Spoken in the Margins

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | December 8, 2019

Matthew 3:1-12

One Saturday Lindsay and I were walking up Buchannan Street in Glasgow. Buchannan is a main shopping street and it was filled with people.

There was a fellow standing on the corner shouting to passers by at the top of voice. He had a bible in one hand and his other was clenched in a fist as he warned people they should repent or they were going to hell.

Lindsay, being somewhat of a troublemaker stopped and handed the man her business card. It had a little rainbow insignia on it.

As she walked away smiling he shouted after her, “You’re going to hell Missus! Oh you’re going to hell!”

She turned and with big smile said back to him, “Thank you!”

While a sense of certainty about these things might appear to be a good thing, I tend to suspect certainty. I see certainty not as the goal of my spiritual quest, but as a stopping point. The questions keep me going; the questions keep me wondering.

God – the story of unbounded love – the promises – it’s all a wonder, a mystery. I can only share it – not so that you may grasp it so much as touch upon it – and maybe experience it with a sense of awe and wonder at the mystery of it – such that you are inspired to go forth and to keep moving forward on your own faith journey.

Always leaning toward the promise while standing in the reality of the world in which we live. John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness and he told people what to do. “Repent,” he said, “for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

Like many things in life, sometimes the saying is easier than the doing.

John the Baptist came along and told people what to do. “Repent!” he said. “Turn away from your sins because the kingdom of heaven is near.” John was a unique figure. John had a unique message and a unique method. If we look at his method we can see that he was not some wild eyed fanatic; rather he was an interesting figure.

In terms of his method, he didn’t barge into the Temple and start shouting. He didn’t come to town and set up a revival tent. He preached in the wilderness. He set up his ministry at the farthest reaches of society, in the margins and started from there.

He lived rough, even for his day. His suit was an animal skin and his diet was mostly bugs. Nobody could sack him because God was his boss. John the Baptist had a certain sense of integrity. He had nothing to gain and nothing to lose, other than his life.

He didn’t owe anybody anything, he wasn’t beholden to anyone, so he could say anything he wanted. John did not play favourites. It didn’t matter to him if someone were rich or poor, strong or weak, holy or unholy. His message was the same for everybody: repent. Turn away from your sins and face God.

If he were nothing more than a freak show, the novelty would have quickly faded. But John the Baptist was the genuine article. His message was simple. He might have had an understanding of complex theologies, but his message was the essence of simplicity.

He said the kingdom of heaven is near. People knew he wasn’t talking about a new political system. They understood he meant a way of life, the rule of life in God’s realm; life as God intended it to be. It’s coming near he said. The way it is now will soon be the old ways. The ax is poised at the root of the tree. The fire is burning the chaff. He told people that things were going to change.

That’s a powerful message in times when change is what people cry out for. Even though it speaks of spiritual realities – its application would have political and social impact.

Even the Pharisees came out to hear him preach. Out of curiosity perhaps; perhaps to check out the competition. John called them snakes. He told them just because they had position and authority didn’t mean they were exempt. They too should turn around face God.

Some folks who came to hear him said, “That’s all well and good, brother, but we’re God’s chosen people. We don’t need to repent because we’re already there.” To them he said, “Big deal. So Abraham is your ancestor. If God wanted children of Abraham he could make them out of these rocks!”

Of course people wondered if John was setting up his own movement. Maybe he would proclaim himself the latest guru of truth and justice. But he surprised people even more when he rejected that notion. He said, “This message is not about me. I’m not the guy you’re looking for. I’m just the messenger. Someone is coming who is greater than I am. I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. I baptize with water, but he will baptize with fire.”

Talk of the kingdom of heaven and the one who was coming clearly meant John was talking about the Messiah. The One. It was big talk for a guy who dressed in camel skins and ate bugs. What authority did he have? What gave him the right to tell anyone anything? John’s authority came from God. There aren’t many people in this world that can rightfully make that claim. Some do, but God is the one who raises up the true prophets. Their message comes from God and it’s usually a fairly simple one, such as “repent.”

We could say that John had a fairly successful ministry as long as his message remained non- specific. Repent, or turn to God, is a fairly harmless thing to say because if folks are of a mind to ignore the message, it allows them to think that he’s talking about someone else. If the Holy Spirit happens to move in someone’s heart and soul, then when the prophet says, “repent,” all sorts of particulars can come to mind. Like Jesus said to the Pharisee Nicodemus, you never know where the Spirit will move.

Later on John the Baptist started naming names and describing specific sins from which people must turn away from. Once he named names and specific sins, his ministry came to an end. In John’s case one of those people happened to be the king, who didn’t appreciate being told what to do, and was only too happy to dispose of the nuisance by cutting off his head. John’s death was not an uncommon one for a prophet. A lot of them ended in a similar fashion.

Truth that is spoken from the margins of society can have a powerful impact on people’s lives. When the message comes from the top down, the people on the bottom tend to view it and experience it as one more burden in a life already heavy laden. When the message comes from the top down, it also tends to be perceived as for the benefit for those in power, to make their running the lives of the rest of the people an easier proposition. And so such truth is often rejected and resisted.

But truth that rises up from the margins of society tends to possess power because it possesses an authenticity and integrity otherwise not seen. Such truth seeks not to run people’s lives, but to transform people’s lives. The change comes from within.

What this story of the prophet in the wilderness tells us is that truth that is spoken in the margins of society will often find its way to the seats of power. The powers that be can look down on the masses from a safe distance and remain untouched by the issues that govern their lives. The powers that be can stand up and shout at each other from their opposing sides of the chamber. No one really goes away angry. They might hate each other’s guts, but that’s politics.

But let truth from the margins of society come knocking on the door, and that is a threat to be reckoned with. Because when the grassroots begin to change, the ground upon which political power is built begins to shift. When truth begins to grow up from the grassroots of society, the assumptions upon which the status quo rests, no longer seem valid.

So it was that King Herod felt the power of John’s message. The people were restless because of it. The Romans were nervous because the people were restless. The king tried to silence John the Baptist by chopping off his head. But once the message has been spoken, the seed is planted. They can kill the prophet, but they can’t kill the truth.

“Repent,” he said.

Just turn around, turn from anything and everything that is anything other than loyalty to God. Turn around and receive life as God intends it.

It’s a story that reminds of how when God came into the world as one of us, that he really was one of us. He wasn’t some royal highness who decided to live rough for a gap year. He was born and bred one of us. The guy who told of his coming was not the chief priest of the Temple, but the least likely, skin wearing, bug eating wilderness prophet. And the One who came after him. He was least likely still. A carpenter from Nazareth – substitute Wahkon or any of the other least likely locations in the world, and you begin to see the awesome power of God’s message to this world.

The Spirit of God is moving. Here today in this place. Out there in the world where you live and breathe.

How – where – who – what – when?

Those are the open questions we ask – to guide us on the journey.


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