The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s094g14  Advent 3  14/12/2014

‘I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’   John 1:27

John and Jesus recognised the ministry of the other.   I have noted before that the message of John was little different from the message of Jesus if expressed in traditional terms: baptism for the forgiveness of sins.   Both quickly garnered considerable support from ordinary people and each criticised the religious people who came.   ‘History is written by the victors’ (1) and in this sense Jesus outlasted John by a year or two, and yet Mandaeism continues to this day. (2)   Both John and Jesus suffered martyrdom for their message.

And this leads me to ponder their differences.   We are told that John criticised Herod for marrying his brother’s wife (3) and was beheaded for his pains.   But other than referring to Herod as ‘that fox’ (4) Jesus did not critique the secular authorities.  Before Pilate Jesus said, ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.’   Pilate clearly got the message for we are told: ‘From then on (he) tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, "If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.”‘ (5)

Last week I spoke about the long line of prophets who spoke up against ‘the eternal propensity of self-professed religious people to oppress others’ (6) and the bible’s witness to this.   The bible isn’t a manual for devotees to achieve a life of unfettered health, wealth and happiness - it recognises that death comes to all and that the health, wealth and happiness of individuals is intimately linked to the health, wealth and happiness of everyone else.

In the words of the Deuteronomist: ’You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ (7)  Our religious experience is always directed toward an appreciation of our oneness with those around us or else it is not of God.  

The real difference between John the Baptist and Jesus is that time and again Jesus pointed out the selfishness of those who loved the Lord their God with all their hearts and minds and souls and strength (8) and pointed this out to them directly.   It was his main message, right from the outset as the following quotations demonstrate:

At the very beginning of Jesus’ public proclamation, in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount Jesus says: ‘For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (9)   In Mark the battle is joined in chapter 2 when ‘some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this fellow speak in this way?   It is blasphemy!’’ (10) paralleled in Luke. (11)   In John the battle is joined in the cleansing of the Temple in his second chapter. (12)

So God’s righteousness can be defined as the opposite of selfishness and specifically religious selfishness.   And religious selfishness can be seen all too clearly in ‘christianity’ as proclaimed in some places today.

So if we are to follow Jesus the details of our theology and the form of liturgy we use are entirely irrelevant.   Richard P McBrien concludes his two volume opus ‘Catholicism’ with the definition: ‘Catholicism is characterised by a radical openness to all truth and to every value’. (13)   If theology or liturgy serve to reinforce religious selfishness they implicitly mitigate against God’s righteousness.   The only thing that marks us out as Christians is how affirming and inclusive we are of people who are different, and confronting religion which is not.   If we are priests and ministers in ‘the church of God’, then we are obliged to be open to every person, without hesitation, without discrimination and without expectation.   But we are also obliged to be vocal against any theology invoking the name of God that is less than this.

So those churches who define themselves as ‘affirming and inclusive’ are most closely modelling God’s righteousness.

This is the importance of the incarnation, for Jesus did not just tell us what to do, but did it in his life.   He associated with the tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners and this also was in stark contrast to John, the proverbial solitary voice in the wilderness.   ‘Words are cheap’ and John could be dismissed but the fact that Jesus lived in the world, anxious to visit town after town; to not let anyone miss out on the experience of incarnation.   The devout were scandalised: ‘Why does your master eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’  (14)   Several times we hear Jesus lament that his message was to ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’. (15)   There was no point in going to Gentiles if his campaign was against religious selfishness.   Jesus had no death-wish but his primary message was to confront the religiously superior.

And when we look again at the parables, how many in fact speak against spiritual selfishness?

It is interesting that my godfather, the Rev’d Brian Smith gave me a prayerbook in 1962 for my Confirmation with the reference: Matthew 6:33.   It has only taken me 52 years to work out what ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness’ actually means :-)   ‘Righteousness’ is not some esoteric spiritual quality - it is plain down-to-earth acceptance and welcome of people who are different.   It puts a new spin on the saying ‘love the sinner - hate the sin’: ‘love all people, hate the theology which limits who’.

It is only this sort of righteousness that promises peace for the world; it is only this sort of righteousness that will bring blessings.   And I would add it is only this sort of righteousness that is worth living, and dying, for.

1.  Alexander S. Peak
3.  Matthew 14.4
4.  Luke 13.32
5.  John 19:11,12
7.  Deuteronomy 10:19
8.  Deuteronomy 6.5
9.  Matthew 5.20
10.  Mark 2:6-7
11.  Luke 5:21
12.  John 2:13f
13.  p 1173
14.  Matthew 9.11
15.  Matthew 10.6, 15.24