2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8
One of the wonderful things about being a vicar is the sheer variety of people that you get to meet. When dealing with people who are not part of the church, but who may be arranging weddings or funerals or baptisms, I find myself sitting in a millionaire’s drawing room one moment and an hour later in the midst of such poverty which you would not believe exists in the midst of this village.
And there is also a huge variety of people within the church, and I want to think about two particular types of Christian this morning. I should emphasise from the outset that I am thinking about the whole Christian community that I encounter, not just you lovely people in Hadlow, so don’t sit there trying to put names to descriptions.
The first is the type of Christian who is absolutely convinced that God did not exist within a particular church or community until they showed up. They are certain that only they have encountered God properly, that only they know how to worship properly, that only they know the bible properly. Everything which has happened in that church or in that community before they showed up is worthless, that all the other people there claiming to be Christians aren’t Christians really, they are only church-goers, and they will never be proper Christians until they have encountered God in the same way as they have. God’s blessing, they believe, rests on them solely and uniquely. In them God is doing a new thing.
The second type of Christian I want to mention today is the complete opposite of the first. They personify the first half of the prayer of humble access – “I am not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under your table.” They hardly believe that God notices them, let alone believe that God has a unique plan and purpose for them and their lives.
So we have the hubristic Christian who is here to save the world on their own and we have the ever-so-humble Christian who doesn’t think that they matter in God’s plan for the world at all. In my humble opinion I think that both of those extremes are missing something important and that something may be hinted at in today’s readings.
Our gospel reading this morning came from Mark. Interestingly Mark’s gospel does not start with the nativity story about Jesus, there are no angels or shepherds or magi or Joseph or Mary here, rather Mark begins his account of the story of Jesus not with Jesus, but with John the Baptist.
Actually it is not quite true; Mark actually starts much further back than that, with chapter 40 of the prophet Isaiah:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way. A voice of one crying in the desert, ‘prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him;”.
So, Mark is saying that John the Baptist represents the fulfilment of the prophecy in Isaiah that someone will be sent to prepare the way for the Lord.
Now, if anyone were ever qualified to say that God’s blessing rested richly upon them, that God wanted them to do a new thing and that they were, in fact, the very incarnation of God on earth, it would, of course, be Jesus.
Jesus is the one person who could, legitimately, have turned up and said “You’ve messed up big time, nothing you’ve done in the past has led you to where you need to be but don’t worry, God the Son is here and we’re going to start again from scratch.”
But that is not how Jesus arrives and starts his ministry at all. Although it becomes clear throughout the gospel that in Jesus God is doing something amazing and new, although in unexpected ways, here Mark goes to great pains to show that Jesus is part of the continuing story of God, which reaches back into Israel’s past relationship with God.
John the Baptist is placed squarely as the fulfilment of Isaiah and his role is to prepare the way for Jesus by calling the people to repentance and baptism and, although I don’t want to spoil January for you, by baptising Jesus himself.
Here we are shown in the space of a few short verses, that John’s roots lie in Jewish prophecy and tradition and, of course, so too does the Lord for whom he is preparing the way.
This rather begs the question of why Jesus needed the way prepared for him. A more hubristic God wouldn’t need messengers or forerunners, he would simply get on and do things and heaven help those who don’t get into line.
I believe that Jesus needed the way prepared for him not for his benefit but for the benefit of the world. People move on sometimes in small steps and the world would not be ready to receive the baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit until it had first seen and experienced John’s baptism with water. In God’s plan the world simply was not ready for Jesus until John had been, and both were part of God’s continuum.
And after Jesus, and the first Pentecost, that continuum continued with the history of the church – the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church of the Nicene Creed. One of the most obvious features of the most hubristic Christians is that they dismiss the vast majority of church history as a history of errors, which they have now arrived to correct.
But I take seriously the belief that the church is a holy body created by God for the purpose of continuing the work of Christ on earth. That is not to say that the individuals within it are without sin, as is all too obvious and awful from so many stories of abuse, or that the church itself is incapable of sin, which is shown most obviously in the sin of schism and division between denominations. But despite our sin and humanity God continues to work in the world through the church and we all stand in an apostolic line of succession, going back to Jesus and John in our baptisms and to the earliest days of God’s relationship with the world.
I constantly give thanks to see my name at the bottom of the list of vicars of Hadlow, not only because that is an immense privilege in itself, but because it reminds me in no uncertain terms that I stand here not alone but as part of 800 years of documented priestly ministry, and I hope and I pray that one day in the distant future my name will simply be another rung in the ladder, another small part of God’s story in this place. Those who were here before me each prepared the way for those who would come after and I hope to prepare the way for those who come next. In a small way each of us on that list acts as both John and Jesus.
But, of course, that doesn’t simply apply to vicars – all Christians stand in that continuum of God’s story. None of us are doing this on our own and none of us can pretend either that no one went before us or should be proud enough to believe that all that has gone before is wrong and only we have the answer – that’s not what I see in Jesus.
So, what about those with excess humility – the person who thinks they are of no import to God or the world?
The good news is that the same answer applies. If being part of God’s eternal story should curb too much pride in our own importance, then it should also build up those who think they are of no value. Every single baptised person is part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church and we are all part of the body of Christ. There is no one whom God did not know from the beginning and there is no one who is not of immense value to God. To feel or believe that you are too small or insignificant is to forget that God created you in his image and that he wants each of us to be his adopted children of light because of our relationship to him through Jesus.
There is a part in God’s plan for the world and his kingdom unique to each and every one of us. Don’t be so humble that you miss it or so proud that you forget those who prepared the way for you.
Although, rhetorically, that may be a good place to finish, I need to take one final but important step. If we are each called to recognise those who have gone before us and to prepare the way for those who come after us then it may be worth asking for whom are we preparing the way. The lessons of the last few weeks remind us that the story of God does not conclude with his church going on ad infinitum. The big picture is that God’s story concludes with Christ’s return – Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.
John prepared the way for Jesus,
Jesus prepared the way for us and
we prepare the way for Jesus.