John the Baptist’s Guide to Changing the World

A Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent

Many preachers like to ease their listeners into their sermons. They might use a prayer or some liturgical words. They might also use a joke or an anecdote or an observation from everyday life.

John the Baptist – not so much. His opening words are: “You brood of vipers!”. I’m sure it got people’s attention, but I don’t think I’ll be trying this approach any time soon.

If anyone else wants to give it a go, though, I’d be interested to come and see what happens!

One thing going for starting this way, though, is that people certainly knew where they stood with John. He also asks them, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”. In other words, what are you doing here without any fruits of repentance? John then finishes his demolition job on the crowd by calling their ethnic and religious heritage based on descent from Abraham meaningless.

We sometimes skip past this last bit, but it’s huge. The idea of a covenant with God based on being a descendent of Abraham is central to the Hebrew Scriptures, to Israel’s identity, and to the Jews’ understanding of salvation. But John brushes this aside, because claiming the promises of Abraham without the faith of Abraham simply doesn’t work. John makes it clear that people can’t be complacent and assume they’re part of the in-crowd just because of their religious inheritance. Instead, they must show that they’re really living and breathing the faith they’ve inherited.

For us, it might be like a preacher telling us, “Don’t presume to say, ‘We’re baptized!’ Show your faith by your actions or get ready for the axe.”

So, after that admittedly challenging beginning, we may be left with the same question as the crowd: “What then should we do?”. On one hand this can be seen as just a straightforward request for information on how to meet John’s demands. For this, John’s answer is simple. We need to share what we have with those in need, avoid oppressing others, and be glad for what we have.

But on the other hand, “what then should we do” can also be a deeper question. How many of us have looked at the huge and pressing problems facing our world and wondered what on earth we can do about any of them? How many of us have faced personal circumstances or relationships that have left us wondering what we can do? I suspect we all have at one time or another. We know the crowd’s question all too well. It’s the question we ask when life is complicated and difficult, and the world has gone mad – or at least madder than usual. When we ask this question it’s often about feeling we’re up against something too big for us to handle. It’s about feeling powerless.

But, while fierce, John’s message isn’t one of powerlessness or hopelessness. Instead, John tells the crowd what they can do. He doesn’t tell them to change others but themselves. He doesn’t tell them to leave their jobs in order to do something huge to change the world, but to live their lives differently, and show something of God in that. This crowd of ordinary people couldn’t end poverty by themselves, but they could help others, and make a difference to someone else. They couldn’t change the unjust tax system, but they could be honest, and show a better way to do things to the local officials.

For those who want the world fixed right now John’s answers aren’t very satisfactory. But let’s be honest, even Jesus didn’t change the world at one stroke. He gave himself to the world one person, one relationship, one moment at a time. He loved the world to death and beyond. He showed a different way of being, a different way of living and relating, he offered different priorities and values, and then invited us to join and follow him. In doing all that he showed us what it means and looks like to be human, to be the dwelling place of God.

As we approach Christmas, we remember once again the birth of Jesus in a tiny village off the beaten track. A new-born baby in an ordinary family is practically the definition of powerlessness. Yet, from that tiny and unpromising beginning, God began the still ongoing work of changing the world, one person at a time. A work which has now changed millions of lives over 2000 years, and which will continue until everything is put right.

And this is work which we are invited to take part in, striving, in God’s power, to do what we can, where we can, one person, one relationship, one moment at a time, changing the world bit by bit.


Wednesday Worship – Advent 1: The Creative Breath

Hi everyone,

I am starting some Advent Wednesday Worship videos to take us up to Christmas.

Here is the first one:

And here is a service sheet if you’d like one:

These videos are shorter and include prayers, poems and music.

Do let me know if you enjoy them.

Take care



Prayers, music and poetry for Advent 2020, as we look forward to Christmas

Judgement (don’t run away!)

A talk at Morning Prayer on 18th December 2019

Jeremiah 23.1-8 / Matthew 17.14-21

One of the four traditional themes of Advent is judgement, and specifically God’s judgement at the end of time.

It’s not a fashionable thing to talk about in many church circles and I can see why.

The idea of judgement can conjure up images of a stern judge, a harsh taskmaster, someone waiting to catch us out and punish us.

Talking about judgement also runs the risk of making it look like us Christians are obsessed with sin and judgement and finding fault with people for not living how we think they should.

So, we often set thoughts of judgement aside in Advent in favour of focusing on preparing for Christmas and Jesus being born as a baby in Bethlehem.

Preparing for Christmas is a good thing, of course, yet God’s judgement is not really the negative thing that the word might conjure up in our minds.

Take our reading from the prophet Jeremiah.

It begins with judgement on the leaders of Israel – but that judgement is not because God has taken offence on his own account but because of what these leaders have done to God’s people.

The leaders of Israel have failed to be good and wise shepherds, and so the people have been led astray and are facing exile.

God has seen this and is roused to take action.

He’s angry with those who have caused this disaster but his main concern is to help those who have been harmed.

He promises to send someone who will show true leadership by being just and righteous, which includes caring for the defenceless, helping the poor and not letting the powerful oppress and exploit those who are weak.

And God promises to bring back together the people of Israel who’ve been scattered across the world because his judgement is also about restoration.

It’s about restoring the world to how it should’ve been, to how God wants it to be, and about dealing with the effects of our broken world.

This is why when Jesus came he didn’t just say ‘start behaving or else’ but instead healed the sick, brought good news to the poor, called out injustice and hypocrisy, and offered compassion and forgiveness to those who recognised their own shortcomings.

This was God’s judgement in action, undoing the effects of sin and evil.

So, to recap, God’s judgement is about helping the helpless, stopping those who oppress others or lead them astray, and putting right the things that have gone wrong.

This, I hope, is a much more positive image of God’s judgement than we might otherwise have.

Of course, there is still the fact that none of us manages to be entirely good and just and righteous, so we might still feel that we have something to fear from judgement.

However, against that, we have a sympathetic judge on our side who understands us, forgives us and has come to Earth to make it possible for us to stand before him not in fear but with faith and confidence.

Because of Jesus we have received the grace that makes it possible for us to look forward to the coming of God’s kingdom not with fear but with joy and gratitude that God loves us, saves us, and will make everything right.

John the Baptist

Isaiah 11.1-10 / Matthew 3.1-12

2nd Sunday of Advent / Year A


I’ve heard a rumour that there’s some kind of election coming up.

I don’t want to speculate on what the result will be, but in this country, when there’s a change of government the changeover is instant.

On polling day itself there are removal vans standing by in case someone needs to leave Downing Street so that someone else can move in straightaway.

Things are different in the USA, though.

In normal times, at least, when the president isn’t being impeached, the election is held in November but he, or hopefully one day she, doesn’t take over until January.

This time between being elected and being sworn in is known as the transition time.

It’s when the old regime begins to withdraw and the new one prepares to start governing.


And we are also in a transition time, now, not only politically but also spiritually.

For Advent is, among other things, about transition, and the prime symbol of that is John the Baptist.

John is a symbol of transition because he’s the link between the Old Testament and the New.

Some people don’t see the relevance of the Old Testament.

They think that the Old has given way to the New, so we can get rid of it.

Or they think that the Old Testament shows a nasty God and the New Testament a nice one.

This is obviously oversimplifying things but understandably people would rather focus on what they see as the nicer New Testament God.

But what we now call the Old Testament was the Bible of Jesus’s day, so if we’re to understand Jesus’s story we need to understand the scriptures of his time, the ones he grew up with and which shaped the worldview of his time and people.

So, in that spirit, let’s go back to our Old Testament reading from Isaiah for a moment.


This reading contains a prophecy that would’ve been very well known to people at the time of Jesus.

It gives a promise that one day a Messiah will be born in the family line of Jesse, who was the father of King David, whose hometown was Bethlehem.

Suddenly we are in the royal town of Bethlehem, looking at a little baby in a manger who is in the family line of Jesse and David.

This Messiah will establish a new world order where righteousness and justice bring about safety and peace, where there’s an end to violence, destruction and fear, and where God rules over all.

A new era

This is what the Jews were waiting for when John the Baptist appeared.

They wanted a new world where they didn’t have to fear invasion, where they were no longer occupied by a foreign power, and where God would rule the world from Jerusalem.

Then John appeared in the wilderness, wearing camel’s hair and a leather belt.

It’s interesting that we get a description of his clothes because nowhere do we get told what Jesus or any of his disciples wore.

The gospel writers weren’t often very interested in people’s clothing in general.

But John the Baptist’s appearance was very much like that of the prophet Elijah in 2 Kings 1, verse 8, where Elijah is described as ‘A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist’.

John presents himself almost as a stereotype of one of the old prophets that the Jews knew so well from the scriptures, so it’s no wonder that people flocked to him.

They wanted to be ready for the new kingdom of God and were excited that at last God seemed to be acting.

At last, an end to being looked down on by the countries around them, finally an end to Roman occupation, and a chance to be top dog for ever.

Some of them got a shock, though, those who thought they were automatically better than everyone else.

They didn’t think they needed to repent so much as be baptised to show off their piety.

They were seen for the hypocrites they were and denounced in strong terms, while those who came in humility and real repentance were welcomed.

But John himself wasn’t the new thing that God was doing.

He himself wasn’t the longed-for Messiah.

What John was doing was announcing the end of an old era and the start of the new.

He was preparing the way, making people ready, ensuring Jesus got off to a good start.

He’s fierce about it, but only because of the urgency of his message and his burning desire for people to be saved now that the Messiah is here.

This is why he’s the symbol of transition and the link between our Old and New Testaments.

He speaks, looks and acts like an Old Testament prophet but brings in the era of the New Testament, where the Messiah that the scriptures have been pointing to has finally come.

Still waiting

But, we might object, we don’t yet have all those promises of safety, peace, righteousness and justice.

And this is because we are still in a time of transition.

When Jesus came as that baby in a manger he came to start a process.

He started the process of bringing in the kingdom of God by being born as one of us, living with us and showing God’s power at work in him by healing the sick, raising the dead and showing compassion and mercy to the unloved and outcasts, before dying and rising again for us to win the final victory over sin, evil and death.

What Jesus didn’t come to do was judge the world and wrap everything up in the way that John was expecting.

I guess even great prophets don’t always understand everything.

This is probably why later, in Matthew Chapter 11, John the Baptist writes to Jesus from prison to ask if Jesus really is who John thinks he is.

John has got worried because things aren’t going as expected but Jesus reassures him by pointing to what he’s doing.

That final time of wrapping things up when there really will be safety, peace, righteousness and justice is still ahead of us

Right now we are part of the start of the kingdom of God coming on earth.

Right now we are all voices crying in the wilderness for people to come to God and receive his blessings.

We are charged to proclaim the good news that God has come to us.

Our work for God is to comfort, heal, help and bless, and to be light in the darkness for those who need it.

And we are invited not to try to do this in our own strength but to draw near to God, not only at Advent but all year round, to receive from him, learn from him, be changed by him and strengthened by him.

During this time of transition, when the kingdom of God is growing but not yet fully revealed, we are signs and buds of that glorious future which the Old Testament, John the Baptist and generations of Christians have looked forward to, when death will be no more, God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and there will be justice, righteousness, peace and mercy for all.

Why we need Advent

Preached at a service of Advent readings and hymns.


This morning I’d like to talk about why I think we need Advent.

By now it seems like everything is about Christmas Day.

The shops have been full of Christmas things for months, and the adverts for Christmas shopping are relentless – one DIY shop even got in on the act with an advert I heard on the radio for a special offer on white paint to freshen up your house for Christmas Day.

There have been Christmas parties, shows and concerts going on for at least a month.

And all the Christmas songs have been got out again – in fact I’ve been learning to play one on the clarinet and it’s constantly getting stuck in my head.

Now, I like Christmas, all the decorating and organising the turkey and writing cards, and I look forward to seeing what’s going to be on TV.

I’m a bit disappointed that there’s no Dr Who special this year, but you can’t have everything.

But there’s more to Advent than just getting everything done in time for Christmas.

Rather, Advent takes a stand against the rush to Christmas Day and calls out to us to remember the bigger picture.

And this bigger picture is all about hope in hopeless situations, seeing a light growing in the darkness, about things being put right, and about God and humanity being restored to their proper relationship.

This hope is seen all through the Bible.

It begins from the moment when humanity first fell into sin yet was not abandoned by God.

It’s seen in the covenants God made with those who believed in him, when he chose the people of Israel to be his light to the world, in his promises of salvation, and in the way God constantly forgives, rescues, heals and restores all those who turn to him.

We see in the Bible a story of God constantly calling, working and reaching out to bring rebellious, fallen people back to him, even when they turn away.

There are glimpses of this in this morning’s readings, in Psalm 130’s calling out to God for rescue and mercy, and its declaration of faith in God’s love, power and willingness to help.

We see it in the prophecies we’ve heard from Isaiah and Malachi about God coming with power, judgement and mercy to set this world right and heal all hurt and harm.

The idea of judgement is an underlying theme in Advent that can seem uncomfortable.

But I think we need to remember that the God who judges us is also the God who loves us.

And we need to remember that there can be no hope for poor, the oppressed or the victims of cruelty and injustice, without God’s perfect justice that understands everything, sees everything, and wipes away the tears of suffering, not out of a desire for revenge but to put everything right.

And, of course, we see God’s constant redeeming work most clearly in Jesus, whose birth we heard foretold in the reading from Luke.

This is what all those Old Testament stories and prophecies have been leading up to: the arrival of a baby in a manger.

And we can use Advent to remember this.

We can use Advent to remember that we celebrate that birth at Christmas as the longed-for fulfilment of humanity’s ancient hopes and wishes.

As the beginning of God being with us, walking with us, healing, teaching, showing us how to live.

And finally dying and rising again for us, all so that we can be with him forever

And if we don’t remember all that, then we lose the real wonder of Christmas.

For it’s in remembering the centuries of waiting for God, in looking once again at the story of salvation, by taking part in that waiting by walking again through the story of God’s dealings with humanity, that we’re reminded once again just how amazing that birth in a dirty stable in a village on the edge of the Roman Empire really was.

We see again hope where there was hopelessness, light in the darkness, reconciliation being offered between God and humanity.

But of course that birth is not the end of the story.

In Jesus’s life, birth, death and resurrection we have the beginning of the end, the stirring of God’s kingdom transforming the world, but we’re not there yet.

Advent also reminds us that we’re still waiting for the final end, the final full stop of salvation – when Jesus comes again to finally set things right forever, as we heard about in the reading from Revelation.

There are many dramatic and scary images about the end of the world, involving flames, wars, disasters and judgement.

But these things are not meant to scare us.

Rather they tell us that even when everything seems to be going wrong, when we face dark times in our own lives or are tempted to despair about the state of the world, there is still hope.

We may have to deal with all sorts of difficulties, dangers, turmoil and evil but they don’t get the last word.

For God is still in control, still working to change our world, still set on restoring and renewing everything, and still ultimately victorious over evil, sin and death.

It’s been a long time, at least by human standards, but Advent reminds us not to lose hope, not to give up on Jesus or to stop following in his footsteps, because he is coming and God hasn’t forgotten us.

So, I know it’s a busy time of year but I hope and pray that this Advent we might all find a few minutes each day to remember why it is that we’re rushing round shops and decorating the house and putting on Christmas services and events.

And I hope and pray that in those few minutes of peace and remembering we might all enter more deeply into the true wonder and hope of God’s salvation.

The Art of Advent

I am reading The Art of Advent: A Painting a Day from Advent to Epiphany by Jane Williams.

As you might guess, it gives a painting for each day with a reflection and a short prayer.

Today’s picture was the above – The Light of the World by William Holman Hunt.

It’s a very familiar picture but I had never noticed what Williams points out – that there are 3 sources of light within it.

There’s the dawn light struggling through the dark trees – which makes me think of hope, far off perhaps, but still fighting through the gloom.

Then there’s the lantern that Jesus carries – a friendly light to my mind, calling us in.

And finally there’s a light coming from Jesus himself, shining round his head – this I see as the light of holiness, reminding us that this stranger knocking on our door is God himself, humbly asking for our attention in a strange and wonderful turn of events.

And the prayer that Williams gives us at the end:

Lord of gentle might, may we hear the patient knocking of your Son, Jesus Christ, this Advent, and open all our doors to the flood of your mercy, poured out for us in the power of the Spirit. Amen.