Sunday, 14 December 2014

A voice: John the Baptist and the big story

There is a film, made in 1998, starring Jane Horrocks, about a very shy girl with an exceptional talent.  Little Voice, as she is known, turns out to have a breath-taking singing voice.  She hides in her room with her records, her escape from reality and grief, and sings along to the music of Edith Piaf, Judy Garland and Shirley Bassey.  A talent scout overhears her and puts her on the stage.  She becomes a sensation.  But she begins to feel used and the plaything of others.  As the lives of her mother and the talent scout unravel she returns to the shadows, preferring the song to the fame, and finds liberation through a relationship that develops with a Buttons-like character, Billy.

The voice is a powerful tool.  It can sound strong; it can sound hesitant.  It can inspire, it can frighten, it can sooth, it can stir up.  We can display confidence or mumble shyness.  And in role, as a singer or performer, we may find an outlet that otherwise is locked up and frightened of making itself known, as with ‘Little Voice’.  The performer can be quite fragile and nervous.  The same can be the case with actors and anyone whose role involves performing, finding the role gives confidence they wouldn’t have without it.  Even clergy can share this, and doing this is not a million miles away from theatre and performing.  That is why Sundays, which are very heavy days ‘on stage’, in ‘performance mode’, can be so exhausting.

John the Baptist describes himself as ‘the voice’ in our gospel reading: ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness’ (John 1:23).  He is the one who sounds, but the message comes from someone else.  It is not his character that matters.  He is not a personality to be adored and he certainly is not looking for people to be drawn to him, or at least not stay focused on him.  Again he prefers the song to the fame.  He wants to point people beyond.  The one who comes is far greater than he is.  And so he is not interested in being made a star.  His identity and his self-understanding do not rest on the adulation of the crowd, or the glory that comes with fame, fickle and transitory as it is.  For him being just ‘a voice’ is enough.  He is the sounding piece for something else.

This idea of just being ‘a voice’ stands in the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament.  Prophets did not speak on their own behalf.  They saw themselves as just being the delivery boy.  The message came from elsewhere.  They were taken over by the one who inspired the message that came through their voice.  And so rather like Little Voice in the film, as she sang she became someone else and the music flowed through her, rather than from her, the prophets saw themselves as the conduit of the voice of God.

So when the talent scouts come after John and want to know who he is, he just calls himself ‘a voice’; just a voice.  He is no one really, because the one who matters is yet to come, but is here already, among you and you do not known him.  John does not think he is worthy even to untie his sandal straps.

We live in times which are celebrity obsessed.  Marshall McLuhan’s 1960s phrase of ‘The Medium is the Message’, has become prescient.  The packaging has taken over from the contents and we often seem to be served style over content.  Glitz and high action are no substitute for plot and substance.  So image becomes everything in a PR dominated world.  The forms of transmission are of course how we hear any message.  John the Baptist knew this and he dressed like Elijah is described in the Old Testament, dressed in camel hair with a leather belt and eating locusts and wild honey.  So that when he walks on stage those who knew their Old Testament would automatically put him in that narrative.  Elijah was expected to come again and so when he walks on that’s a box ticked in the warm-up for Jesus to take the stage.  The prophets had also engaged in all sorts of symbolic actions.  One walked around carrying a yoke to make the point that the people were going to be enslaved.  They knew how to create an event to catch the attention and spark the imagination.  But they were always clear that they were not the message; there was a message coming through them which was the real point.  We live in an age that has lost touch with an overarching story and message and so is just left with the packaging.

This is where I find the comedian Russell Brand to be an interesting character.  He can be erratic and unpolished in his presentation – that’s part of what makes him interesting.  But in his book Revolution he talks about the need for an overarching story to hold us in our quest for meaning and purpose.  We are lost at the moment as a society because we don’t have this shared narrative.  Philosophers refer to this as the metanarrative – the big story in which we find meaning and a place to fit our own story.  Russell Brand believes in God, he has a strong social conscience, and he gives expression to a malaise many are feeling, and that’s where I find him interesting.  The solution is not personalities with nothing of any substance behind them, but a voice, a message which calls out that there is purpose and a point.

The message that John the Baptist brought was that the Kingdom of God is close at hand.  This is full of Old Testament packaging too, but stands for God’s rule over creation.  And creation means that there is a Creator, one from whom we come and to whom we go.  The one who is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega (A-Z) of time and eternity.  This is what the church is called to proclaim.  We are not here to proclaim ourselves.  The focus for us is always to be God in Christ, who reaches out and draws us into his embrace.  And that might be popular; it might not.  We always have to find ways, the voice, that communicates, as opposed to ones that don’t.  It may be that words are not the ‘voice’ to use and actions, like the foodbank and providing listening ears or a space for people to just be is what is needed.  The acts of blessing from birth to death communicate this message and our sacramental and pastoral ministry are ways our voice finds expression in this.  But it is never to be for the glory of the church.  That is anathema to what we are for, and that is particularly poignant for a church named after John the Baptist.

We are not to be the focus because we won’t live up to the scrutiny.  Not everyone will find us attractive and we will fall short of any ideal image.  In fact a major danger with personality focus is that the person becomes a blank canvass on which to project all sorts of fantasies and these get in the way of the message itself.  They aren’t real and they aren’t resilient to how life really is.  All of us are a work in progress.  Some are inspirational, but even they have their dark side, their pains and places where damage has left them wounded and marred.  So any adulation needs to be deflected to the one who inspires and calls, whose grace enables any goodness and blessing that we become vehicles of.

So with John the Baptist we are called to be ‘a voice’; nothing more but also nothing less.  A voice has a message to convey which points beyond itself to the one who really counts, in our case God in Christ Jesus.  We do that through words, through actions, through what we stand for.  We do it by proclaiming the missing big story in which our lives find meaning and purpose, in which they are held.  God our creator is also our goal and our lives are held in his love and purposes, seen supremely in Jesus Christ.  John the Baptist described himself as ‘a voice’ and so are we to be.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 14th December 2014