We all know people who say they stand for this or that but then deny the truth of what they say by their actions.
Perhaps this is why some politicians are so unpopular, and maybe some clergy too.
You see, what we say doesn’t always match what we believe, whereas what we do, usually speaks volumes.
When I worked with difficult kids, they used to tell me all kinds of things. Usually in an attempt to keep out of trouble, I must have said to various children, many times over:
“I’ll believe what you do, not what you say.”
And so it was with John the Baptist.
The religious authorities of his time came out to ask him why he was preaching and baptising people. They knew who he was, but what they were interested in, what they really wanted to know, was what his actions said about him. What did he mean by them? How was he defined by what he did?
Well, we heard just now how the author of Mark’s Gospel claimed that John the Baptist fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah. He was the voice in the wilderness, crying out for a way to be made for God to visit his people, and the meaning behind that is this: Eastern roads weren’t surfaced, they were mainly tracks, and when a king was about to visit his provinces, the roads were smoothed over, straightened out and put in order.
So what John was saying was: “I’m nothing. I’m only a voice telling you to get ready for the coming of the king”.
And most importantly, he was doing something about it. He was baptising people.
Now here was something strange. Baptism at the hands of men wasn’t for the Jews. It was for people who converted to the Jewish faith. The Israelites believed they already belonged to God.
So John was making Jews do what converts to their religion had to do. He was suggesting, in action, that the chosen people were dirty and had to be cleaned up to meet the king who was coming.
There’s an old saying which suggests that wherever the Queen goes she smells fresh paint. John the Baptist was like the messenger going ahead of royalty; getting everybody ready for the coming one. Each individual Israelite needed smartening up. Someone was coming who would put John in the shade. What John did with water, this coming one would do with the Holy Spirit.
In the Exodus story, we’re told that God lived personally, with his people in the picture language of the pillars of fire and cloud. But this time, said John, through Jesus, God’s spirit would live with his people; in them, becoming the air they breathed; the fire in their hearts.
And not only did John the Baptist say this promise was coming true now; he also asked the people if they were ready for it. They weren’t; and John was delivering a wake-up call.
And guess what? Many of the religious people didn’t like it.
“How dare this scruffy preacher tell us that there’s anything wrong with us?” they said. “We go to the Temple, we do things right. We offer the proper sacrifices, and what’s more we do it all decently and in order, according to the Regulations which we follow pretty well, thank you very much. Just who does he think he is?”
Does this sound familiar?
Do you know any modern day Christians who don’t like it when they hear the Gospel preached and bits of it hurt? People who find fault with others, but who get angry when reminded that we’re all in this together? People who find it hard to accept that in God’s eyes we all fall short?
I know people like this, and I have to confess that one of them is me. I frequently feel ashamed of myself when I listen to the Gospel and realise that the bad behaviour described is very often mine. Perhaps this is true of you as well, and if that’s the case then you should thank God, because, it’s this painful knowledge which can bring us to the understanding that our only hope is to wake up and to be washed by Jesus.
Many Jews at the time of John the Baptist believed they were OK with God just because they were Jewish by birth. John certainly put them right and told them that God could make Jews out of stones if he wanted to.
There must be many people alive today who have a passing relationship with the Church. Births, marriages and deaths are attended to with religious ceremony, but that’s about it. And are these people really any worse than those regular churchgoers who feel confident that they’re in God’s good books and yet ignore the needs of a neighbour, or the effects of their bad tempered or rude behaviour, on someone else’s life?
What would John the Baptist say to them if he were to meet them? And what might he say to all those church -going people, who never say it, but feel superior to their neighbours who never darken a church door? What might he say to me? What might he say to you? What might it take, to wake us up?
May God give us the grace to see how much we need to be made ready, to be washed and prepared. May we also come to know that in Jesus, God himself washes us and makes us ready for his Kingdom.
All we need to do is to recognise our failings, turn to him and let him do this for us. And isn’t Advent a good time to begin?