A Voice Crying in the Wilderness
Prof. Morna Hooker
(Amos 5; Luke 3:1-18)
‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’
John the Baptist’s opening words were clearly a pretty effective way to catch people’s attention, but were hardly designed to win friends. Try them out in the Market square some time, and you will find that you are unlikely to attract a crowd. Shoppers and tourists alike will certainly notice you, but they will quickly conclude that you are a nutter, and that they don’t wish to hear more.
Now there are two strange things about Luke’s account of John the Baptist’s preaching. The first is that it had an effect. Far from ignoring him, the crowds came to listen to him – and they took him seriously! ‘What are we to do?’ they asked him. Clearly he had them worried. And the second strange thing in the story is the sentence with which Luke rounds it off. ‘In this and many other ways he made his appeal to the people and announced the good news’. ‘Good news’? John has just told his audience that they are in danger of being thrown into the fire and being consumed, and Luke calls this ‘good news’?
So what was going on? Luke’s scene evokes stories from the OT of prophets delivering similar messages of judgement and doom. ‘Thus says the Lord’, they thundered, and almost invariably what followed was a condemnation of somebody for their behaviour. Just occasionally they brought a bid of good news – God would forgive them and pour out his blessing on them. Now John is talking just like one of the prophets, and he is behaving like them too, performing strange actions – in his case, dunking everyone who comes to hear him in the River Jordan. In Mark’s account, John even looks like a prophet, dressed as he is in animal skins. So – here was a prophet, with an uncomfortable message. How should one react? In the past, of course, prophets had often been ignored, even mocked; but events had invariably proved that they were right. It would be wise, then, to take note of what John was saying.
What, then, was John’s message? God’s salvation was at hand! He was going to put everything right. Clearly that was a good thing for anyone who was suffering injustice But putting things right inevitably meant judgement for those who were opposing his will, or simply failing to live up to what was expected of them. Hence John demanded repentance. In Greek, that word means literally a ‘change of mind’, and so a ‘turning around’. If you were going astray, you needed to turn right round and go in the opposite direction. If you set off from College to go to the Sidgwick site and turn left instead of right, you will soon need to repent if you wish to get to your destination. In John’s view, the nation had gone astray.
Long before, on Sinai, God had called Israel to be his people; they were to be holy as he was holy: in other words, they were to be like him. If they trusted and obeyed him, then he would bless them. But it was no good being a nominal Jew; one needed to behave in the way that God demanded of his people. Trees that bore no fruit might as well be cut down and burned. And John appeared to have no doubt that his hearers were for the chop if they didn’t reform.
So what was God like? And what did he require of his people? That had been summed up on Sinai long before in the ten commandments. Remarkably, after those which demanded that one should worship God alone, and follow his example by resting every seventh day, the rest of the commandments were about how one treated other people. One must honour one’s parents, refrain from murder, adultery, stealing, false witness and even from coveting. There were other commands, of course – 613 altogether, so it was said. Being ‘holy’ was apparently a complicated process! But which of these commandments was the most important? That was the question put to Jesus many years later, and his answer was that the first of the commandments was to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength; and the second, he said, was like it: it was to love one’s neighbour as oneself. We may well think that this was cheating: Jesus has been asked for one commandment, and he has sneaked in a second. But the point is surely that the two go together and cannot be separated. You cannot truly love God without also loving your fellow men and women. Israel had been called to be like God, and he was a loving and a just God.
Loving God and loving others clearly belong together – but sadly many people just don’t grasp that idea, which is why the OT prophets were for ever weighing in against their fellow-countrymen and demanding social justice. We heard one of them in our OT reading:
‘You levy taxes on the poor
and extort a tribute of grain from them…
You bully the innocent…
and in court push the destitute out of the way.’
Yet the very people whom Amos addressed prided themselves on their devotion to God! Being ‘religious’ just wasn’t enough, declared the prophet, for God takes no pleasure in their sacred ceremonies, and refuses to accept their offerings. ‘I spurn your offerings,’ cries God. ‘Spare me the sound of your songs’ – hard luck, Choir! – ‘I shall not listen to the strumming of your lutes. But let justice flow down like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing torrent.’
Before the choir departs in high dudgeon, we must remind ourselves that Amos’ point was not that beautiful worship in itself was wrong, but that empty worship was meaningless. Without justice, claims to love God were vain. To use John’s metaphor, trees that bore no fruit might as well be cut down. What God did demand was that the people should ‘Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the courts’.
Politicians frequently come out with sayings which are remembered – or misremembered – for years after the politicians themselves have ceased to have any influence. One such saying was Margaret Thatcher’s ‘There’s no such thing as society’; and then there was Alastair Campbell’s famous intervention at one of Tony Blair’s news conferences: ‘We don’t do God’, he said. Perhaps not, but those who claim to believe in God can never say ‘We don’t do politics’, because faith in God is bound up with social justice. The God of the Bible is that sort of a God.
Again and again the psalmists had declared that God is a righteous God. Again and again the prophets had denounced injustice. So when the crowds came to John and asked ‘What shall we do?’ they should have known the answer.
He didn’t urge them to remember to say their prayers or to offer the correct sacrifices; he didn’t even rebuke them for being lazy or self-indulgent. John makes no mention of these things. Rather, he told them to remember the needs of their neighbours. And his demands, like those of the prophets before him, were radical in the extreme. Sitting on the side-lines, as we tend to do, we listen to his teaching, and from time to time we probably find ourselves saying ‘Hear, hear!’ Tax-collectors were even more unpopular in John’s day than in our own, but for far more reason, for they were known to demand more than was proper, and to pocket the difference. ‘Collect no more than the proper assessment’ John tells them. No one should ask for more than was their due. And quite right too, we say – though these days our anger is more likely to be directed towards bankers. What, we wonder, would John have said today about those colossal bonuses? We can imagine him standing on the steps of St Paul’s, putting the boot in and saying just what he thought about those with enormous salaries who claimed to be entitled to even more.
John obviously shook his hearers. Even some soldiers – not normally known to ask for orders from prophets – enquired as to what they should be doing. ‘No bullying!’ he commands them; it would seem that army life hasn’t changed much in the past two thousand years! ‘No blackmail; make do with your pay’. If John would be unpopular with bankers today, he would have been equally out of favour with the Trade Unions.
But some of John’s teaching is a little closer to home. ‘Whoever has two shirts must share with him who has none’. I think uneasily of my wardrobe, stuffed so full of clothes that it is difficult to squeeze in anything more, and remember how I was much too busy to fill the Salvation Army bag that came the other week. Should I not be doing more? ‘Whoever has food must share with him who has none’. Should I really be enjoying a delicious meal in Hall, when millions go hungry? Every day I open the Hunger Site on my computer, and find it urging me to ‘Help End Hunger’, so I dutifully click in the correct box. But however often I click it I find that it makes no difference to the fact that someone dies of hunger somewhere in the world every couple of seconds. I must surely do more than this, and yet however much I give seems to be little more than a futile click in the face of this gigantic problem. The Bill Gates of this world may be able to do something that makes a difference, but what of the rest of us?
The apparent futility of all we do can easily lead us to despair. Was John simply ‘a voice, crying in the wilderness’ – in vain? But his message was not designed to make men and women despair; rather, it was intended to call on them to repent – to turn around, and adopt a new way of life. His message is described by Luke as ‘good news’. He announces judgement, sure, but he also announces the coming of the Messiah, who brings renewal – and no sooner does he do so than Jesus appears, endorsing John’s preaching, proclaiming God’s rule on earth, and demonstrating in his teaching, his actions, his death and resurrection, precisely what love of neighbour means.
Injustice still flourishes, yes; the innocent are still bullied, yes; the rich still exploit the poor, and hunger is not yet abolished. Men and women seem as oblivious of the prophets’ teaching as they ever were. But wherever they truly acknowledge the God of justice, they will do what they can, in whatever way is possible, to fight injustice and help those in need. And if we claim allegiance to this God, we can do nothing less.