Summary: n the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesth
Some of you may remember the answer to the question: ’What is green, has four legs, and if it falls on you from a tree and hits you it will kill you?’
The answer, of course, is a billiard table, though some of you may have been wondering whether the answer was ’Christmas’’, which is also green and, though it lacks four legs, is falling on us at the moment, and some of us may well be fearing what condition we will be left in once it has hit us!
Yes, there is no mistaking that day of cards and carols and Christmas condiments is fast encroaching, and maybe you’ve been aware of that for some time, though I suspect that for each of us there are different triggers that awaken us to the dawn of the ’silly season’.
For many of us it will be the first appearance of tinsel in the department stores, which I’ve noticed in some cases takes place now in late October!
For some it will be the appearance of Frosty the Snowman, and other such completely out-of-place characters in an Australian summer.
Perhaps it’s the arrival of your first card, which for us always comes from Carmen and Charlie Grima (parents of the great kickboxing champion, Paul ’Pitbull’ Grima), which this year arrived on the first of December!
For me though the dawn of the Christmas season is always marked by the arrival of that very distinctive Yuletide figure, John the Baptist, who comes striding on to the Christmas stage at this time each year, courtesy of our schedule of Bible readings. And he’s hardly a compatible figure when seen alongside the other characters that appear in Christmas pageants and department-store windows at this time
* John wears no plush red suit, but is dressed in a loin-cloth
* He is not white and wholly and fat, but gaunt and hairy, with the distinctive smell of locust on his breath.
* And John is NOT JOLLY!
Hence, while the church prepares for the coming of Jesus by introducing us to John, this is not something the rest of the community has picked up on.
* We do not find him included in any of the nativity scenes
* No Christmas carols echo his message of repentance
* No figures of the Baptist adorn our trees and
* He is not featured in any Christmas card
Now, as many of you know, I have tried to remedy that situation in years past by producing my own ’John the Baptist Christmas Greeting Card’, but I have determined NOT to publicly distribute these in church this year.
For those who have never seen the card I will give you a very brief glimpse. The picture of the Baptist is on the front, along with the heading: ’Christmas Greetings in the words of John the Baptist’ and on the inside we have John’s own distinctive message: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come. Bear fruits that befit repentance! Even now the axe is laid to the root of the tree, and every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Merry Christmas"
Now, as I say, I’m not distributing these broadly this year, partly because, over the years, these cards, I feel, have been misunderstood (I sent one to the Bishop once. He never spoke to me the same way again way after that). Moreover though, I’m planning on focusing more specifically on the message of John next week. Today I want to focus more exclusively on the way in which John just doesn’t fit in with the other Yuletide figures with whom the Christmas stage is normally bedecked.
John is not the guy we expect to meet at Christmas. He is not the one we were looking for. Dare I say, he is not a character we wanted to meet at all! He is hairy and abrasive and is more likely to scare the children than to import Christmas cheer into the household. And that’s sort of appropriate, I think, for when I look at today’s Gospel reading, what really strikes me is that John was not really expected or wanted in his own day either!
Look at the way John is introduced to us:
"In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness." (Luke 3:1-2)
Luke’s point is that there were a lot of important people striding the public stage at that time - people like the Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, the brothers Herod, and great high-powered priestly figures like Annas and Caiaphas - and God, it seems, spoke through none of them, but instead chose to channel his message through an obscure and unexpected desert-dweller by the name of John, son of Zechariah.