Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 9 December 2018.
There is now a whole industry dedicated to managing our perceptions and expectations. Advertisers seek to prize money out of our wallets and purses in support of their sponsoring companies and public relations people try to project the most favourable image possible of their causes or campaigns.
We struggle to sift what we believe to be true from what comes across as presentation but not substance. Small wonder that so many have lost all faith in our mainstream broadcast or print media and find comfort in ‘fake news’ and conspiracy.
Perhaps the glitzier the promotion and the more dramatic its presentation then the more we wonder whether this idea or product or promotion is really as wonderful as it is claimed to be – so we too are beset by skepticism.
Yet in the gospel and in the Old Testament prophets, there is something else.
First, it is the Lord who says: ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of Me’. God says: ‘This is My message and My ministry.’ It is not about raising money or obtaining votes or securing market share. It is rather something about the reality of God, breaking into the routines of the daily lives of ordinary people.
Some of us may remember an advertising campaign for a certain beverage, which was claimed to refresh the parts that other rival products failed to reach. The graphics were really quite striking.
This is about God placing His word within our hearts and minds so that we will not forget it and cannot ignore it. He speaks into our deepest needs and most intimate relationships with the assurance that the here and now is not what it is all about and that whatever trials we are suffering, there is a meaning and a purpose behind them.
We do not exist in an isolation of billions of humanity or of the trillions of light years that are the dimensions of space. We exist so that we may be restored to a new kind of relationship with the God who created us.
God has His own agenda and it is not the same as ours whether it is personal or global.
He has His own ways of looking at things, and it is not about power or control, engineering or economic efficiency.
God’s agenda is about the kind of love that is His and the ways it is shown to us and lived within us.
But then there is something more, for John the Baptist was ministering by the river Jordan, some 3600 feet below the altitude of Jerusalem and between 15 and 20 miles away. He was not exactly looking for that city centre venue.
More the Southern Uplands than Glasgow Green or the Botanic Gardens. People had to make the effort to go out to hear him, and he certainly was not mincing his words when they did get to hear him.
So there had to be some kind of motivation, beyond curiosity or the desire for entertainment, which drew people to him. And when the content of his message did get around, then that certainly brought out the Pharisee observers, sent by the Sanhedrin, to see what this was all about.
Jesus later asked the people why they went out to see and hear John: was this a ‘reed shaken with the wind’ giving voice to any fashionable doctrine that may be around? No.
What about a man in fine raiment, displaying the latest fashions and fabrics, striking the most arresting poses and maybe singing rude songs or making scurrilous comments about people? Maybe the television studios are the places for such spectacles.
No, John was not there to entertain the people or to underwrite their own prejudices. What he had to say was for all people and all social groups, with no favourites and no exceptions.
But then there was a further dimension to John. He had come to serve God and to prepare for the coming of another, One even greater than himself.
He was there to get people thinking and talking about how God was leading them in their lives. It would demand some thought and amendment of life. It would point to a redirection of priorities and that was even before Jesus had started with the message of new life founded on personal commitment and repentance.
This was before Jesus had started healing the sick, raising the dead and pronouncing the forgiveness of sins.
John was speaking in a time and a dispensation before Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. When John was beheaded by King Herod this was still in the future and John died under the condemnation of sins, waiting for the message preached in the underworld by Jesus following His own crucifixion.
But if last week we were looking at some of the Last Things before the return of Jesus in the fullness of His glory, the perspective to the future is now far more personal.
It is about getting real with God and getting real with ourselves. We too cannot afford to be distracted by Christmas shopping and decorations from the central message of both John and Jesus:
Now is the time – repent and believe the gospel. The message of John was but a foretaste of that of Jesus, but it was still a word in season.