When I was a child I used to sleep facing the wall. I lived in a place of comings and goings. We had a guest house. The people around me for half the year had different accents, came and went. Perhaps I’d never see them again. But my parents were constant. Somewhere I’d picked up the idea that people never got shot in the back, that there was an innate ethic even held by bad people. So I slept facing the wall. It was safe. I was hiding my face from the world, and if I could not see it, it could not hurt me. Such is the logic of a small child.
Some of us never grow up. St Paul spoke of seeing through a glass darkly. Sometimes the veil is drawn back and we see the world as it is. It can be the slow drawing back of a curtain on a glorious sunrise, or a lightning flash. But we learn to see the world as it really is. Occasionally we even get to see ourselves, but for that to happen we usually need help.
John the Baptist not so much drew back the curtains as tore them apart. And behind them was a mirror. And the people saw themselves. It was not a pretty sight.
I imagine they had heard about this man, out in the wilderness, wild, unkempt, perhaps a bit of a rogue. Some probably thought it would be entertaining to see him, perhaps a bit of a tease. Some had thought he was a prophet. And so the proud, the pompous, the pretentious gathered by the river. Unusual then, as for us perhaps, the poor and needy mingled with them, pushed and jostled.
And John, this ‘prophet’ spoke. Loud, contentious, not what you’d want to hear in church, not in polite society, not how you, or I, would want to be addressed, no ‘Lords, Ladies, and Gentlemen’ but…
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Luke 3: 7 – 9)
Bit of a shock that. Necessary, though, in preparation for meeting Jesus, the one of whom John said, ‘I baptise you with water, he will baptise with fire’. Jesus would pick up on that message bringing good news to the poor, release for captives and so on. But for now eyes needed to be open. “And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’” (Luke; 3:10).
So before we continue headlong into the parties, if we dare hold them, the carolling and feasting, unless we’ve already begun, a time to pause. A time to turn our faces from the wall to the world, from our self-satisfaction and security to what it might actually mean to follow Jesus. ‘What then, should WE do?’
This will not be a return to the old ‘Normal’, but a new beginning that will burst the bubbles of our self-centredness and open us to the love of a God who trusted humanity sufficiently to become a child, to be suckled by a human mother, held by a human father. This vulnerable baby is the God, from whose love neither you, nor I, nor those we might seek to judge as unworthy can be separated, now or in eternity.
So let us pause for thought, and only then let us celebrate…
Remember what was ahead:
When Jesus came to Bethlehem there was no harsh a day,
they say a census had been called, there was no place to stay;
this baby who would shake the world, would first lay down his head,
not in a royal house or hall, but in a manger bed.
When Jesus went to Nazareth his father had a trade,
a carpenter now had a son and business plans were laid;
but soon within the temple courts, this lad would have his way,
dissenting from his parents’ wish, they’d looked for him all day.
The path that he set out to tread from Jordan’s crowded bank
would take him him through a wilderness with neither power nor rank;
returning he would scourge the ones and verbally deride
a viper’s brood, these hypocrites, who dressed themselves in pride.
Returning to Jerusalem, but not in regal dress,
he’s seated on a donkey’s back, not here to rule or bless;
the temple tables were upturned, but more disturbing still,
his challenge to authority would cause the air to chill.
That chill was in Gethsemane when he knelt down to pray,
and all the pain of all the world seared through him on that day;
the time of crisis had arrived to turn from what was right,
or walk with soldiers on to what now looked like endless night.
The trial came and ones that he had scourged with words scourged him,
and this was brutal vengeance now, not wondrous, simply grim:
his flesh was ripped, his sinews torn, his body hung to dry,
and as the darkness gathered round the whole world seemed to sigh.
That ragged child that Mary bore was taken from the tree,
the women waited through three days, covertly went to see:
they found the tomb was empty now, the one they sought had gone,
and as they raced in fear away, the mystery lingered on.
Yet through two thousand years and more the influence of that man
has rippled down through history from where it first began;
his spirit stills inspires a faith that trusts to what is right,
to seek for truth, to live in love, keep justice burning bright.
Hymn words Andrew Pratt © 2015 Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England firstname.lastname@example.org . Please include any reproduction for local church use on your CCL Licence returns. All wider and any commercial use requires prior application to Stainer & Bell Ltd.
Reflection originally written for the Mid-Cheshire Methodist Circuit 2021