A sermon preached by Mark Ward, Advent 2 – coming second and being ready
My oldest grandchild, Jacob, is about 5½. Halves are very important at that age. He likes playing games but he does not like losing. He’s getting proficient at counting so we are sometimes to be found playing snakes and ladders. He laughs uproariously when I go down a snake but strangely he doesn’t do the same when his counter does the same. He likes being first. When we are on the beach in Lincolnshire and he races his sister Hannah, 3½, he always wins because he’s bigger than she is, but I wonder what it will be like when he starts to race against people of his own size.
Cast your mind back to competitive times in your own life – did you enjoy being second – most of us don’t do we?
I’ve just had an experience of that. The Chief Executive of The Trussell Trust left and a consultancy firm was brought in to find a replacement. I had been asked by the trustees to look after the job in the gap between the last one leaving and the next being appointed. I’d rationalised that in all honesty I was about the only person in the organisation who could do so was me, because I was in effect the most senior person left and I understood how the whole thing ticked, but when asked if I wanted the job full time I said I didn’t think so. In fact no I did not.
Then one of our major donors sent me an email and said he would be backing me for C.E.O. at which point I had to tell him I wasn’t going to apply. He then rather forcefully, but at the same time, gently suggested I had come to the wrong conclusion and that I should go away and reconsider until I came up with a different answer. So what – you might say? If I tell you that he is the ex-chairman of Disney Worldwide, that might also explain why I went away to think about it. At about one minute to twelve on the appointed day I sent my application in. Well I was accepted for interview, I put a suit on, I even put normal-ish black shoes on, and off I went. It went really, really well, and I, who hadn’t wanted the job, began to think how it might turn out. Well it turned out that my trustees wanted a new face from outside who had already been a C.E.O. so in reality I was never going to get the job.
Let me take you back to the start – I didn’t want this job but now I felt like Jacob who had been on square 99 and was now at the bottom of the snake. It wasn’t fair, why interview me, why make me feel good and then push me down the snake, back to where I’d started. My sponsor, who it turns out had written a reference in my support was incandescent about how badly I had been treated and on one Saturday morning I spent half the morning calming him down and persuading him not to do a number of incendiary things he had threatened to do which I had reasoned would take me off the snakes and ladders board entirely. Strangely the process of calming him down brought me back to reality – I’d never wanted the job in the first place, so why was I so wound up about it now. And given they had now chosen someone else what could I do about it. I had two options – leave or try to keep the show on the road ready for my new boss to arrive in February. I’m currently attempting the second!
As far as I know, John the Baptist had no such ego to overcome. He knew his place in the world. He knew he was not the Messiah, but he also knew that he had been chosen for a task – to make ready for someone else, who was far greater than he. But that didn’t mean John was insignificant, it didn’t mean that God hadn’t favoured him, it simply meant that he had been chosen for a purpose which God knew was the right purpose for John. It was John’s purpose to challenge the people, it was his purpose to line all the ducks up ready for Jesus.
We have an image of John which may be more to do with bygone painters than reality. Robbie Coltrane’s portrayal of Hagrid in Harry Potter seems to conjure up the picture we have of John – wild hair, huge beard and some less fashionable clothing than was the current. I’m not sure he was quite that caricature but clearly he was different because he lived on the outside of society, according to an ancient rule whereby he lived away from people in the desert. He was undoubtedly different. We tend not to take notice of people who are the same as us if they start to say controversial things, but we do at least listen to those who are different to us, even if we don’t believe them. Take Donald Trump for example! It has to be said that Luke paints a rather more fearful picture of John than Mark. Luke says he called the people snakes and he told them that trees that did not bear good fruit would be cut down and thrown in the fire – did they realise he was referring to them? He told them they had to start to look out for one another – if you have two shirts, give one to someone who hasn’t got one. He came to tell them that if they were to be ready for what was to come they had better sort their lives out, they had better put the wrongs right.
I’m in the middle of page four and this is the point where I always do that annoying thing where I say – so is this just a story from 2000 years ago which we can go home and forget because in 15 days we will all be cooing about a baby, stuffing ourselves with turkey and trying to look happy about the pairs of socks we have just been given? Well I’m hoping the last bit comes true for me otherwise I’m soon going to have to paint my feet, but you get my point – the challenge in today’s Gospel is for us too. And it’s a challenge in two parts.
The first is that we have to realise that we are not often chosen to be first. Most of us here, in fact all of us here are servants of God and servants of those around us. It is my place to serve you, it is my place to do whatever is called of me, whether it’s standing here or doing the washing up at a fundraising event. We haven’t been called to sit on the throne, by coming here we have accepted that the greatest thing we can do is to come second, because by being second we can do something for others in Jesus’ name.
The second thing we are challenged to do is to set the road straight before he does come to us. So here’s maybe a bigger challenge – is there someone you need to pick the phone up to and right a wrong, is there a grudge you hold that you need to get rid of, and is there something you should have done that you haven’t? I bet we all have something standing between us and God. I’m clearly not John the Baptist, in fact I’m probably far too well known to you to make you take any notice of me, but all he was, was a messenger sent from God, and in my own small way I hope I am too, I hope we are all messengers to one another. But it’s the message that’s the important bit and so I hope you hear it rather than me. Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his way. Amen