Sunday 13th Dec 2020: Third Sunday in Advent     
 
John the Baptist

Psalm 126

 

A Song of Ascents.
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
   we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
   and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
   ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’
The Lord has done great things for us,
   and we rejoiced.


Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
   like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
   reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
   bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
   carrying their sheaves.

1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

John 1: 6-8, 19-28.

 

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.

Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

Collect

O Lord Jesus Christ,

who at your first coming sent your messenger

to prepare your way before you:

grant that the ministers and stewards of your mysteries

may likewise so prepare and make ready your way

by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just,

that at your second coming to judge the world

we may be found an acceptable people in your sight;

for you are alive and reign with the Father

in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and for ever.

(or)

God for whom we watch and wait,

you sent John the Baptist to prepare the way of your Son:

give us courage to speak the truth,

to hunger for justice,

and to suffer for the cause of right,

with Jesus Christ our Lord.

Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8- end

 

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
   because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
   to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
   and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
   and the day of vengeance of our God;
   to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
   to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
   the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
   the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
   they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
   the devastations of many generations.


For I the Lord love justice,
   I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
   and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
   and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
   that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
   my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
   he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
   and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
   and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
   to spring up before all the nations.

John the Baptist is a substantial figure in Jewish history, sufficient to get a mention in Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews (Book 18) [1].   This non-Christian account confirms John's  call of spiritual renewal, his wide and devoted following, and his practice of baptism.  It also explains his relationship with Herod, one which makes him a Jewish hero.

 All the gospels refer to John and give broadly similar accounts.  Nevertheless he remains a somewhat enigmatic, and I suspect misrepresented  figure.  We tend to see repentance through a medieval lens[2], and fear that austerity and a rough reproach is aimed at us[3].  All accounts however indicate that he was popular and people flocked to him.  Have we got him wrong?

John's testimony.

Priests, sent by  the Pharisees,  question him about who he is and what he is doing.  His answer is far from being elusive as it might appear to a modern reader.

Are you Elijah?  Good question.  Elijah excoriated  wickedness in high places and royalty in particular (Ahab, Jezebel).  Elijah was also thought of as a forerunner of the messiah. Was John really behind a popular uprising against Herod?  No, but he did certainly speak against him.  Throughout the Old Testament faithfulness in marriage is used as an example of God's love for his people, as we see in today's reading from Isaiah 61: 10. Kings who represent the Lord to the people should demonstrate that.  Divorce and adultery are serious problems for that reason

Are you the Messiah?  Pharisees could not afford to get that wrong! Emphatically No, says John.  "I am not worthy to loosen His sandal thongs".  The imagery here is of the Messiah coming to our house, a visitor having travelled on foot for us to welcome.  Visitors in the middle East are invited to take their shoes off to enter, a sign of acceptance and belonging.  The corollary is poignant.  In the Gospel it is Jesus who is at home on Earth (The Earth is His and He made it) who invites his pilgrim disciples in and washes their feet.

Are you the prophet?  John takes no personal credit for what he is doing. He is not the prophet, but a full explanation of who he is is given by his reference to Isaiah 40.  He becomes Isaiah's voice for his day and for ours. The Pharisees would have immediately recognised the full message.  If we look at Isaiah 40 in detail we will uncover again the contemporary message of John[4].

[1] Josephus like the synoptics (e.g.Matthew:14) explains the stance that John took against Herod Antipas that led the fearful and guilty king to execute him.  The later disastrous defeat of Herod's army by a coalition that included his first wife's Nabatean tribesmen (34-6 AD) was seen by the Jews as divine punishment on Herod for the crime against John. Note that baptism was a standard ritual in Judaism.  Josephus does not need to elaborate.  John simply used the existing practice of immersion as a ritual of purification in preparation  for an encounter with God.  http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-18.html

[2] Medieval western Christianity took the view that a separate soul had priority over the body, a Hellenic idea that permitted amongst other things the inquisition and later Cartesian philosophy. These ideas were foreign to first century Judaism. The identity of a person was holistic not fragmented into good bits and bad bits.

[3] The Baptist's "You brood of vipers" speech could well be targeted at Herod via those who came out to report on him. It seems (to me) very unlikely that he would have directly lashed the people with this saying as portrayed only in Luke 3:7. Matthew the only other reporter does not use it this way.  

The Message of John the Baptist/Isaiah

This section (a scroll?) begins  "Comfort, O comfort my people, Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, her penalty is paid, she has received double for all her sins".   Redemption is already affirmed and the consequence of human waywardness absolved.

 It is in response to that that a human voice calls "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight ... a highway for our God.   Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed." 

The voice laments the sorry state of humanity  "What shall I cry? All people are like grass, the flower fades..a human perspective...but the word of God will stand for ever".  

 

This cry evokes an authoritative reply  " Do not fear.  See the Lord comes with might.. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms.

 

 Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God the Creator of the ends of the earth...

those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength , they shall mount up with wings like eagles".

 

John wants us to know that he is on the same page as Isaiah.  The startling prospect of a world restored makes it possible for us to welcome judgement, engage with it, to re-think where our priorities lie and commit to a new way of living. Like the crowds we want to be in the compass of the redeemed new kingdom that is so near.   The divine promise, embedded in creation itself, comes first. We can respond only when we grasp just how radical and imminent the promise really is. Simply lamenting private sins and ghastly failings would be self indulgent if it did not link to the new perspective that opens before us.

As if to redouble the significance of Isaiah for John the Baptist, his story has a final vignette.  Languishing on death row he smuggles a message out to Jesus.  After all he has witnessed there are lingering doubts.  Is Jesus the messiah?  The response could have been 'Yes', but Jesus reassures John using John's own identification with the same ancient text: Isaiah 35.

"The eyes of the blind (are) opened, and the ears of the deaf (are) unstopped;  the lame leap like a deer, the tongue of the speechless sing for joy....

John would know the rest by heart:  "For waters shall break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert: ...A highway shall be there...for God's people. The redeemed shall walk there. The ransomed of the Lord shall return, ....they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away."

John has indeed prepared the way by bringing the prophetic imagery of Isaiah closer to its fulfilment. His understanding of repentance is mature and linked to the radical new redeemed world that is coming. 

[1] The book of Isaiah in our Bibles was written by different authors over about 200 years.  Chapter 40 begins a new section of writing "Deutero-Isaiah" but Ch35 also seems to belong to this late exile period that sees release from captivity. It is to Deutero-Isaiah that John and Jesus refer.

Now are we ready to take the plunge?

Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God