Preached by the Reverend Lionel Stock, using Malachi 3.1-6 and Luke 3.1-17, at Evensong on Sunday 24th June 2012, the third Sunday after Trinity, Birth of John the Baptist.
It’s 1932. Winston Churchill warns of Nazi Germany’s increasing military strength. Very few listen. The next year he asks for a renewal of the Royal Airforce; in 1935 he founds The Focus, attempting to unite people from different political backgrounds to oppose Hitler and to prepare for the worst. But Britain isn’t ready to hear his warnings, and instead, hails Chamberlain on his return from Munich, holding the peace agreement that he has signed with Hitler.
August 1981, James Hansen has devoted years to studying the atmosphere of the planet Venus, learning why its surface temperature reaches 240°C and why it’s clouds are no longer formed of water vapour, but of sulphuric acid. Now, with six colleagues, he writes a paper describing the impact of CO2 emissions on global temperatures on planet Earth. He realises that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will lead to warming much sooner than anyone had previously foreseen. He also predicts that it will be hard to persuade politicians and the public to act.
Today, attendees are going home from the Rio 20 U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development, seemingly having achieved little. Nick Clegg was there, but not David Cameron, or Barack Obama or Angela Merkel. In the midst of economic pain, it’s hard to hear the voice of our suffering planet.
It’s 2005. John Paulson, a little known hedge fund manager, advises his dealers to buy credit default swaps that will pay out if US mortgages start to go bad. At the end of 2006, Peter Schiff on Fox News publicly forecasts that the next year property prices will crash. If you feel inclined, you can watch the interview on YouTube, and see the other investment experts on the show laughing at him. A few months later, with house prices already on the turn, Mortimer Zuckerman, the respected head of Boston Properties, says that the housing market isn’t sustainable. Very few listen. US property goes on to lose a third of its value.
Time is too short to detail Wynne Godley who, in 1992, accurately described the inherent flaws in the Euro, or Arthur C Clarke who foresaw Hovercraft, Moon landings, Tablet PC’s, the Internet and Geosynchronous satellites.
But secular prophets also get it wrong. Published in 1972, the influential book, “The Limits to Growth”, suggests that the world will run out of gold, mercury, tin, zinc, petroleum, copper, lead, and natural gas within 20 years. It doesn’t. Its authors were wrong, as Thomas Malthus had been wrong when he made similar predictions two hundred years before.
How do you know who to listen to? More to the point, it’s all very well asking what is going to happen to the world, but what is going to happen to me?
It’s 1986. Elizabeth and I are living in a pleasant house overlooking the hills to the south east of Belfast. We are members of a lively ecumenical community, as well as the parish church. Settled. In a year our daughter Victoria starts school, and then it will be Edd’s turn, and we won’t want to disturb them. So if we stay in Belfast, it’s going to be for at least twenty years. And maybe that’s the right thing to do, and maybe it isn’t. And we badly want to do the right thing, to do God’s will for us. We spend weeks, months, thinking, fasting and praying. We talk it over with friends we trust, and people whose opinion we value, but we are nowhere near making a decision.
Then a Canadian, with a reputation as a Christian prophet, holds a series of meetings. I go night after night. And every night he selects people, seemingly at random, and speaks to them of their past, their present and their future.
And every night he passes me by. Until the last night. He asks a man on my left to stand, whom I happen to know. He has recently returned from India, having been a missionary school teacher and is finding the transition from India to Ireland difficult. Despite having relocated his family half a world away, he is seriously considering returning to India, knowing that his children want to stay in Ireland. Though I know that the prophet has never met him he summarizes his past accurately, and gives him guidance and wisdom for his present dilemma.
Now, at last, my turn. I can still feel the tension, the anticipation, the expectation and the hope. He starts to tell me about my past – the accident in the pram when I had injured my shoulder, about my present – my background in engineering, and then he speaks of my future.
The trouble is, there was no accident in a pram, my background is in finance, not engineering, the future he describes holds no relevance to my situation or my decision. Seven nights spent at the meetings. Spent because I wanted to know God’s will, because I wanted to do what was right. And when I am finally chosen, this load of rubbish. Pain, hurt, frustration and anger wash over me. Not at the prophet, it’s not his fault. But at God. He knows how badly I want to be obedient, and when I cry out to him, not silence, but worse than silence – nonsense.
It wouldn’t have been so bad if it had been the same for everyone. But I know that others have received clear guidance. Why not me? Why is God picking on me? I go home, distraught, torn apart, unable to sleep. The next day is no better. But when I awake the following morning I sense God saying in that still, small voice of his, “You have got to begin to hear me for yourself. You can’t go on relying on other people. That’s why I had to give you rubbish. You had to know it was rubbish, so that you would learn to hear me for yourself.”
John asked the crowds who came out to be baptized, “Who warned you to flee the wrath to come?” I hope God did, and perhaps those in the crowds warned themselves, by looking at where their lives were going, and foreseeing the future if they did not change.
And we can do that too. Listen for what God is saying to the world. Listen to what he is saying to you.
You’ve always had a small scotch when you got in from work. Nothing wrong with that. But when did it become a double? And when did you start having another before you go to bed, just to help you sleep?
You’ve been flirting innocently with Jim from the golf club for years. But now you are going away to play in a tournament together, and you haven’t told your husband that Jim’s going to be there, and it’s the fact that you haven’t told him, that suggests that it might not be so innocent any more.
You’ve been putting on a couple of pounds every year, for a while now. It only really strikes home when you realize that your cassock, which has got years more wear in it, is too tight to be comfortable, and faced with the choice of going on a diet, or buying a new one, you get out your credit card.
Take a good hard look at your life. Think and pray about where you would like it to be going, where it should be going. Ask yourself whether your present trajectory will get you there. And if it won’t, admit it. Ask for God’s help, make the changes that you need, start again. Learn to hear God for yourself.
God is still at work, in the world, in you. Things don’t have to stay the same. “Prepare the way of the Lord”, says John. How? By living as God would have you, sharing what you have with your neighbor, acting justly in business, not abusing your authority, being honest with your taxes. Nothing esoteric or philosophical, nothing other-worldly, or even particularly spiritual. That’s why Luke roots the events of John so firmly in real history:
1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius
2 When Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea
3 Herod ruler of Galilee
4 Philip ruler of Iturea
5 Lysanias ruler of Abilene
6 During the high priesthood of Ananias and Caiaphas
That’s when. Where? – In the region around the Jordan. This is solid history, an actual place, at an actual time. It’s real, it’s reliable, it’s solid, it’s true.
Never give up your hopes. Never stop listening for what God is saying to the world, and saying to you. And never forget that your faith, your life, is grounded in something that happened in history, and is still happening here and now. Here in this piece of Central Southern England, in my life and in yours, in the middle of the two thousand and twelfth year of our Lord.