Isaiah 11. 1 – 10

Matthew 3. 1 – 12


Fr Alex


This morning we meet John the Baptist, such a key figure in our Advent preparation for the coming Messiah.

Today we hear that he “appears in the wilderness” and proclaims repentance.  He wears clothing of camel’s hair, and eats locusts and wild honey.  He sounds quite a character.

A funny little thing I learned about John the Baptist when I was doing a bit of New Testament Greek at University (not very successfully, I have to say!) was about these locusts.

Apparently there was a radical vegetarian sect in the early church that thought it wasn’t quite the thing that a great prophet like John should kill poor little locusts for food. 

So they simply changed the first letter of the Greek word for locusts—‘akrides’—to ‘egkrides’ instead – which effectively means ‘pancakes!’  They probably go a bit better with honey than locusts do.

But it’s interesting that we have a description of John’s diet, and his clothing, because that’s actually a very rare thing in the Gospels.  Matthew certainly doesn’t tell us what Jesus and the disciples ate; or even what they looked like.

The sparse food and uncomfortable clothing marks John out as someone very different from those around him – someone in the wilderness, literally and figuratively; someone different.

Because the message he gives is unlike any other.  Whereas prophets had called people to repentance throughout the ages, and proclaimed the coming Messiah: here is the last and greatest prophet, the one who heralds Christ himself; the very Word of God come down from heaven.

Matthew makes the link with the prophets of old by saying that John “is the one whom the prophet Isaiah spoke of when he said, ‘The voice crying out in the wilderness.’“

And it’s that description of John I’d like to focus on: John as “the voice.”

In all the Gospel accounts, the only thing John says about himself is that he is “the voice.”  “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness … as the prophet Isaiah said,” as he puts it in St John’s Gospel.

St John’s Gospel introduces the Baptist right after that incredible description of Jesus: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.”

Jesus is the word; John is the voice that announces the coming of that word.

It strikes me that so much of the story of the Incarnation that we are getting ready to hear is about words and voices.  The angel Gabriel, almost nine months ago, speaks to Mary and announces that God has great plans in store for her.  The angels speak to the shepherds the news that Christ has been born.  The Magi are spoken to in a dream and told not to go back to Herod after they see the new-born Jesus.

Even the circumstances of John the Baptist’s birth centre on words and voices.  The angel tells John’s father, Zechariah, that he and Elizabeth, despite their old age, will conceive a child.

Zechariah doesn’t quite believe what the angel is saying: and his punishment is to lose his voice until John is born – he can no longer speak anything to anyone.  It’s only when he trusts in God and does his will that his tongue is freed to sing his great song of praise.

We’re shown repeatedly that God loves to interact with his creation through conversation.  That’s all prayer is, really.  And that’s pretty amazing, when you think about it. 

That the creator of the entire universe isn’t far away and unreachable; but wants to talk to a young girl like Mary, through an angel; or speak to rough shepherds in the fields.  And to send his own Son to speak to us; his very word in human form.

But of course, it’s not just talking.  John doesn’t just announce the good news to us this morning; he calls us to respond by changing the way we live.  And so many of the great readings we hear through Advent encourage us to be like John the Baptist, and actually speak this good news; not just listen to it. 

Isaiah says, “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!  Here is your God.’”  And, later on, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term.”  And again, “Lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem … say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’”

A few days ago the latest census data on religious belief were made public.  Of course it makes for depressing, if unsurprising reading.  For the first time less than half the population identify as Christian.

But I don’t think it’s because they’re rejecting the Christian message.  It’s that, for the most part, they haven’t even heard it. 

We don’t live in a post-Christian age any more, when people know all the old stories but don’t find them relevant.  In many ways, we’re living in a pre-Christian age, when they don’t know any of it at all.

So let us find a way this Advent to be the voice that cries in the wilderness of our modern society that it is good news that Christ is born: that God has come among us to save us, to bring his light into the darkness of our lives; and to bring us to life with him for ever.  That’s a message people need to hear.  Amen.