Matthew 3 The Proclamation of John the Baptist
3In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’* 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” ’
4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
What we wear – our clothes often give expression to something about ourselves and about the occasion for which we wear them. We dress down when we are relaxing, walking or shopping. We dress up for a special occasion – a party, baptism or wedding. Clothes are indicators of what we may be doing or where we are going. Work clothes can be protective – overalls and aprons – and they might also express roles and responsibilities: Nurses wear uniforms, and Doctors white coats (well Doctors used to!)
Mind you, clothes don’t always communicate in quite the way that one might expect. In my last parish, one Christmas morning I stood-in at a local parish church that had no Vicar. I did the 8 o clock Communion Service and then had to race back for the first service in my own parish at 9am. Timings were rather tight. On the by-pass where I nicely picked up a bit of speed I was horrified to be pulled over by the Warwickshire Constabulary. As the police officer walked towards me in his black uniform and hi-viz yellow jacket I took some comfort that I was wearing my black cassock and clerical collar. I stepped out of the car and clearly caught the officer by surprise: ‘Been to a fancy dress party Sir?’ he asked, suspiciously. ‘Certainly not’ I exclaimed. My cassock was no protection or explanation, and certainly no guarantee to this officer of the law that I really was a law-abiding driver going about essential soul-saving business. After a brief conversation the police officer sent me on my way and I wished him a Happy Christmas. He returned the season’s compliments with a warning not to drive too quickly – ever witty his parting words were ‘You’ll not get to heaven driving like that.’ I haven’t, of course – forgotten the advice!
What are we to make of the description of John the Baptist in verse 4 of the reading from Matthew’s Gospel?
‘Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.’
What kind of uniform is this? How are these clothes indicative? What does this strange garb say?
The clothes John wears are austere, uncomfortable, crude. He stands in the tradition of Old Testament prophets preaching repentance and reform to the people of Israel. His clothes communicate his sense of mission and his message: John is fierce, uncompromising, and he rejects creature-comforts and all that distracts from the main concern of his life. His style of life is a stark alternative to conventional living: What he wears, what he eats, where he lives, how he behaves – all these point towards the message of God’s judgement and mercy which he brings to Israel: ‘Repent, Prepare, Confess, Be baptized.’
In Christian Art John is often depicted in the action of pointing – his arm and finger outstretched – not pointing in accusation, but pointing the viewer towards the one who is the centre of his focus: Jesus, the Saviour – “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). John points to Jesus as the one who comes to heal and reconcile humanity to God through his teaching and his death on the cross. And John’s own death, martyred because of his uncompromising preaching, also witnesses to the justice and love of God in Jesus: “I must decrease, he will increase” says John. The purpose of his life is to point others towards the glory of God present on earth in Jesus.
As a prophet, John’s whole life – his words, his manner and conduct, his dress – point towards God; he points towards the presence of God in Jesus. To what, or to whom, do our lives point? What indication do we give of the values which are at the heart of our lives? As I share this I am mindful of the extraordinary life of Nelson Mandela and the values of justice, compassion and forgiveness that he pointed us towards by his living example. He was a powerfully impressive and charismatic man, and yet his example takes us to deeper truths, the truths by which he lived.
The prophecy of Isaiah which we hear this morning foretells of one on whom the Spirit of the Lord will rest, and the way in which this person lives and conducts himself will indicate the grace of God at work in him –
2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
The integrity of the Lord’s chosen indicates the truth at the heart of his life, the Spirit of God at work in him. He points to God, the source of his wisdom and goodness.
This season of Advent offers us some essential values by which to live, and through which our lives can point to God in Jesus Christ. Perhaps the greatest Advent pointer is Hope.
Without hope people die. Without the hope that things can change, there is little incentive for anything. Without hope, it is hard for people to love, and if we cannot love, we cannot will change, we cannot be those who struggle with patience and endurance to bring the future into being. Without hope, we have no investment in the future and therefore no investment in the present. Isaiah speaks of liberation from captivity, of peace and homecoming, and the restoration of joy. We believe and affirm the power of God to bring hope out of despair, to bring the new into being, to confound the dreary cycles of cause and effect, to make of the cracks, of the black earth of death, the seed bed of resurrection. Imagine what would have happened to Mandela had he given up hope: hope for change and hope for a better world free of division and hatred.
Advent is a good time to prepare for new life, for the birth of Christ within us, to clear the way so that we have more courageous self-examination, more open hearts, more receptive spirits, more loving kindness towards ourselves and others.
So amidst the activity of the coming days let us be people who embody hope and point to the source of hope. I pray that your preparations for Christmas may be blessed with hope.