I really, really would like to be more like Jesus! The trouble is that I am perceived in the eyes of many to actually be more like John the Baptist? It is not so much to do with my appearance or diet – I am actually quite a ‘snappy dresser’ (no camel hair for me) and give me a ‘Full English Breakfast’ any day (rather than locusts and honey) – but rather it is to do with what I call ‘the marmite factor’. Let me try and explain.
‘You are just like marmite, you are … people either love you or hate you!’ The person who said this to me was a young man who recently had started to attend the church where I was the Senior Pastor. He was in a relationship with one of our girls in the church, and she had dragged him along to worship with her. He appeared to be enjoying being part of our church family although it was clear that some of our church members didn’t really approve of him. He has not made any personal commitment of his life to Christ as far as anyone could tell (and therefore he shouldn’t really be getting ‘so involved’ in church life). He was ‘going out’ with a girl who was a professing Christian (and was therefore bound to ‘lead her astray’). He had ‘tattoos’ (a sure sign that he was living a ‘retrograde life’). And he was into ‘martial arts’ (obviously he was possessed of a ‘violent nature’). Actually, I really liked him … and was glad that he wanted to be part of us! Perhaps he too suffered from the ‘marmite factor’? It takes one to recognise one, they say.
He was, of course, obviously very discerning! I am ‘just like marmite’. People do either ‘love me or hate me’ even though I am actually the most inoffensive of people. It has always been the case. Somehow I cannot avoid being ‘the elephant in the room’. I can sit in a corner, and say nothing at all, and still people will ‘react’? I suppose being 6′ 4″ tall, and weighing around 16 stone, it is probably hard to ‘sit quietly in a corner’ somewhere … but even so the way people re-act to me is decidedly odd. By nature I am actually a quiet, shy person (despite my size) and really, really don’t want to be the centre of attention. Nevertheless this is just the way it is. It has especially been the case since my ‘conversion’ at the age of 16, and especially so after my ordination into the Baptist Ministry when I was 25. Somehow or other, I seem to have the ability, for better or for worse, to force people to ‘get off the wall’. In many ways I have got used to it now. I have come to see that it always happens, whether I like it or not, and to some degree have learned to live with it. When I was first ordained into the Baptist Ministry, Barney Coombes prophesied over me: ‘Thus says the Lord: If you are faithful, and preach and teach that word which I will give you … you will lose people! But for everyone you lose, I will give you two others!’
That prophecy has been fulfilled time and again over the 40 plus years I have been in the Ministry. In that time I have pastored a number of churches – most of them were either small struggling causes or dying churches, when I was called there. By the grace of God every single church has grown numerically and spiritually during my time there … but not without cost. In every situation people have left, often citing me as the reason for them leaving, but for everyone that has left two more have come, so that the overall effect has been that those churches have grown considerably. It is always sad when somebody leaves a church – especially if they blame me for them leaving. In many of these cases the reason for them leaving has not really been because of me. What has actually happened is that often times, through me, God has put his finger on something that they needed to deal with … and they have not been prepared to do this? The reward, however, has been the number of people who have responded to my ministry – more than double those who have left – and whose lives has been turned around as a result. I guess that it just the ‘marmite factor’ at work once again.
Speaking of the ‘marmite factor’ leads us to the traditional theme for the Second Sunday in Advent. Traditionally the theme for the Second Sunday in Advent is ‘The God Who Speaks’. Some churches dedicate this Sunday as ‘Bible Sunday’ and use it to speak about the importance of the Bible and the way God speaks to us through Scripture. More generally it is used the draw our attention to the message of the Prophets of old and how they foretold the birth of Christ. In particular the emphasis is on what we might call ‘the prophetic voice’ – that voice that speaks God’s word to us with unmistakable power and authority. The Lectionary Reading from the Gospel this year particularly draws our attention to the life and ministry of John the Baptist – someone who has been described as ‘the last of the Old Testament Prophets’. One of the significant things about following the Christian Year, and making use of the Lectionary Readings, is that it forces us to consider Biblical passages, and people, and stories that otherwise would often be neglected. Thus during Advent Season we find ourselves thinking about the Second Coming of Christ (as we do on the first Sunday in Advent), or John the Baptist, or Elizabeth and Zechariah, or Mary the Mother of Jesus, and so on. In many so called ‘Bible Believing’ churches these Bible passages, people and stories are often sadly ignored … and we are the worse for it.
John the Baptist is a very important figure in the Story of Jesus. He too suffered from the ‘marmite factor’ even though Marmite hadn’t even been invented at that time (as far as we know)? The Lectionary Reading for the Second Sunday in Advent this year introduces us to this amazing prophetic figure who paves the way for the Jesus: ‘This is the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. It began just as the prophet Isaiah had written: Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, and he will prepare your way. He is a voice shouting in the wilderness: Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming! Clear the road for him! This messenger was John the Baptist. He was in the wilderness and preached that people should be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven. All of Judea, including all the people of Jerusalem, went out to see and hear John. And when they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. His clothes were woven from coarse camel hair, and he wore a leather belt around his waist. For food he ate locusts and wild honey. John announced: Someone is coming soon who is greater than I am – so much greater that I’m not even worthy to stoop down like a slave and untie the straps of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit! (Mark 1:1-8 NLT).
It is clear that John the Baptist’s ministry was very effective! People flocked to hear him and submit to his baptism. So what was it about John that made such an impact on the people around him?
John the Baptist was someone who lived his message! Not only by his words, but also through his whole life, John was a protest against the contemporary life style of his day. We see this in a number of ways. To begin with we see that his was ‘a voice from the margins’. He was a man who spoke from experience of the desert, the wilderness. Clearly he was someone who had given himself the chance to hear the voice of God … and it was from this intimacy with God that he spoke powerfully and called others back to God. His appearance, dressed as he was in ‘clothes woven from coarse camel hair, and with a leather belt around his waist’ (v.6), reminded others, not of the fashionable orators of the day, but of the ancient Prophets who lived simply and spoke powerfully about what God requires of us all. Even the simple fare he ate – ‘the food of the poorest of the poor’ one commentator suggests as the correct understanding of ‘locusts and wild honey’ (v.6) – demonstrated that here was someone who ‘walked the walk’ as well as ‘talked the talk’. Here was no ‘health and wealth’ preacher, but someone who in many ways ‘was the message’, and because of this people listened to him.
John the Baptist’s message was effective because he told people what, in their heart of hearts, they already knew to be true! He spoke words that resonated with what in the depths of their souls his hearers were waiting for. When John came with a message of ‘repentance’ and ‘forgiveness’ (v.6) he was speaking God’s ‘now word’ to the people. Here was a word that was ‘bang up to date’. Here was a message that didn’t condemn people out of hand, nor simply repeat the crippling ‘legalism’ of the Scribes and the Pharisees, nor even attempt to impress people with the ‘intellectual niceties’ or ‘pseudo-cleverness’ of so many of the ‘orators’ of the day. Here was a message that challenged people on one hand – they needed to ‘repent’ or ‘turn back to God’. But it was also a message of hope – if they turned back to God (and demonstrated that they really meant business with God by being baptised) they would experience the ‘forgiveness of their sins’! And because John spoke God’s ‘now word’ right into the hearts of the people, the people recognised that John had indeed come from the very presence of God, and to hear him was to know it.
John the Baptist’s message was effective because he was completely self-effacing! John’s own verdict on himself was that, in and of himself, he was not even fit for the duty of a slave. At the heart of his message was Jesus, not John himself. Speaking of Jesus, John tells us that ‘ Someone is coming soon who is greater than I am – so much greater that I’m not even worthy to stoop down like a slave and untie the straps of his sandals’ (v.7). The Palestinian roads at that time were very dusty in the sun, and wet and muddy in the rain. It was the duty of a slave to remove the sandals of the Master of the house, or any guests who might visit. John saw himself, in comparison to Jesus Christ, as not even worthy of being his slave? As the Apostle John records, speaking of Jesus, John the Baptist declared: ‘He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less’ (John 3:30). John the Baptist asked nothing for himself but everything for the Christ he proclaimed. As William Barclay suggests: ‘[John’s] obvious self-forgottenness, his obvious yieldedness, his complete self-effacement, his utter lostness in his message, compelled people to listen to him.
John the Baptist’s message was effective because he pointed to something and someone beyond himself! John baptised people by fully immersing them in the waters of the River Jordan as a sign that they had genuinely repented and turned back to God. But in almost the same breath he told his hearers that although he drenched people in water, one was coming after him who would drench them in the Holy Spirit (v.8). Whilst water can cleanse the body, only God the Holy Spirit can really cleanse our hearts and lives and give us the power to live for God. And it was only Jesus who could ‘baptise us with the Holy Spirit’ (v.8). John’s primary aim was not to occupy centre stage, but to point others to Jesus and enable them to connect with him. People listened to John because he didn’t draw attention to himself, but pointed away from himself to Jesus – the one who people really needed!
So, as I said at the beginning of this blog, I really, really would like to be more like Jesus! Sadly, I seem to have the ‘marmite factor’ instead, and today I am, in many ways, reduced to being ‘a voice from the margins’? But, on the other hand, if I can’t be like Jesus (however hard I try), I suppose that being a little bit like John the Baptist is not a bad second choice? Maybe, after all these years, I am at long last learning to be who I am? At the very least I have always tried to speak the Word of God with power and authority, and point others to Jesus at the same time … after all, he is so much better at changing people than I am anyway!