John the baptist always makes me a little uncomfortable.  The stories of his birth suggest that he will be someone special.  His sudden appearance as an adult – scruffy and strange and screeching repentance to the crowds – that’s unnerving.  And of course, there’s his famous address to the religiously secure, recorded for us in Matthew chapter 3.

“But when he saw many Pharisees and Saducees coming for baptism…” he called them names – he lost his cool – he made accusations that put powerful people in very uncomfortable positions; a dangerous strategy, no matter where you live.  Especially dangerous if you have no social standing.

We know how it ends for John.  He manages to avoid punishment long enough to baptize Jesus – but eventually his accusations affect someone at the peak of power, and he pays for his truth-telling with his head.  But lets think for a moment about the truths that John told.

He Speaks about the failure of these religious “experts” to bear fruit worthy of repentance.  They are guilty of going through the motions of faithfulness, in other words; a quick splash in the Jordan River isn’t going to change their habits or save their souls.  He speaks of one who is coming – superior to John in righteousness and discernment.  One who will see through the religious facade people are inclined to build for social effect.  One who will see with the very eyes of God – straight to the heart of us all.

He is speaking of Jesus, sure enough – the one in whom our cultural, religious and spiritual boundaries meet.  And it is Jesus who helps us make sense of John’s dangerous words.

John should make us all uncomfortable, because his accusations are not just for the religious ‘experts’ of his day – he convicts any who presume to call themselves faithful – all who gather in community and dare to imagine that they are ‘saved’.

For most of us have come to faith as a habit – and a good one, to be sure.    These are the churches of our ancestors – our parents, grandparents and great grandparents.  “This is my church” we say with pride – claiming some ownership – some sense of responsibility for the preservation and maintenance of the structures of religious life.  And John speaks to us – Jesus comes with ‘unquenchable fire” for us.

Those whose faith is in their heritage – Presbyterian all the way back, as my father once told me – are told, quite bluntly – that isn’t good enough.  God can raise ‘children of Abraham’ from the very dust.  It is not enough to wear the badge of honour, signifying your faith, such as the Pharisees and Saducees did.  The trappings of faith aren’t good enough for John.  Don’t just claim faith; be faithful.  Bear fruit, be attentive, show me that your faith has changed you…

That’s the sort of talk that get’s John killed.  Jesus too, if you’ll remember.  Dangerous talk indeed.

As it was then, so it is today.  We stand shaking, on the verge of serious change in the world – politically, religiously, in terms of climate and culture – change is in the air; and in such times, hard questions abound.  The divide between religious and spiritual; between emergent church and traditional church; between progressive and conservative – none of these meant anything to John (and they mean less to Jesus, unless I’m mistaken) – these to share this conviction in common:

God does not need our historical faith, or our doctrinal perfection.  God wants our lives transformed by an encounter with the Holy; God seeks an admission from us that “God IS”; we are asked to show evidence of such an encounter in our attitudes to one another, toward the poor and oppressed, toward those in need, toward creation and Creator.

Religious ritual such as baptism, communion, worship and prayer can lead to acts of faith – and acts of faith do draw us to religious ritual.  But the arrival of the one whom John proclaims – the one who comes as judge and Saviour – as servant and Master – signals the greatest change of all.

Our Saviour has come – a child of poverty; a friend of sinners; a judge of righteousness; an encourager to those who would seek God in all things.  and Jesus invites us to live into our faith in ways that ‘bear fruit’.


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