Tag Archives: John the Baptist

A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

A voice a calling out

A sermon for the third Sunday in Advent recalling John the Baptist as the ‘one calling out in the wilderness’, and the call to be that voice today.

Reading: John 1:6-8, 19-28

May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I wonder how many of you will admit to watching ‘I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’? Not that I’m saying there’s anything wrong if you do. I think we all have a natural curiosity to watch people who for one reason or another are deemed famous, doing things that are strange or unusual. I must admit that if I hear in the news that someone is proving to be a real character, I might flick over and catch part of an episode to see what all the fuss is about.

Of course it’s easy for us nowadays, with satellite TV and catch up, to bring things that are happening ‘live’ into the comfort of our living rooms or on our mobile devices to satisfy our curiosity, but in Jesus’ day any apparent fame was broadcast by word of mouth and only those who were serious about finding our more would make the effort to travel long distances on the testimony of a friend or neighbour; and yet, we hear in Luke’s gospel that ‘the crowds’ were coming out to see John the Baptist; and today in John’s gospel we catch a sense that the strict traditionalists, the Pharisee’s, had got wind of a strange and curious man doing things that were unsettling and causing ripples in their neat and tidy well-ordered lives. Who was this man?

Obviously, not concerned enough to distance themselves from undertaking their strict religious observances in the temple in Jerusalem, but enough to send a contingent of representatives to find out more, just in case. What then did they find as they journeyed out into the wilderness around the River Jordan? The gospel writer tells us that the place they found John was at Bethany – not the village just east of Jerusalem, near the Mount of Olives, that was the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. No this Bethany, although nowadays not officially known, would have had to have been about 50 miles to the North of Jerusalem, in Jordan, and is thought to be modern day Al-Maghtas, an Arabic word for a site of baptism or immersion and which has been venerated as such since the Byzantine period.

That’s the place but what about the man? John, even by biblical standards, would have presented an eccentric appearance, dressed in camel hair clothing secured with a leather belt and a physique that was sculpted by a diet of locusts and wild honey, one can imagine his wild hair and austere demeanour were not the things that were attracting the people to him. He probably looked like an ancient prophet, if not smelt like an ancient prophet and his words echoed the prophecies of those Old Testament prophets who had gone before him. Perhaps his disregard for his own personal appearance confirmed his humble and self-effacing nature, but let’s be under no doubt, John was no shy wallflower, he knew what his role was and he was certain about the mission he was undertaking.

In answer to their attempts to guess his identify, he wasn’t the Messiah and he wasn’t the re-embodiment of the prophet Elijah, but he was the messenger that the prophet Isaiah had said would appear as a herald to prepare the way for the Messiah’s appearance; to make straight the paths, to smooth the way, to give people a chance to re-order their lives before it was too late. Yet Isaiah had mentioned nothing about the need to be baptised in order to repent of your sins and certainly this form of baptism was not something that the Jewish people would have seen as normal. Ritualistic washing, however had been practised since the time of Moses, through the Leviticus laws when a person needed to be cleansed and purified in order to be able to make sacrifices in the Temple.

This ritual was later expanded to taking a dip in a ‘mikveh’ or immersion pool, with steps leading down on one side and then up on the other, having passed through the pool of water; think of the pools of Siloam and Bethsaida, that were used for high days and holidays at the Temple site. And as with a lot of Jewish ritual law there are six different options that satisfy the requirements starting with pits, to cisterns refreshed by rainwater, custom-built ritual baths, then fountains, then flowing waters. But natural lakes and rivers were considered to be the best, so the ‘living waters’ of the River Jordan were definitely ideal.

But as John says this is only the preliminaries, water would give way to immersion in the Holy Spirit, and he was very, very clear of his unworthiness to carry out this form of baptism. There was another coming after him. Curiosity satisfied then for the Pharisees’ researchers, they would no doubt return to their leaders with more food for thought than reassurances. But that still leaves us with the question of why so many people were attracted to the message that John was voicing and what that means for us today. What was this baptism of repentance that he offered?

Like ourselves this Advent, the people had been watching and waiting, in fact they had been waiting for over 400 years. This period of seemingly divine silence is the name given to the period of time between the last of the Old Testament prophets and the arrival of Jesus in the New Testament. It had begun with Malachi’s prediction of Elijah’s return, ‘I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes,’ hence the Pharisee’s question and was now to end with its fulfilment in the coming of John the Baptist.

Silence however didn’t mean that the people had been living in limbo, because despite the lack of Scripture detailing this period, a great deal happened. The Jewish homeland had first of all been taken over from the Persians by the Greek Empire followed by an Egyptian occupation. Then halfway through the Syrians overtook Jerusalem, followed by the Greek king, Antiochus Epiphanes’ desecration of the Holy of Holies within the temple which led to a revolt, led by the Maccabee brothers to retake control of the Jerusalem, only to be conquered by the Roman Empire, the state the people found themselves in now.

You can understand, therefore, when the strange and unusual figure of John appeared in the wilderness, calling people to repent, to turn back to God , then they were ready and curious enough to seek him out. There were some, like the Pharisees, who came to the Jordan to observe John’s ministry but who had no desire to step into the water themselves. However, even those who did wade into the river, it wasn’t enough to be ritually purified, John’s baptism was more than that – it was a symbolic representation of changing one’s mind and going a new direction – a direction that pointed toward Jesus. His was the voice calling as we are called to be that voice.

On a personal level, I have always been reminded that this task has been passed on to us each time I say out loud the Benedictus during Morning Prayer. The second half of the canticle is an address by Zechariah to his own son, John the Baptist,

You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.

You, my child… that you is directed at each and everyone one of us to be the voice, offering the knowledge that points people toward Christ. With John’s baptism, a person repented of sin, acknowledged their need for salvation, and was therefore ready to place their faith in Jesus Christ. It foreshadowed what Jesus would, did and still does accomplish, as the Benedictus goes on to say

In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

John the Baptist wasn’t a B-list celebrity in the jungle or wilderness, someone you think you’ve heard of but you’re not sure you recognise them – he was definitely A-list, but he wasn’t the main attraction. His baptism was a purification ceremony meant to ready the peoples’ hearts to receive their Saviour. In this season of Advent we too are watching and waiting to receive once again with joy our Saviour. It’s an event worth calling out about…

Amen

John_The_Baptist

How Far Can We Trust God?

Trust blog

How far can we trust God?

Our readings for Evensong on the second Sunday in Advent bring us the story of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, and his encounter with Gabriel in the Temple sanctuary. It gives us Luke’s introduction of how God’s divine plan is about to unfold…

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11Luke 1:1-25

May I speak and may you hear in the name of God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This evening our gospel reading leads us further into our Advent preparations and on this second Sunday of Advent we are reminded of the work of the prophets, and in particular we remember John the Baptist who stands as a link between the Old and New Testament. However, this evening it is not directly about John, but his parents, especially his father’s pre-conceptual reaction to the news of his divinely ordained fatherhood.

It is with this story that Luke begins his gospel and being the historian he is he is at pains to include in his dedication the care he is taking to make sure that we have an orderly and accurate account. He doesn’t set out Jesus’ ancestral claims like Matthew does; or the symbolic prose of John, or even start with John, the adult baptiser, appearing in the wilderness to fulfil Isaiah’s prophecy as in Mark’s gospel. No, Luke wants to start with a story of how people reacted to God’s preparations for the gift of his Son to the world. So, what does it tell us and how might we learn about our reactions from it?

We are introduced to Zechariah and Elizabeth, chosen by God to play an important role in Jesus’ story. I think we can safely say that neither of them were lukewarm nominal believers. Their credentials meant that they were righteous in the sight of God. Zechariah serving as a priest in the order of Abijah, which can be translated as ‘my Father is Yahweh’, and Elizabeth claiming descendancy from Aaron, God’s original high priest at the time of the Exodus. They walked blamelessly and observed all the commandments. In other words, they were obedient servants of God. Yet, for Zechariah there was an area in his life that resulted in some trust issues.

We can imagine that for a long time they had tried hard to conceive a child and had prayed to God about it, but no doubt as they grew older they had given up hope that it was likely to happen. So it is fairly reasonable that when Zechariah, alone in the sanctuary and terrified at the sudden appearance of an angel, is told that not only is he going to be a father, but that his child will play a pivotal role in proclaiming the arrival of the Messiah, that his first response is, ‘Are you sure? What proof can you offer for this?’

‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’
Luke 1:18

He was confronted with a situation that required faith and trust. The faith bit he had in abundance but the trust was not so easy. Very often we too can face a lack of trust where God is concerned. It seems that we are happy to accept that love underpins our motivation to seek God and to follow his example but trust is harder to pin down. Often this difficulty has to do with our past experiences and our present situations. As humans our fall-back position is to initiate our self-reliance mode. It’s a primitive response to protect ourselves from perceived harm, thinking that we only have ourselves to rely on to get out of trouble

It can also be difficult to imagine stepping out of our comfort zones, but we have to remember that nothing is impossible with God, not even in areas where we have experienced nothing but failure, disappointments and frustration. We have to trust he is there to catch us when we fall and to uphold us as we move forward. It may be that we are holding back that trust because we are happy and comfortable to stay exactly where we are; but this can lead to stagnation; our faith never gets an opportunity to mature, or for our relationship with God to grow stronger as we grow closer to him.

God knows all things; he knows our hearts, our desire to be committed to him and sometimes our desire to be rebellious. But we have to be prepared to take the first necessary step to trust him in each area of our life. Take that step, then another and then the next one. This is the way to grow our faith in God, one step at a time… and how much easier is it as well to take those steps in the company of others, to be encouraged and to encourage each other. Because the more we hand over our lives to God and trust in him the more we can be freer to become the people that God is calling us to be.

With regard to Zechariah’s enforced silence following his lack of trust, I would not see this as a punishment for a lack of faith rather an opportunity for Zechariah to have space for reflection. If we fast forward to his son’s birth, we know that he had become reconciled to leaving things in God’s hands, for his first actions on having his speech restored to him was to speak in praise of God and to leave people amazed at just what his son was to become

We know he was to be ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ but we also know that we too can be responsible to make this happen in our own lives. From Proverbs 3 ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.’

So, this Advent let us all be prepared to step away from self-reliance and instead step forward in faith and trust.

Amen

zechariah window

Zechariah and Gabriel at the incense altar in the Temple

Watching and Waiting

Signs of Advent

Signs of Advent

At this time of year, in the lead up to the Christmas celebrations, we spend a great deal of time watching and waiting. What is it though that we are watching and waiting for? Is it for the first sign that Christmas is coming? In that case our watching should have started in September, when the first packs of mince pies appeared in the shops! Maybe the earliest sign that we’re watching for is when, what has become an iconic Coca Cola advert, ‘Holidays are coming, holidays are coming….‘ appears on our television, as the twinkling lorry wends it’s merry way to bring cheer and healthy profits for its stockholders – perhaps the waiting is over when we’ve seen that?

On the other hand we might be watching our credit card groaning under the increase in spending as we are tempted to celebrate the season by purchasing an excessive amount of presents to show our friends and relatives just how much we really love them…… Maybe though, we won’t be waiting for the bill to flop onto our doormat and realise that it will probably take a whole year, if not more to make the repayments – if only we hadn’t bought that one extra present that got put in the cupboard last year and might just do as a raffle prize next time someone asks for one!

Indulging in luxuries, wine, and rich food will never make you wealthy
Proverbs 21:7

What is it we are watching and waiting for? Are we watching our weight as the pounds pile on as we tuck into several Christmas party dinners and surreptitiously open the big box of chocolates that we were saving for Christmas – we can always get a replacement before the day. Or are we waiting for the sales that will start on Boxing Day, so that we can go and hunt out all those bargains… the credit card should just last till then… or maybe we could return that ‘delightful’ jumper that Auntie May bought us, then we can buy what we really want!!

Am I being a bit cynical, a bit ‘bah humbug’. I probably am, but I’m certainly not being holier than thou, because at some point or other I have done all of those things – except for returning the jumper Auntie May! For many people the real joy of Christmas will be doing all or some of these things – and there is love and joy and happiness in coming together, sharing, and giving and receiving gifts. For many of us though there will be a little bit of sadness that people won’t watch and wait for something considerably more important and certainly longer lasting than the use by date on the egg nog.

At church we have started a new year, with the season of Advent, The word Advent is an anglicised version of the Latin word adventus – meaning ‘coming’ – what then or who is coming? Well Christmas is coming (regardless of whether the geese are any fatter) and we will spend these next few weeks preparing to celebrate the coming of Jesus to earth over 2000 years ago. But we’re not really watching and waiting for his birth – that’s already happened; and his resurrection means that we will not really be watching and waiting for his coming among us, because he’s already here in the gift of the Holy Spirit.

What the watching and waiting will involve is a retelling of the ancient stories of a long awaited Messiah, through the visions of the prophets, the blessing of Mary who carried the Christ-child in her womb and the messengers, like John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Jesus’ earthly mission. Perhaps more importantly we will once again be watching and waiting expectantly in preparation for Jesus’ Second Coming, as we put aside some of the excitement and spend some time being penitent and a little more thoughtful.

“So you, too, must keep watch! For you do not know the day or hour of my return”
Matthew 25:13

In the meantime, we can also spend time doing some more watching and waiting…. Watching and waiting for opportunities, whether it’s time or money, to bring to all those around us, who for one reason or another may not have the same chances or opportunities to join in our celebrations, a feeling of hope for the future; and to show once again that Jesus really is the reason for the season!

May God bless us all this Advent

Watching and Waiting

Watching and Waiting