1. The celebrity
Interview question – ‘What person, living or dead, would you most like to be locked in a church with?’ Would you want to be locked in a church with John the Baptist?
Calling for people to repent, baptising them, crowds come out, and he does his best to drive them away! “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
But he must have been phenomenally charismatic. Religious events would have been a form of entertainment. No X factor. But no shortage of interesting preachers, teachers, and prophets.
John would have been quite well known. From a good well-to-do family – son of a priest at the temple. And he had given it up to go and live in the desert, like the prophet Elijah, running out to the desert to seek God. Like the people of Israel, walking through the desert to learn the ways of God. He challenged the public immorality of Herod, like the prophets had before him. He had followed a strict vow since birth never to drink, like the Judge Samson and the prophet Samuel. Luke talks about ‘crowds’ coming out to the wilderness to be baptised, Mark says it was ‘the whole Judean countryside and all Jerusalem’. He may have been exaggerating a bit. But clearly we are talking about very large crowds. John was a celebrity.
I don’t think he liked it very much. I expect he had come to the desert to get away from the noise, the distractions, the mixed motives, the hypocrisy and the crowds. But they came to him. To see the entertaining new celebrity prophet on their weekend breaks from Jerusalem. Come to listen to him rant and to experience this new religious movement. Come to be baptised. It’d be something to talk about at dinner parties, wouldn’t it. Did you experience anything when you were baptised by John? Rachel says she could feel John’s hands burning like holy fire on her head and she heard the sound of choirs of angels singing – it was almost as good as when we went to hear Matthias the miracle-worker last year.
You can understand why he got annoyed.
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”
2. Fruits worthy of repentance
It does sound like he’s gone a bit far, doesn’t it? Accusing the people coming to him for baptism of being a bunch of no-good snakes. He claims that despite what they say, they aren’t really committed to changing, to repenting. They aren’t showing the fruit that would show that the tree of their faith is healthy. John is too extreme, perhaps. But there’s a real problem here, isn’t there? How can you tell if someone is genuine? How do you know if someone sincerely believes or if they’re just going through the motions? John seems to assume that none of them are genuine. I’m sure he’s wrong, but we’re probably just as wrong when we assume the opposite. In the Church of England we generally assume that anyone who comes to us for any religious service is genuine. They’re not just here because they want to keep the grandparents happy, or because they want to be seen to do the right thing. This is a good thing. I’m firmly convinced that we’re better assuming people are genuine and letting God work out what’s in people’s hearts.
3. Teacher, what should we do?
However, there is a way in which John is right to make such a challenge. If we should not accuse those around us of hypocrisy in their faith, it is still a question we should pose of ourselves. Those whose faith clearly was genuine asked John what they should do. His answer was clear in every case – show fruit of your repentance – show changes in your life that demonstrate that your religion is more than skin-deep. The wealthy should share with the needy. The tax collector – invariably corrupt – should collect only the genuine taxes. The soldier should live honestly, not threatening or extorting money by abusing their authority.
These are not massive, momentous changes. John does not tell them, as Jesus challenged the rich young ruler, to give away all they have and follow him. Rather, he asks them to live honestly, to stand fast against the normal everyday temptations that surround them. This in itself is sufficient to show their sincerity. When John speaks of showing fruit, he is not speaking of incredible moments of faith, the sorts of things we only see in the lives of saints. He is speaking of common decency, of living a good and honest life. This is the fruit of repentance John looked for. And unlike the grand gestures of faith, it is often only us who know about it. We know if we have lived with integrity, or made the compromises so many others do.
This is a challenge we must pose to ourselves, and that often we are the only ones in a position to know the answer to. Are we going through the motions, our faith only skin-deep? Or do we have fruits of our repentance in our lives? Amen.