A few years ago, I met God on the M25. As I was traveling north on the M25, I noticed a lorry coming the other way, heading south. Above the cab, across the front of the trailer, were emblazoned the letters: G – O – D.
Then I realised that the side of the trailer read Guaranteed Overnight Delivery, but the question was in my mind: if God is going south, what am I doing going north?
John the Baptist came out of the desert and the wilderness, right down the middle of life’s motorway as loud and as noticeable as an articulated lorry. He was a clear and unmistakable sign that God was heading south, and everybody else was going north, heading the wrong way.
The key word in John’s preaching was repentance. We often think that means being sorry, but it’s not quite that. The Greek word is metanoia, which actually means a complete about turn. Metanoia on the motorway would be a sudden u-turn across the carriageway and heading in the other direction. In Greek, metanoia’s not a particularly religious word, it’s rather an ordinary, everyday, usable word for turning around and going the other way. It’s much more than merely changing your mind, it’s a whole reorientation of the personality. If God is going south, and we are going north; what should we do?
Well, maybe when we see God going in the other direction, we could be deeply sorry that we are going the wrong way. We might hit ourselves on the head, or beat our chest, and say something like:
God be merciful to me, a miserable driver with a poor sense of direction. I know I’m going the wrong way, but I don’t know anything I can do about it. After all, I’m already heading in this direction, and I’m making good time, and I’m getting good miles per gallon, and it would be very difficult for me to change and go the other way, and besides, I know you’re a God of grace and love and you’ll forgive me for going the wrong way.
Put in those terms, it sounds pretty silly, doesn’t it? But all too often, that’s how we think about needing to change direction.
Another popular response when finding oneself going the wrong way is to blame someone else: “you told me to go this way,” or “going this way was your idea,” or, “it’s not my fault, everybody else was going this way, how was I to know?” This has been going on ever since Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent, and the serpent didn’t have a leg to stand on. Or you could blame the SatNav, the map, Google, or even the bloke at the garage.
In just the same way, we can try to blame God for going the wrong way. If we spot God in the southbound lane, and turn to our passenger, and say, “look at that! God’s lost, God’s going the wrong way, God’s out of touch with the modern world’s sense of direction.”
People have always been good at explaining failure and avoiding change. We fall back on a variety of excuses and reasons, all designed to protect things as they are. We avoid change, especially when the change God calls for will be painful for us personally. We’re usually quite willing to ask others to change, but often unwilling to make changes in ourselves.
John the Baptist’s words to the Pharisees and Sadducees strike at the root of the matter. We heard that they were coming for the baptism of repentance, so why does John reject them? Surely it’s because he sees people queueing up, but doesn’t see any evidence in their lives or their behaviour that they mean what they say.
Many of the Pharisees and Sadducees assumed that just being chosen people was enough, sadly forgetting they needed to put that into practice in their lives because they had a responsibility to others. Are we on God’s side? If God is going south, why are we going north?
John’s word to us today is that God is coming, and we need to get ready. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Remember, Isaiah reminded us that: the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
That’s the kingdom that is coming, that is the world that Jesus brings with him, that is the side of the road God is traveling on. God is traveling on the side of peace and justice and the poor. In fact, God is hurtling down the motorway in that direction, and all that we need to think about, all that we need to ask, is are we ready to follow? Are we ready to turn around, to change direction, and to follow God wherever he leads?