Sermon given at Matins on Epiphany 2013

6 January 2013 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence

On 15th March 2011, a capital city in the Middle East witnessed a small demonstration of 40 or 50 people which otherwise went largely unreported. The eyes of the world were fixed to the south and south west of this capital city, transfixed as we all were by what was unfolding before us.

Two years ago the Arab Spring was just coming into bud, so to speak, recalling distant memories of the 1848 European Springtime of the Peoples, the liberal revolution which swept through Europe disregarding borders and, like its modern counterpart, with little central control.

And while we were watching Tahrir Square in Cairo or the emerging military conflict in Libya, just 40 or 50 people chose to demonstrate in Damascus, outside the Umayyad Mosque. Now widely recognised as the opening act of the Syrian Civil War which has engulfed the nation, the demonstration was quickly suppressed, the protestors arrested but the fires of rebellion merely dampened.

However, the choice of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus as a place of demonstration was by no means random and particularly significant for us here today. Regarded by many Shi’a Muslims as the fourth most holy place in Islam – after Mecca, Medina, and Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem – it also has the distinction of being a place of both Christian and Muslim pilgrimage because it contains the shrine of the head of St John the Baptist. And in this first sermon in a series about St John the Baptist, the Forerunner, I want to focus on his testimony and call to repentance.

But let’s begin at the very beginning and ask why it is that at this Feast of the Epiphany we have a reading about St John the Baptist. When we are geared up to welcome the Magi, those wise men from the East, bearing their gifts – why the sudden switch to the Baptist?

The answer lies in one of those fault-lines of Christianity, the division between Eastern and Western Christendom, between Byzantium and Rome, which is often referred to as the Great Schism of 1054. While we in the West – both Roman Catholic and Protestant – have associated Epiphany with the revelation of Christ to the Magi, Eastern Christians of the Orthodox and Oriental Churches have centred on the Theophany – the revelation of God as Messiah, the anointed one, in the act of Baptism.

While we in the West greet the Kings, our brothers and sisters in the East are blessing river and lakes, water of any kind to recall the Baptism of Jesus by St John. Switch on to any Russian news channel and it will be full of images of people breaking the ice to take an Epiphany-dip in order to receive a special blessing for the year ahead. In Romania, any young woman who happens to fall into such a river today is destined by tradition to be married before the year’s end. So, avoid the Thames today if you want to remain single!

But ever being an inclusive Church, the Anglican Communion now celebrates both festivals, with the Baptism of Jesus held off until next week, when I will be speaking about the primacy of Jesus. So today we get a foretaste of the Forerunner.

St John’s gospel gives great prominence to St John the Baptist – he appears in the sixth verse of the Gospel – and Mark simply has him ‘appearing in the wilderness’, but it is to St Matthew and St Luke that we have to look for the background which brings him to the bank of the River Jordan.

St Matthew chapter 3 paints the scene most vividly: a wild, Elijah-like character – one who wears clothes of camel-hair with a leather belt around his waist; a prophet who lives on locusts and wild honey; who takes on the mantel of Isaiah saying, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”’.

The uncompromising message is one of remorse, penitence, shame, contrition: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’. Note how strong the language is: μετανοειτε – literally, change your mind. Not just ‘say you’re sorry’ or ‘fess up’ but a closer translation would be ‘convert’. Nor does the timescale give much room for manoeuvre. This is not future tense – ‘get yourselves ready for a storm that is coming sometime in the future’. It’s more direct, more powerful, more challenging: the kingdom of heaven has already drawn near.

It was this purity of purpose, clarity of message, uncompromising condemnation which drew the crowds in their masses to the River Jordan. And their response was to receive baptism as an outward sign of an inner grace, what the Christian church has come to call a sacrament.

That same purity, clarity, and conviction was ultimately to lead St John the Baptist into direct conflict with the political leaders of the day. As St Mark chapter 6 puts it: St John the Baptist’s moral scruples could not let the marriage of Herod to his brother’s wife go unchallenged. The beautiful dancing of young Salome gave Herod the opportunity for the Baptist’s execution so gruesomely portrayed in countless mediaeval paintings.

But while he became the role model for the desert fathers, St John was no ascetic idealist or disengaged pietist escaping to the desert. His testimony was one of utter conviction, complete commitment and, ultimately, one of sacrifice.

That adamant purity is one of the reasons why Islam gave St John the Baptist such a place of honour, where the Qur’an pictures him being handed the book of wisdom while yet a child: as an acknowledged prophet, his purity and piety are held great esteem.

Hence the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, one of the great mosques of the Islamic world, giving space for his shrine as a place of pilgrimage for Christian and Muslim alike. Nearly a decade before the Pope’s visit here to Westminster Abbey to pray at the Shrine of St Edward the Confessor, his predecessor Pope John Paul II had made history as the first Bishop of Rome to set foot in a mosque, praying at the Shrine of St John the Baptist, for peace between Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

And that’s the point for us Christians in the West. We crave the moral certainty that empowered St John the Baptist to preach repentance. We long wistfully for the purity of life that authenticates the challenge he makes. We are even jealous of the conviction which led him to denounce the leaders of his day.

But before we become dewy-eyed, there is no such thing as ‘cheap grace’, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer so starkly put it. The grace of God can never be bought or sold, bargained or bartered.

The grace of God is freely given, freely available, and yet costs us our all: whether we are St John the Baptist, or protestors against an oppressive regime, or supremely exemplified in the sacrifice of Jesus. ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sine of the world’.

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