Every year at Christmas, the best selling lists from bookshops name a high proportion of books on five particular subjects: golf, football, cooking, railways and religion? The odd man out in that list is religion because by no stretch of the imagination can it be seen like the others as sport, hobby, recreation or entertainment. Why is it that in the secularist 21st century, religion and things of the spirit, retain a compulsive fascination for a high proportion of the population and continue to fill large sections of Waterstones, with books ranging from spiritualism and the weirdly occult, through the rich vein of the spoof and the spurious to the serious mainstream religions in general and Christianity in particular: the Bible still ranks as the world’s No.1 best seller?
To answer my question we might usefully start with today’s gospel, the story of John the Baptist, and ask why people flocked to hear him (even the Pharisees and Sadducees, who must have known they would get a ticking off) and why they responded so repentently to his preaching. In John’s time, which was also Jesus’s time, his Jewish hearers had become bogged down in a rule-dominated religion centred on an already outmoded and rather primitive tradition of rather messy animal sacrifices: and yet they were not unaware of the relatively sophisticated civilizations of Greece and Rome between which they had become culturally squeezed. On one point, however, they were light years ahead of their pagan neighbours: they had resolutely grasped the concept of One God, a single, benevolent, even loving, ethereal being. Almost alone in the known world, they had developed a monotheistic religion of the spirit. What John was telling them was to clear their minds, to shred old superstitions, and tidy up the path or ‘highway’, as Isaiah calls it, of their lives so that when the eagerly expected Redeemer came they would be receptive to his word. It was thus the right moment for a major religious rejuvenation and by all accounts (such as today’s Gospel, Mt 3, 1-12) John the Baptist’s call to repentance and conversion struck a chord with his hearers.
John seems to have sensed that it was his function to be a forerunner for someone – he didn’t know who – who would follow him and be so much greater than himself that he felt unworthy even to carry his sandals. And he preached absolutely in the tradition of his predecessors the prophets: forget the sacrifices and observances and love God as your creator and others as your fellow created beings.
Today that situation is in many respects repeated among us. We too are confronted by tired institutions which often frustrate the purpose of their being. We too sense both the difficulty and yet the possibility of creating an era of world-wide justice love and peace which, for the first time in history, just might come about if only we and our politicians can get our act together. We have now the wealth, the resources and the technology to ‘make poverty history’ and nearly enough mobile phones to make the world a single community. And yet there is so much more to it than that. Clearly people today are interested in things of the spirit and the meaning of life. People talk sometimes of the metaphysical, the beyond-experimental, aspect of our consciousness which all of us have in some degree. Others more prosaically talk of ‘getting in touch with their spiritual side’. We can respect what they mean. As members of a Christian community all of us here should by now have developed a fairly clear idea of what we mean by our ‘spiritual side’. Like everyone else, we have our mystical moments; we look at the stars, look at the beauty of all around us, we think about those we love or admire and acknowledge that there is indeed a spiritual purpose to our lives which bridges the finality of physical death. But we can claim something more: we can see how well it fits with the revelation that started with the Incarnation, the birth of Christ and all that flowed from it. We can claim like St Paul to have ‘the Mind of Christ’, and having that mind, we are able to make an act of faith and that makes us able to worship authentically before the Lord of all.