John the Baptist – an Advent sermon by the Rev. Canon David Power
JOHN THE BAPTIST
Third Sunday of Advent, 13 December 2020
" ....a watershed moment in global history"
Who was John the Baptist, and why do three of the gospel writers give him such a major role in their early chapters?
Luke’s gospel tells us that John was the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zechariah served as a priest in the temple, so John came from respectable stock. John the Baptist was a member of a priestly clan who were very much part of the religious institution. It was expected that he would follow in the footsteps of his father, in serving in the temple.
After describing the birth of John, Luke says that he grew and "was in the wilderness until the day he was revealed to Israel." At the time there were a number of strict religious sects that lived in the desert area of ancient Palestine. They followed an austere, monastic pattern of life in which prayer, worship and study were central. It is quite possible that, as a young adult, John spent time in one such community.
He emerges from the desert and begins his public ministry, preaching in the wilderness alongside the river Jordan. In his gospel, Matthew presents him as a prophet.
“John's clothes were made of camel's hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist." He is dressed like a prophet, and he behaves like a prophet from the Old Testament. Even more remarkable, the Jewish people in Palestine recognised him as a prophet, and were amazed at his presence among them, for no prophet had arisen among them for 400 years. The voice of divinely-inspired prophesy had been silent for twenty generations.
Great crowds travelled from Jerusalem and throughout Judea to see and hear him. It was not an easy journey to make. I’ve travelled from Jerusalem to the place by the River Jordan where John is believed to have preached and baptised. Leaving the hill country of Jerusalem, you descend steeply into a hostile, lunar landscape on which nothing naturally grows.
News of John’s preaching had reached the ears of the religious leaders in Jerusalem, who sent an official delegation to check him out. Verse 19 in today’s gospel: “the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’”
This is a big moment for John. This would be like a delegation from both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope turning up at All Saints’ Denmead to find out what the Vicar is up to. Which could be quite entertaining, but, I’m sorry to say, unlikely.
Picture the scene: miles away from the fine buildings and streets of Jerusalem, in the dust and dirt of the desert, in the midst of a great sweaty and probably malodorous crowd, the priests and Levites, in all their ecclesiastical finery, make their dignified way down to the banks of the river Jordan. And, puffed up with a profound sense of their own self-importance, they try to find out what he was on about.
There’s something about the ensuing conversation which reminds me of the Monty Python “Cheese Shop” sketch. I’m tempted to suggest that this is the nearest thing to a Biblical comedy sketch. John in his simple garment of camel hair, and the religious officials in their long beards, fine robes and big hats. ‘Who are you?’ they ask, to which John unhelpfully replies, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ “No”. ‘Are you the prophet?’ “No.”
The Jewish clergy are getting a bit fed up with this and so they stop making suggestions or this could go on all day. The delegates from Jerusalem knew that they had to return with more than a series of denials. “Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
John said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord", as the prophet Isaiah said’. This makes a bit more sense – John is saying that he sees himself as one called by God to announce a new beginning that God is about to make.
They also knew that John was baptizing people, and that was controversial too. It was common for devout people to immerse themselves in baths of water before worship – such baths were provided in the temple complex – and this was a kind of ritual washing, or baptism. But the difference at the temple was that people were baptizing themselves. Here was John baptizing other people, and in a river, rather than a proper religious location. The priests and Levites wanted to know by what authority he was doing it.
So they asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ And John gives that famous reply: ‘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.’
He’s preaching that the Messiah is coming, and all should turn from their sins and be baptised. “The Messiah is coming – it’s time to get real with God. Turn away from all that you know to be wrong and be baptised as a sign that you mean business.” He’s preaching a baptism of repentance and a lot of people have been baptised. In a very real sense, John has started a renewal movement, and it’s causing a stir throughout the land.
It was to this that the Jewish leaders objected so strongly. As far as they were concerned, everything was fine just as it was and nothing needed to be renewed. They saw no need to change the way they were doing their religion, and since they were in charge the last thing they wanted was the people being stirred up to want a renewal in their faith.
That would disturb the settled, long-established pattern of religious life. “And in any case” they said to themselves, “We’re the religious authority around here, and we haven’t authorised John to baptise, so we’re having none of it.”
They were too stiff-necked and self-satisfied to see that God was doing a new thing in their midst and it was time for everyone, including the religious leaders, to get on board with it. John was telling them that the long-expected Messiah was about to be revealed, but they were simply too blind to see it. It was a watershed moment in global history. Jesus the Christ was about to come among them and call them to a new way of knowing God, but they didn’t want to know.
We ourselves are also in a watershed moment in global history: the Coronavirus pandemic. So much has changed. The way of life we had nine months ago seems like a distant dream. The way that we relate to one another; the way that we work; the way that we shop; our holidays; the way that we travel on ships, planes and trains; the daily pattern of our lives, our social lives: all these have been changed. And, for we Christians, much of the pattern of our church life has been lost or become very different.
And, with longing hearts, most in our society are saying, “When the pandemic is over everything will get back to normal”. But there were many aspects of our “normal life” we would do well not to go back to. Covid has revealed grievous inequalities in our society, especially in terms of wealth and health. Would it really be right to go back to such ingrained institutionalised sin?
And churchgoers are asking, “Once everyone has been vaccinated, surely everything in the life of our church will get back to normal”. Those longings are understandable. I share something of them, too. But if I’m honest, the prophet in me knows that such longings belong more to the backward-looking priests and Levites in today’s gospel than they do to the forward-looking John the Baptist. John is much more interested in the new thing that God is about to do through Jesus than he is in preserving the past. And our call at this watershed moment is to look for the new things God will do in and through the post-pandemic church, rather than seeking simply to restore things back to the way they used to be.
In the purifying crucible of this pandemic God is calling his Church to a renewed faith and a renewed pattern of church life, especially in terms of Christian mission, Christian ministry and Christian leadership. Our Bishop has already acknowledged that our diocese simply doesn’t have the money to maintain the patterns of church and ministry we have known all our lives. Speaking at last month’s General Synod, the Archbishop of York said “The way of being the Church is going to have to change. The great danger is that we see ourselves as custodians of an unchangeable institution.”
Custodians of an unchangeable institution is exactly what the priests and Levites were. They came to put a stop to what John was doing. They were seeking to preserve what they knew: John was raised up by God to announce the new beginning which Jesus the Messiah was about to bring.
"...a time to review where we are with God"
Advent is a time for self-examination and preparation. It’s a time to review where we are with God: a time to make new beginnings with Jesus. The uncomfortable question with which this gospel passage faces us is this: Are we on the side of John the Baptist, or are we like the Priests and Levites?
Is our faith a vibrant, changing, growing, dynamic experience of the living God, or are we content with static, formal religion? It has been wisely said, “The easiest place to hide from God is in religion”. The Priests and Levites were very religious people, but they missed the truth. It’s a danger for us too, for it’s possible to be so engrossed with our preferred pattern of religious practice that we can’t lift our eyes to see that God is calling us beyond that to a deeper and closer walk with Jesus.
The pandemic has been deeply unsettling, and the temptation is to grimly hold on to the old familiar ways. But God is faithful and steadfast, and I have no doubt that he will lead us into a future which will be good for both the church and the world we are called to serve. He is a past master at redeeming terrible situations so that they serve his good purposes. God holds out to us a golden opportunity for the renewal and refreshment of his Church. It has the potential to be good for us and for the wider world. If we are to work with God in bringing this to pass we will need not the stiff-necked attitude of the priests and Levites, but the open-minded expectancy of John the Baptist.
This is the invitation God sets before us as we draw near to him at this service today, and also in these Advent days of preparation. Amen.