The Revd Margaret Legg
Should I treat myself to a new dress for Christmas? (About time too I hear my family mutter).
Walking down Porchester Place – Atelier Mayer windows: a stunning little number gold, sparkly, even nicer than the LBLD (little black lace dress) in that morning’s paper and maybe I wear too much black....! Reflecting on this morning’s readings and pretty clear message that what counts is not appearance, the outer image, but about what sort of people we are becoming. Are we growing in godliness and becoming godly people, ready for Jesus’s return, his second coming? Best to be ready for that time – as Isaiah describes it, an encounter with God in his majesty and glory is not for the weak-hearted, knees trembling with fear. To be counted as one of God’s people, to travel on the Holy Way to Zion requires us to be clean and fit: to have led good and holy lives.
How do we do this? Two points:
Good and holy lives, godliness, is not about avoiding parties and having no fun. J the B is not telling us to be party poopers. It is rather about the motivation behind our behaviour; about what informs our words and actions. So do we condone hypocrisy and deceit, turn a blind eye when something is wrong because we know it might make life uncomfortable for us, or like John do we challenge and confront it? In today’s gospel John is speaking from prison. King Herod was a notoriously ungodly monarch. He had married his niece, wife of his half-brother, Herodias. This was against Jewish law and it was this lack of godliness that John denounced. That’s how he ended up in Herod’s dungeon. Yes, it can feel a bit isolating at times, living out a godly life, we may feel unable to tow the party line, or follow company policy, we may have to become a whistle blower! We may even wonder why, what is the point, am I barking up the wrong tree?
2) Uncertainty is okay
John the Baptist wondered too. From his incarceration in King Herod’s prison he has a wobble. ‘Are you the one who is to come or ... have I made a terrible mistake? Certainty and faith do not always easily merge together. God’s voice and our own are not always easy to separate. How can we be sure, when we put our heads above the parapet and try, for instance, to act as peacemakers in situations and relationships of hostility and conflict, that this is the godly way? How can we be sure, when we relate to others in difficulties with kindness and compassion that we’re not just being taken for a ride, treated as a pushover? Well Justin Welby has some experience of this! In Andrew Atherstone’s new book about about him, the Archbishop recounts how the longer the interviewing process for acceptance for ordination training went on (and it can go on, and on, and on), the less he wanted to be ordained. His work at Enterprise Oil where he was group treasurer was going exceptionally well. Justin Welby describes it as a time when ‘we were doing some very complex deals and everything worked, and I was thinking, I’m really good at this!’ When he was hauled before the Bishop (of Maidstone) and asked why he wanted to be ordained he baffled the bishop by saying ‘Well, I don’t really,’ But he had, he said, an overwhelming feeling that it was the right thing to do.
And underpinning this is the evidence that Jesus presents to John: do our words and actions bring healing, as Jesus’ did, not perhaps in the sense of miracle cures, but in the face of fear and resentment? Are they liberating where people feel trapped in situations and relationships? Are they helping others to grow in confidence and to move on?
Godly living is not about outer appearance. What did the crowds go into the wilderness to look at, wonders Jesus? Not John’s lifestyle as a super wealthy mogul! When Jesus speaks to the crowds about John, his ironic reference to ‘a reed shaken by the wind’ alludes to the Galilean reed Herod Antipas had chosen as a symbol on some of his coins. Neither was it his soft robes. But let me hastily say that camel’s hair might have worked for John, but not for me thank you! May we all sparkle this Christmas, not only from our party clothes, but from the joy and life that comes from living as godly people. Amen.