john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Isaiah 11 / Matthew 3
    John the Baptist, the unreliable-looking witness

    Good Shepherd Morning Communion 9/12/2007

    Isaiah 11.1-10, Matthew 3.1-12

    I imagine that you don't spend very much time thinking about John the Baptist. Understandably - he's an obscure character from a very old story.

    But when you do stop to think about him, I wonder how you picture John the Baptist in your mind's eye: perhaps as a bit of an oddball, a wild man walking barefoot in the desert, with unkempt hair and shocking clothes, and eating habits that probably meant that when he opened his mouth to begin one of his uncontrolled rants, the air around him smelt bad.

    John's place in history is undisputed. He is down as the chief witness to Jesus Christ. He's the one God chose to explain to the waiting world just who Jesus was and what he was likely to do.

    I don't know about you, but if I ever need to find someone to witness for me, I'd be looking for someone respectable, someone with a bit of influence, a professional of some sort. Stood next to a city councillor or a head teacher or a bishop, John the Baptist with his hair and halitosis, looks like a very unreliable witness.

    Yet, here is one of the strange ironies of the Christian faith, one among many we remember at this time of year. God chooses unreliable witnesses to reveal the truth to the world. The people least likely to be listened to by polite society, are precisely the ones who hold the key to real understanding.

    As you know I spent the months of September and October on a long distance walk from Hull back home here, taking in some of the major cities of the North of England. And because I spent a lot of time wandering about town centres and sitting outdoors in public places (blessed, most days, by excellent weather), I quite often found myself in the company of the sorts of people who live like that, day after day, the sorts of people who wander around our city squares and on our town hall steps. They were interesting companions on my journey!

    So one day I was sitting on a bench in Albert Square, Manchester, lunching on free food samples which I'd gathered from the stalls of the Manchester Food Festival going on around me. I was joined by a very nervous looking man. He had the look of a modern day John the Baptist, tatty old clothes, wild hair - and I imagine he may have had bad breath though thankfully I never found that out. He was a restless companion on the bench. He couldn't keep still, his eyes darted around the crowds moving through the square, and before long he was back on his feet.

    He spoke very quickly, like he was out of breath: "Would you do me a favour?" he asked, "If a woman comes here looking for me ... I'm meant to be meeting a woman ... if she comes here looking for me ... will you tell her I've just had to go and do something ... if she comes ... she's coming ... I'll be back soon ... will you tell her? ... she'll have a pink carnation..."

    Now when he mentioned the pink carnation, I got very suspicious, as he was certainly not dressed to impress on a blind date (and I wasn't convinced that, outside of romantic fiction, a woman would wear a pink carnation to identify herself). But I assented and he was off on what seemed to me purely a circuit of Manchester Town Hall, because quite soon he came racing back, his look appealing to me even before he got close enough to ask the question. I pre-empted him.

    "Sorry, no, she hasn't been here yet," I said, and my companion sat down again beside me, before the whole episode - and by now I was inclined to think of it as a charade - repeated again.

    This happened four or five times before my disappointed friend went off on another circuit altogether, from which he never returned, leaving me to think over what we'd just been through. On the surface of things my friend was an unreliable witness, living out a sort of fantasy. He was witnessing to a meeting between him and a woman, which never took place.

    Now though I realised quite quickly that he was an unreliable witness nevertheless I colluded in his fantasy with him: I played him along. Perhaps it gave him a rare sense of self-worth to feel that he might be about to have a blind date and that another person - me - might see him in that way. Perhaps I got some satisfaction thinking that my role in his fantasy affirmed him somehow.

    But then I thought some more about this episode. I thought that if I took this man seriously for a moment, forgot what he looked like and sounded like, ignored his oddness - perhaps I'd learn something from him. Perhaps he was a truthful witness to something. One of the main reasons I went on my walk was to try to learn to remember that you can find God in all people, if you look closely. And that God chooses unreliable-looking witnesses to reveal the truth to the world. The scriptures show us again and again that the unlikeliest people are the ones who hold the key to real understanding.

    Unreliable-looking witnesses often turn out to be the ones who hold the truth. Probably the truth that my unusual companion taught me was that love has no boundaries - that anyone in any situation can seek love and potentially find it. I suspect that one day that his search for someone will succeed because he's so keen that it does.

    Unreliable-looking witnesses turn out to be the ones who hold the truth.
    If you want to find out what it's really like trying to seek refuge in a foreign country, then how will you find the truth: by reading the Daily Mail - or by spending an afternoon with an asylum-seekers project, hearing their stories first-hand? The scraggy Big Issue seller - who actually reminds you a bit of John the Baptist when you look at him - may rant on about the uselessness of the benefit system for people like him, but he's worth listening to because he's educating you, far better than a textbook, about the realities of living in poverty in Britain today.

    Unreliable-looking witnesses turn out to be truthkeepers. And so back to John the Baptist with his bare feet and wild hair and halitosis. He was the first witness to the coming Christ. And his story must have sounded as much like a fantasy to the people who first heard it, as my companion's story in Manchester first sounded to me. But just as I remembered to take his words seriously and learned something from them, so people eventually began to take John's words seriously and began to come for baptism to prepare themselves to be right with the coming Lord.

    His words, after all, sounded at first like the rantings of a madman:
    Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
    And his words were very judgemental, especially against those who thought that baptism alone - baptism without repentence, baptism without any real change of heart - would save them:
    But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, 'You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.'
    You have to learn to discern what a witness is saying. He or she may or may not be telling a truth. You have to learn to look closely and choose carefully what you listen to. You have to be prepared to find the truth in unexpected places, and for it to be an uncomfortable truth sometimes.

    So here's an unusual Advent message - let's tune our ears to hear the voices that usually get censored or covered up, the odd voices like John's. Let's learn to discern them, to sift out those which lead down blind alleys and keep hold of those which offer new enlightenment about our world, new insight into our lives. Let's take more seriously the unlikely-looking witnesses and lets judge more harshly those who seem to have it all worked out but in fact may have it all wrong.

    Like those who took John seriously, we may find we can see things far more clearly because of what the unlikely-looking witnesses say.


    [1] Sermon based on a talk first given at Blue Coat School, 4 December 2002
    [2] Blind-date man story from the introduction to my book, Walking the M62