Sunday 13 December 2020

Just a Voice

There was a man sent from God whose name was John.  He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe.  He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. (John 1:6-8)

One of the great chapters of the Bible, is John 1. We hear it on a midnight clear, when in the amongst the debris of the Nativities and burnt-down candles and left-over Christingles (in a normal year), the first 5 verses put the manger, the shepherds and sheep and all the rest into an eternal context - talking about the Word who is before time, who is with God and is God, becoming part of our story.

And into that first chapter with all its deep theology and mystic overtones, John weaves the story of God's second cousin, John. As the director cuts from the places before time to a deserted scene outside Jerusalem. And we plunge from eternity into a bunch of establishment figures questioning a scruffy prophet.

But then scruffiness in a prophet can be a sign of holiness. And eccentricity is what you get from prophets. And he's drawing the crowds. So what's going on? The leaders want to know.

How tempting it must have been for John. When the leaders from Jerusalem come out to see him. 

 "Are you the Messiah? Are you Elijah? Are you the Prophet, the one who stands in the footsteps of Moses?"

Now John is full of power and the Holy Spirit. The whole world is coming out to see him. And I remember the story of Corporal-Signwriter Walter "Foggy" Dewhurst at the end of the Second World War. He - at least in his imagination - has built up an awesome fighting force from a tribe of Burmese forest-dwellers. And when they can't kill the Japanese any more, they say OK - we'll kill someone else, then. And for a moment Foggy is tempted to invade the Dutch East Indies - but then he remembers there's a job for him back in England so decides not.

For John maybe it's like that. With all these people hanging on his every word. With a feeling of the End Times in the air. With the Romans hated, and Caesar a long way off in Rome - is he Messiah? Is he the Prophet? Or can he make a good impression of it? Can he act against the Establishment and the rulers? Can he say to these leaders - yes, it is me. Follow me! If so, will it end in glory, or terrible defeat? 

 And I was thinking about that scene in the Lord of the Rings where Frodo, in the Garden of Lothlorien, offers the Ring to Galadriel. You know the scene? And Galadriel, the great elf-princess, becomes incredibly tall and terrifying and tells Frodo she would be a beautiful, terrible queen. Because she knows that though she might want the Ring for good, the exercise of power will instead be the thing that rules.

And then she goes back to normal size. Gives Frodo the Ring back. And says, "I pass the test." She will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.

 And so for John. He's not claiming to be any of these things - he's just a voice, in the wilderness, saying Make Way for the Lord. And that is enough.

We are so often tempted to put ourselves or others on a pedestal. It can be a temptation for a preacher - because preaching is a performance, and it puts adrenalin and endorphins into you and that feels good - and about 3pm of a Sunday afternoon you're wiped out like you've come down of a drug fix and you look forward to it again and think - can I, next time, be funnier? Be wiser? Be more controversial?

Which is natural but you run the risk of the show being about you, not Jesus.

Or I've seen churches where the vibe is about how cool the leaders are, how attractive their family lives  look or how famous the people are that they hang out with - and that's the kind of leader you're thinking that God's church needs, even as weak human beings are being put up where they can be pulled down from later.

And as a leader it's so important to ask yourself what is this about - this sermon, this coffee morning, this meeting - who is being glorified? Is this building project for God's glory and the good of God's church, or is it about my mid-life crisis and wanting to leave something behind?

And John - out where the air is clear and so is his mind - says "I'm just a voice. I'm just telling you to get ready. But there's someone out there - maybe even here now - He's the one that will be worth following. Now get ready.

 John stands in the great succession of prophets. All the good ones pointed to God. He, uniquely, will get to pour water on God's head. To greet him as a cousin. To wonder if he's found the right one. And then, like Galadriel, to diminish and leave the story, having done his job.

And we, as God's church, we can scrabble and argue about how we work during a pandemic - between those who prioritise people's safety, and those where the scale is further over to the spiritual need to meet together physically. We can - in more normal times - worry about whether we've got the leading part, or the bit part. Are we leaders, followers or people who just want the attention? 

And the church's job is not to rule people's lives, not to be a power in the land, not to have everyone think we're perfect. 

We're just a voice. In the wilderness. Saying get ready, He is coming.

1 comment :

  1. Thoughtful, powerful words. Thank you, especially this day as the COVID vaccine begins to roll out. I'm grateful for that, but wonder if many will see it as a "medical messiah", solving all problems, and thus abandoning masks, etc. We must take care not to confuse the "scientific miracles" with the true Source of all Healing.


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