9 December 2007

John the Baptist

Today is the second Sunday in Advent. We’ve lit two candles in our Christmas Countdown – er, I mean Advent Wreath. Christmas is coming – only another fortnight! I expect you’ve already had some Christmas cards – we have. And maybe you’ve already been to a Christmas party. There was one in the week I should have gone to, but I wasn’t very well, so didn’t go. We have several coming up, and you have, too, no doubt. Maybe you’ve even finished all your Christmas shopping, AND wrapped it AND written all your cards. Wish I had!

Many of you will have put your decorations and trees up, if not at home then at least at work.

But in the Church, it isn’t Christmas yet. Not for another two weeks! We are still in the Season of Advent, and the lectionary tells us that this week and next we look at John the Baptist – this week at the early part of his ministry, and next week at the end of it.

Of course, there’s a reason for this. They aren’t just being random and arbitrary. John the Baptist is known as the Forerunner, the one who came ahead of Jesus. The voice who cried in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord”.

This Sunday is really all about prophets. Our first reading came from the prophet Isaiah. As you know, scholars think that the book of Isaiah may have been collections of the writings of two, or even three people with that name, but in this part of the book, they think it is the “original” Isaiah, if you like, the Temple prophet, son of Amoz. Jewish tradition holds that he was nephew to the king, and certainly of a priestly dynasty. Prophets, in the old Testament, as today, didn’t necessarily foretell the future, but they did speak forth God’s word into the circumstances of their own day. The fact that some of what they felt God was calling them to say was also applicable later, was from God, not from the prophets. They were speaking into local situations, and their first hearers took it as such.

For instance, in today’s reading, Isaiah is speaking to people who have been invaded by the Assyrians. The king of Judah, Ahaz, is being a collaborator, so he is attacked by the kings of Syria and Israel, and roundly defeated. So he seeks help from his crony the king of Assyria, and the net result is that the Assyrians invade Israel and Syria, capture their kings, and cart many of the people off into captivity. So you do see that a lot of what Isaiah has to say will be both comforting and heartening to a people who are either at war, or else despairing because they think they ought to be at war. But peace will come, says the prophet: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.”

We Christians see that as a description of what life in heaven with God will be like, and that’s probably right, too. But for the first listeners, despairing of their leaders, it meant peace on earth. The shoot from the stump of Jesse, that we identify as Jesus, and which God meant to mean Jesus, also meant the local rulers. In fact, what happened in the end was that Samaria was taken and destroyed in 722 BC. So long as Ahaz reigned, the kingdom of Judah was unmolested by the Assyrians; but when Hezekiah came to the throne, he entered into an alliance with the king of Egypt . This led the king of Assyria to threaten the king of Judah, and at length to invade the land. In 701 BC, Sennacherib led a powerful army into Judah. Hezekiah was reduced to despair, and submitted to the Assyrians. But after a brief interval war broke out again, and again Sennacherib led an army into Judah, one detachment of which threatened Jerusalem. Isaiah on that occasion encouraged Hezekiah to resist the Assyrians, whereupon Sennacherib sent a threatening letter to Hezekiah, which he "spread before the Lord". And the judgement of God fell up on Sennacherib, who was defeated....

Isaiah, incidentally, is thought to have lived throughout the whole of King Hezekiah’s reign, and may have been martyred by his successor, Mannaseh, who didn’t follow the Lord.

Well, we know quite a lot about Isaiah, the prophet. He was only one of many prophets in the Old Testament, but we know something of the history of his times from other sources, as well as the Bible. But there were plenty of other prophets in the Old Testament, but only one in the New Testament. John the Baptist.

We know a bit about John, too, but it isn’t confirmed by other sources. Luke tells us that he was Jesus’ cousin, born to Zechariah and Elisabeth in their old age.  He was the unborn baby who “leapt in the womb” when Mary, carrying Jesus, came to visit Elisabeth.  We know absolutely nothing about his childhood, how well he knew Jesus, whether they played together as kids, or whether they only saw each other once a year when the holy family went up to Jerusalem.  What we do know is that, when he grew up, John disappeared off into the desert for awhile, to study and pray – whether alone, or with a community such as the Essenes, we also don’t know. 

When he came back from the desert, he was a prophet, just as Luke alleges that his father foretold: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. “

For the people of Israel, that was rather exciting.  They hadn’t had a prophet for many centuries, not a proper one.  And John looked the part.  He dressed like a prophet, in camel-hide clothing.  He ate locusts and wild honey, just as they expected a prophet would do.  He gathered a small flock of disciples around him. And he preached God's message: "Repent and be baptised and get ready for the coming of the Kingdom!"

It’s difficult, isn’t it, to get a picture of John the Baptist. All this week, when I’ve been trying to think of him, all I can see are the various people ranting and raving outside Brixton Station, you know how they do, with nobody taking a blind bit of notice of them!

I don’t think it can have been quite like that, though, given that he had a flock of disciples, and that people were enough attracted by what he had to say to submit themselves to baptism in the river Jordan.

But, of course, you also had people like the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious authorities of the day, and they would have been coming out to check up on John, to make sure he wasn’t preaching something they would have thought to be heretical.

John didn’t like this. For them, as for Jesus, the Pharisees and Sadducees were apt to be hypocritical, insisting on keeping the Law at all costs, at the expense of remembering the important things like loving the Lord their God with all their heart and all their soul and so on, and loving their neighbours as themselves. Remember what Jesus said, only a few years – or maybe even only a few months, the Bible timelines aren’t very clear – later, about the people who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and so on were doing it to him? Same sort of principle.

“Oh but,” said the Pharisees, “You can’t say that to us. We are children of Abraham!”

John said that this didn’t matter. Jesus was to say that, too, and St Paul underlined it. It wasn’t who you are that mattered, didn’t matter a scrap who your ancestors were, or what your lineage was. What mattered was whether you, yourself, were in a right relationship with God! God, as the saying goes, has no grandchildren!

And that, of course, is a message that has come down the centuries unchanged! It doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter who your parents were, it doesn’t matter how rich, or poor, or well-educated, or whatever. It doesn’t even matter if you’ve been a truly evil person. You, too, can have a relationship with God through Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen!

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