Sermons from St Faith's
Fr Dennis Smith, 14th
It’s an old tradition in the season of Advent,
when we get ready to celebrate the birth of our
Lord, to remember the one who prepared the ground
for the ministry of Jesus; John the Baptist.
It’s thought by many scholars that the
writer of John’s Gospel, named after one of the
twelve disciples, begins by adapting an early
Christian hymn as a prologue to the story he was
about to tell.
He then follows this by introducing us to John the
All the Gospels mention him but John takes a
different line to the other three. For one
thing he spreads it over three days. It seems to
be a device to make three important points about
John. If he could begin the whole Gospel by
adapting a hymn, then perhaps he used a sermon as
a source for telling the story of this witness to
The great American songwriter, Johnny Mercer, once
heard a theme used by a popular preacher of the
1930’s and turned it into a song. Strangely
his opening three lines match the three points
made in this account of the Baptist.
In the best known version of the song, Bing Crosby
“You’ve got to accentuate the positive,
eliminate the negative,
latch on to the affirmative...”
While the order is different, those are precisely
the three points made in introducing John the
Baptist. First, the Baptist eliminates the
negative by making it clear who he is not. Second,
he accentuates the positive, saying who Jesus is.
And third, he urges his own followers to “latch on
to the affirmative” and follow Jesus.
The Jews at this time were under the rule of the
Romans and they longed to be a free people again.
They hoped for the coming of the Messiah, God’s
chosen and anointed one; their liberator. But
alongside this expectation was the belief that the
prophet Elijah would return.
After all, according to their scriptures he hadn’t
died but had been whisked up to heaven in a
chariot. They believed that he would come again to
prepare the way for the Messiah.
We need have no doubt that John the Baptist was a
real person. He figured in all four gospels and,
crucially, the Jewish historian, Josephus, also
wrote about him.
He was in the tradition of the prophets. A strange
figure, roughly dressed, living a simple life in
the desert scrubland by the River Jordan.
But his preaching, about the need for repentance
from sin, drew large crowds and he was ready to
baptise them in the flowing waters of the river.
This inspiring man so moved people that word
spread that he was Elijah who had returned. This
belief was reported by Matthew and Mark. They
reflected a view in the Church that to persuade
Jews that Jesus was the Messiah, meant that they
should also claim that John the Baptist was a
But the writer of John’s Gospel didn’t accept this
and so first he eliminated the negative. He
described a deputation of Priests asking the
Baptist who he was and John replied with a
negative; “I am not the Messiah”. So the
questioners went down a notch; “Are you Elijah?”
He replied again, “I am not”. They lower the bar
again; “Are you the prophet?” “No”.
But then the writer accentuated the positive.
“Among you … stands the one who is to come after
me. I am not worthy to unfasten the strap of his
Then, seeing Jesus, he cried out; “There is the
Lamb of God … who takes away the sin of the world
… . This is God’s chosen One”. And
then he encouraged two of his own disciples to
latch on to the affirmative, to follow Jesus. John
the Baptist was, in the experience of the writer
of John’s Gospel, the first witness to Jesus, the
Chosen One of God.
But who is John the Baptist for us? It’s probable
that this interpretation in the Fourth Gospel is
likely to appeal to us more than that of the other
Gospels. After all, the idea of Elijah returning
doesn’t seem a very convincing argument in favour
of following Jesus. We’re quite satisfied that the
Baptist says that Jesus is greater than himself;
that Jesus is “the man of whom … the Spirit comes
down … . God’s Chosen One.”
Because of his witness, John the Baptist in many
parts of the Church has been counted amongst the
saints. For others in the Church, he has been
honoured everywhere as the first witness to
Indeed this was in the Gospel writer’s mind; that
the Baptist should witness not just in his own
time and to his own people but to all who came
after him. He wrote that “a man named John was
sent from God and came as a witness … so that all
might become believers”. All… everyone… so that we
might become believers.
But if he was the forerunner, the one making
straight the way of the lord, there will have been
others since who’ve witnessed to Jesus as God’s
Chosen One. But who are these watchers waiting,
ready for the coming of the Lord into the lives of
all? As Isaac Watts hymned:
“How beauteous are the feet
who stand on Zion’s hill,
who bring salvation on their tongues
and words of peace reveal”.
Perhaps for us it was one of both of our parents,
or someone else in the family, or a priest, a
teacher, or in my case, a friend living next door,
who took us to church.
Many will have been influenced, pushed by some
great hero of the faith, even if the final pull
was by some ordinary faithful Christian. Each of
us must thank God for the person who was their own
John the Baptist. The one who, by their words, or
more likely, by their deeds, by the kind of life
they lived, has moved us to answer Jesus’ call to
follow him in a life of generous love.
This way of life was spelt out in our reading from
Paul’s First Letter to the church in Thessalonica.
To live in this way is how we should ourselves be
John the Baptist for others. It assumes that we
are part of a congregation, our starting point is
to live at peace with each other.
We are to “admonish those who are undisciplined,
encourage the apprehensive, support the weak and
be patient with everyone. Make sure that people
don’t try to repay evil for evil; always aim for
what is best for each other and for everyone.
Always be joyful; pray constantly, and for all
things give thanks.”
We are to live a life of generous love. That’s the
way to be a John the Baptist, a witness and an
encourager to others to answer Jesus’ call to
Remember the words said to have been spoken by
Francis of Assisi: “Speak the Gospel at all times;
only use words when necessary.”
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