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Can we trust what we hear?

Is it on or is it off? Is it happening, or has it been cancelled because of the snow? Over last weekend and into the week this has been the talking point amongst so many people. Parents trying to work out whether to send the children into school and then work out what to do with them when it was closed. Workers struggling to get to the office on icy roads only to be told they needn’t have bothered. People dithering at the last-minute wondering if that Christmas lunch was still on. Everyone checking the weather forecast to see if there would be any more snow. What everyone needed was clear authoritative information upon which to base their decisions. What they needed was a message that could be trusted.
At the heart of Christmas is a message; ‘tidings of comfort and joy’ as the old carol has it. But how can we know if it can be trusted? We all hear a very loud and insistent Christmas message from the commercial world. The likes of John Lewis and Marks and Spencer produce really sophisticated adverts containing their message which are eagerly anticipated each year. This message always boils down to the same thing. Buy our products and you will have a truly amazing Christmas.
Today, our thoughts turn to a different John and a different Mark. The John is John the Baptist and according to Mark, the evangelist, he arrived cutting a dash in a camel hair coat with a leather belt. He also had a penchant for locusts and wild honey. (Mark 1.6) I am sure the honey can be sourced from the well-known emporiums already mentioned but I am not so sure about the locusts!
John however is a man with a message. He describes himself in today’s gospel reading as ‘…the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”’ (John 1.23) These are words he quotes from Isaiah. (40.3) They are found on the lips of John the Baptist in all four gospels. That Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all choose to include this in their gospel accounts shows that it most likely to have happened and to be important, so we should sit up and take notice. Here is an important message.
But imagine that you are back in the early years of the first century living in territory which we now classify as ‘The Holy Lands’. There is much talk of Messiah, of one who would to rescue your people from the tyranny of Roman rule and give you back a home land. You might well have heard rumours about the birth of a special child in Bethlehem some years before; his mother apparently a virgin. That shepherds had seen angels and some wise rich guys had been lead by a star to pay him homage as a new king. That was all long ago and nothing much had come of it.
Yet now there was this odd chap in camel hair coming out of the of the mountains preaching a message of repentance, calling on people to turn away from sin and live good lives instead. If anyone accepted this teaching, he would give them a good soaking, a baptism, in the river Jordan. Who on earth could he be? How did he fit into the pattern of things? Could he be trusted? Should they listen to him? It was no wonder then that the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask John, ‘Who are you?’ (John 1.19) just as it says in our reading today. The answer they get is that he is the fulfilment of the Isaiah prophecy. He is the voice of one crying in the wilderness. (John 1.23) He is not the long-expected Messiah. That person stands waiting in the wings and John is not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal. (John 1.27)
The truth of John’s message would be made clear through unfolding events. John would point to Jesus as the ‘one who is coming after me.’ As John baptised Jesus, so the Holy Spirit lighted on him in the form of a dove and God’s voice proclaimed from heaven that he was his beloved son. The events of Jesus’ life, especially the miracles and ultimately the resurrection all supported John’s original message. For those who ‘had ears to hear’, his message was true.
What then for us? We hear so many messages, so much news via TV, radio, books and magazines, the internet and social media. We are ever more aware of the differing values and beliefs which people have. We are not encouraged to identify any belief or outlook as right or wrong but to value all as part of our diversity. This is what we call ‘pluralism’. For the committed Christian, it can put us in a difficult place. We do not support extremism or the violence which goes with it. We want to show respect to people of all faiths and none and to reach out in love to everyone in our community regardless of race and background. Yet we are people of the message, the message of good news in Jesus which we believe has a greater claim to ultimate truth than any other beliefs which are out there.
How can we know that? How can we justify it?
The answer is the same as for the people who first heard John, a voice crying in the wilderness. In the new testament reading for today, Paul, writing to the Thessalonian Christians has three things to say to us about receiving messages.
Firstly: ‘Do not quench the Spirit.’ (1 Thessalonians 5.19) It is the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives which helps the message of God’s love in Jesus come alive. He, for the Holy Spirit is the very Spirit of the living God, longs to move amongst his people giving them touch of his love in prayer, a little spontaneity in worship and real sense guiding to the right places in our daily lives. He blesses us with his fruit of love, joy and peace and blesses his church with gifts to support its growth. We need to be careful as Anglican Christians, wedded to our set words and prayers, that we do not quench or extinguish the Holy Spirits work amongst us as we might try to dowse the flames of a fire, but be ready to be moved by him allowing him to confirm the gospel message we have received.
Secondly, ‘Do not despise the words of prophets.’ (1 Thessalonians 5.20) We generally associate prophets with the old testament. John the Baptist quotes Isaiah and sees his ministry as a fulfilment of the prophecy about the voice crying in the wilderness spoken many years before. Yet there are those in the new testament with a ministry of prophecy. In his listings of the gifts of the Spirit found in the letters of Romans, 1Corinthians and Ephesians, in all three, Paul mentions prophecy as a gift of the Spirit. (Romans 12.6, 1Corinthians12.10, Ephesians 4.11) Prophecy is about more than just telling the future. It is about hearing a word from God pertinent to our situation. Sometimes that word might be challenging or unpopular, so we are tempted to despise it. Let’s not do that, but listen out for prophetic words and make a place for those who feel that God has placed something special on their heart to speak the message they have been given.
But thirdly, ‘…test everything: hold fast to what is good.’ (1 Thessalonians 5.21) When it comes to any message which purports to come from God, we need to test it. Companies jealousy guard their trade marks because they tell the public that a product is genuine. We need to look for God’s trademarks. Is the message good? Is it consistent with the bible? Does it speak to our situation with clarity? Does it build the people of God?
We have heard much about ‘fake news’ in recent months. Our adversary, the devil, is the master of fake news. He is described in the book of Revelation as ‘the deceiver of the whole world.’ (Revelation 12.9) As we prepare for Christmas, may we receive again with confidence ‘the word made flesh…full of grace and truth,’ (John 1.14) and commend him as the sure and certain hope for our world.
Advent 3 17.12.2017

Rev Jonathan Smith

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