JOHN THE BAPTIST.  Luke 1:57-66,80 – Castor 24 Jun 2001

 John the Baptist came out of the desert at the age of 28 and started his ministry by preaching the need for repentance in the face of forthcoming fire and brimstone. And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” we learn from Luke’s Gospel.  Today, Midsummer’s day is the feast-day of John the Baptist, hence Upton’s Patronal festival tonight. During the course of this week I found myself musing on whether or not this rather strange character had anything to say to us today. He seems miles away from our culture and society; and yet the fiery message of John the Baptist is often seen by people outside the church to be the message of xianity, rather than that of the teaching of Jesus.

At the same time I also found myself preoccupied with a number of items on the news. For a start one couldn’t help but hear the endless discussions on the wireless about the release of the boys who killed Jamie Bulger; the sheer anger of so many people from Liverpool; the promises of Jamie’s mother that they would be found wherever they hid. In one discussion some people were advocating a “Muslim approach of an eye for an eye,” others that of the US where the victims of a crime have a say in the punishment. There were also liberals who reminded listeners that the killers were only children when they committed their crime. And then there is the contrasting news from NI: that men who as adults had killed and maimed bystanders with bombs were being quietly released, and remorse and re-education was not part of the requirement for them. Meanwhile here we see the rage of so many people over there; while here we don’t really get excited about the fact.

And then there was a report about the head of Railtrack; Mr Corbett I think, and his blood money as one reporter called it. People again were furious that he, in charge of Railtrack during the Hatfield disaster should get £800,000 pay off, just to persuade him to go quietly. As one reporter said, when asked how Mr Corbett could face us-he said “on that sort of money he doesn’t have to, because he won’t be living next to us.” Behind these questions are big issues about what sort of society we are, and what we want, what is the appropriate reaction. And I can’t pretend to know the answers. Perhaps the release of convicted terrorists in NI is worth it if it brings peace. In the case of Jamie Bulger, most of us cannot imagine how we would feel if we had been his Mother. But some-one somewhere has to make decisions.

So far as Mr Corbett, some people have always made a fortune out of public service. Driving through Thorney the other day - a village virtually owned by the Dukes of Bedford, I could not help recalling how the land there had all belonged to Thorney Abbey. During the Reformation a certain Mr John Russell, a local asset-stripper in 1536, had made a fortune in obtaining the land and buildings at a knockdown price because he was a crony of Thomas Cromwell. The Russells went on to become the Dukes of Bedford, with their main seat in another abbey obtained at knockdown prices – Woburn Abbey.

One of the problems the church has, is whether it has anything to say to our society; is it now just peddling a message of personal salvation; or is it just so marginalised that nobody would take any notice? Is it right for the church to express a view on questions that face our society? Equally one of the problems for our society is that we no longer have overarching widely accepted ethics and principles or belief systems against which we can easily make judgements. Because whatever we feel today, John the Baptist clearly had a message for his listeners that extended beyond what we today might call the realms of religion. We are told that the hand of the Lord was with him;  that he spoke the truth and suffered for it; that he rebuked public figures boldly. “What then shall we do?” people asked, and he went on to say: “he who has two coats, let him share with him who has none.” Tax collectors asked  “ What then shall we do?” and he “ collect no more than is appointed you”. Soldiers asked “And we, What then shall we do? “And he said “Rob no one by violence or false accusation, be content with your wages.”. He warned his listeners of the wrath to come; that they were answerable for the consequences of their behaviour, and he was clearly an angry young man. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come. Bear fruits that befit repentance. The axe is laid to the root of trees that do not bear good fruit. A message then of justice was proclaimed by John.  John also proclaimed and warned that there was one who was to come after him, but even so he was surprised by what he heard of Jesus;  he even sent to find out if Jesus really was the Messiah, For Jesus  said “The Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the good news”. He also said something else. For God so loved the world that he gave his onlybegotten Son, that we should not perish, but have everlasting life. The ministry of the one to follow John, that of Jesus, was one of healing and reconciliation. In answer to my question to myself at the beginning, does John the Baptist have anything to say to us today, I think the answer is yes. We have a duty as a church to be prophetic; to search for God’s purposes in the world, to pursue what is just. But Jesus tells us how to do it. Not in anger at the world, but out of love for it, as part of a loving God’s creation.  For God sent the Son into the World, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved. Amen.