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Christianity is not a painting by numbers game

Sermon preached for Advent 2, by The Rector

An interesting article in a trendy philopsophy / theology magazine speculated that John the Baptist was rather like a modern day ‘hipster’. It began by comparing his appearance; long hair, alternative clothing, bucking the social norms - tick. Then it looked at his diet - drawing a parallel between a love of organic and fair trade - with a diet of locusts and wild honey - undoubtedly organic! The article looked at how he travelled, citing his travel on foot as a commitment to sustainable transport. The article was obviously rather tongue in cheek, until it came to the last parallel it cited.

The author defined hipsters as ‘independent thinkers, counter-cultural, who confidently speak out on social issues’. Well there they do have a point, John the Baptist was no apologist for the establishment, speaking truth to power regularly and leading of course to his ultimate demise at the hands of Herod Antipas. He lives with authenticity to what he believes, expects authenticity from those who follow him, and it is undoubtedly this authenticity that brought people flocking towards him.

Of course it is the beginning rather than the end of his life, that brings him into our Advent readings. John the Baptist, the first person to recognise Jesus while both still in their mother’s wombs; his in utero leap for joy sets the path for John’s life for all the years that follow.

This extremely early encounter and his own miraculous birth gives John his immense prophetic character and confidence, leads to his eschewing of social norms and an unapologetic confidence in his mission and the truth he proclaims. But what really stands out about this prophet is his authenticity. This figure of John stands before us, solitary, austere, and weathered by the storms and lonelinesses of the desert and later to be weathered by the storms and lonelinesses of the prison—but throughout he remains true to himself and his calling; reminding us on this second Sunday of Advent, that living authentically is part of our preparations for the Lord.

This first century ‘hipster’ is undoubtedly a successful preacher and prophet - we hear how the people of Judea and Jerusalem were going out to him; how they confessed their sins to him; allowed him to baptise them …. Right along the river Jordan. A popular man who people wanted to speak with, who drew people to himself and who had many, many followers in his own right.

People went to him for baptism and repentance, for liberation from their woes, for restoration of their relationships whether with God or with one another; and they trusted him to do so. Being so trusted and so successful, we can see that he held a great deal of social and spiritual capital - the sorts of levels that could quickly go to people’s heads, that requires an incredible amount of humility to avoid disastrous consequences.

Humility is rather abundant in the story of John and central to his authenticity. There is no suggestion that he took credit for himself, was self congratulatory or measured his success by numbers. His eyes ever fixed on the truth he first sensed in his mother’s womb; he continues to point beyond himself towards the truth in all the days that followed. It is a humility and authenticity that begins and ends in his relationship with God, the one he knows who authors his success.

The problem with measures of success and counting in numbers has been in the news quite a bit this week, hasn’t it? Headlines on the most recent census have used stark language to lament ‘the demise of Christianity’ and this has resulted in quite a conversation. I think this conversation could be served very well by looking at the authenticity and humility of John the Baptist.

When I read the statistics this week I was surprised to find that I felt strangely heartened. I am not at all sure that Christianity was ever meant to be a ‘cultural heritage’ because the faith asks for something more authentic from it’s followers and, the data seems to show, that people are being more authentic, more thoughtful in what they say they believe. That that this makes for a more authentic church and a more honest society is surely a good thing. It shows that it takes a decision, courage, and an authentic intention to be here now - just as it did all those years ago to travel to the River Jordan to be baptised by John.

A lot of people seem spooked by the figures this week, but I don’t think we should be. There is much below the headline that is hopeful; John the Baptist may well have ticked ‘no religion’ on his own census entry, having left behind the life led by his priest father and living alone in the desert. He also shows us how dangerous it would be to play the numbers game - if John the Baptist had been the sort to measure his success by counting followers it would have led to something rather troubling - he would have likely become possessive and do anything to keep them - he may even have not signposted them on to Christ.

Christianity is not a painting by numbers game and we mustn’t be distracted by them because it is a very dangerous game. The only measures of success in the life of the church are the fruits of what we do, it is our service, our hospitality, our worship and our shared authenticity in living out the great commandment - love of God and love of neighbour.

The numbers will take care of themselves, as long as we take care of our authenticity in God. Cultivating humility and gratitude for what we have; not overlooking it in pursuit of more and more.

As we enter this second week of Advent,

and continue our preparations for welcoming Christ once more,

I pray that we will follow John the Baptists example and look to cultivate humility, confidence and authenticity in our witness to one another and the community around us.


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