‘I am no one’s servant!’ he said. I was taken aback by the violent tone of his words, spoken as they were over a cup of tea and a biscuit in the morning tea room.
Though I have often failed to put it into practice, I loved the motto. I’m sure that it was inspired by the words of Jesus: ‘Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant’ (Matthew 20.26).
Who wants to be a servant? Not I, not in myself—it’s not something I would ever have thought up for myself. As a child, when I wondered about what I’d do when I was grown up, ‘servant’ was not at the top of the list. I can understand where that man was coming from, the one who hated the motto of the Prince Charles Hospital, We serve. And yet now I am a minister—and ‘minister’ simply means ‘servant’. A ‘minister of the Word’ is a servant of Jesus Christ, the Word-made-flesh.
Yet it’s not just me. That call to serve is extended to all Christians. To each and every one. Our very baptism is a sign of our being ‘in Christ’, in the one whose life and death was characterised and stamped by service to others and to God. Jesus Christ was the servant of God. We follow the Servant.