Tag Archives: New Testament

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

The Body of Christ

We are the body of Christ

We are the body of Christ

The New Testament module I have just completed was interesting in many ways. Its main focus was on several of the Pauline letters, including the epistles to the Galatians, Romans and Corinthians. New insights were gained into the background, setting and context of these letters as well as the character of Paul himself. This was particularly challenging as my natural tendency is to regard Paul with a small measure of annoyance and a gritting of teeth.

Don’t get me wrong, I have learned to love and admire St Paul; for his sheer hard work and determination in setting up the early churches, his zealousness for spreading the message of Christ and his genuineness in his beliefs. It’s just that sometimes I wonder, ‘Is that really what you meant Paul?’

One passage though, in which he explained the metaphor of ‘the body of Christ’ brooks no argument from me and we were asked to prepare a sermon on it as part of the course. Here then is a copy of that sermon, intended with my own church congregation in mind, but here delivered hopefully to an equally receptive, varied and open online congregation.

The passage it relates to is 1 Corinthians 12:12-26

As the writing on the barn wall stated, “All animals are equal…” This declaration by the animals in George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm laid down a rule which many democratic societies have upheld as a basic principle. However, if we are all equal doesn’t that mean that we all have to be the same? Not physically the same but doing the same thing, thinking the same thoughts, making everything neat and uniform, because in this way we will surely achieve unity. Won’t we? And isn’t uniformity the thing that we as a church strive for in our liturgy, church management and doctrine?

Well equality is not the same as uniformity and uniformity is actually not really helpful to true unity. As the animals later discovered when they added a codicil to the rule – “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” There is something more that needs to happen and Paul points to it in one of his clearest and least controversial statements in his first letter to the church in Corinth, when he identifies what it means to be the body of Christ

We could so easily just look at the analogy of each of the members of the church being represented as different body parts. We all have different roles to play which could equate to a particular limb or organ within a body – the choir representing the harmonious vocal chords; the sidespeople as helpful hands; ‘Jonathan’ [in my own church], who likes to disagree with every sermon, as the grumbling appendix!… Each of us creating a complete and unified metaphorical human being that is wonderfully made, but which can occasionally stumble and fall, but invariably picks itself up again.

 Still is this what Paul really means and is this the only way we can think of being one body?

For a start we are all different, and that’s great; because it would be an odd shaped body if we were all the same part. After all, like a body, we need the unique gifts offered by all of the various members. These various gifts provide diversity, a diversity that is God-given; and coming as they do from such a source they need to be used for the good of all. Paul recognises that the thing that unites us is the Holy Spirit and it is through the work of the Holy Spirit that believers become bound together into one body.

However, our diversity needs to be based on interdependency rather than independence… Just as we use different parts of our bodies to perform different tasks, we all have particular talents which make us very good at the jobs we choose to do; and sometimes we can jealously guard those jobs that we like doing, thereby preventing others from a chance of receiving equal recognition. In addition, if we perceive that these are highly skilled tasks we can begin to give them a superior status, which often leads to pride. Yet the work we perform in God’s name cannot be based on a belief of self-sufficiency – our successes are built on the grace of God and the shoulders of those that support us –this sermon would be pretty pointless if the church and its people weren’t present – and a lot has happened in the past and behind the scenes to bring everybody to this particular point in time. Just take a moment to think why and how it is you are here today?

Moreover, who are we to judge the worthiness of each role played within the church? Just as our limbs depend on muscles, and tendons; nerves and microscopic synapses to function efficiently, and would be useless without them, so we have to ensure that every role a person has is equally valued. Furthermore, we need to realise that if we are working towards a common purpose – a united body – then we have to recognise that there will be some within that ‘body’ who may be vulnerable and therefore need to be nurtured and cared for.

Often, living in a society that prizes outward signs of power and achievement, we can despise weakness and vulnerability, but Paul turns this on its head, so that as Christians we should honour those ‘less respectable members’ and instead afford them mutual respect. It could be anyone of us that fluffs their lines in the readings, or takes a long time to get up to the altar rail or forgets the milk for refreshments…If we learn to be more accepting then the church will truly function as the body of Christ

Of course there are going to be time when we do disagree with each other, but it will be how we deal with this that counts. If our disagreements are forever aired publicly, rather than quietly and with concern for the other person, then we run the risk that we lower the respect that we need to have for each other as well as the respect that others have for us. We devalue the whole

What then should the shape of the whole look like? Well, in a world that is forever dieting and primping to maintain the body beautiful, we need to put that image aside. Our body should be fluid and growing, accepting new members so that every part of the body can grow stronger. We shouldn’t pick and choose what sort of parts or people we might need more of, or reject what might be to some insignificant or worthless. We have to allow people to be what they are; love each other unconditionally and rejoice in our unity – because if we don’t then we not acting as the body of Christ; and In the words of a song by the music group Casting Crowns – “Jesus paid much too high a price for us to pick and choose who should come… and we are the body of Christ”

Amen

Lyrics from If We Are The Body – Casting Crowns

It’s crowded in worship today
As she slips in trying to fade into the faces.
The girls’ teasing laughter is carrying farther than they know
Farther than they know

A traveller is far away from home
He sheds his coat and quietly sinks into the back row.
The weight of their judgemental glances
Tells him that his chances are better out on the road

But if we are the body
Why aren’t his arms reaching?
Why aren’t his hands healing?
Why aren’t his words teaching?
And if we are the body
Why aren’t his feet going?
Why is His love not showing them there is a way?
There is a way

Jesus paid much too high a price
For us to pick and choose who should come
And we are the body of Christ

Jesus is the way

© Casting Crowns 2003
https://www.castingcrowns.com/music/lyrics/if-we-are-body

Disclaimer: Any names mentioned within this sermon have been changed to protect people’s anonymity and because I would still like to worship there. They know who they might be!

A Bible Is For Life, Not Just For Sundays?

Read the bible in whatever way possible

Read the bible in whatever way possible

At church recently we took the opportunity to think about the place that God’s word, in the form of the bible, takes in our worship and daily lives. Appropriately, it was on Bible Sunday*

It would be silly to ask you to put your hands up or answer out loud, but I’d like you to think what your answers might be to these questions…

I read the bible……

I read the bible every day……

I read the bible every day and then reflect on what I have read…

I read the bible every day and then reflect on what on what I have read and then try to apply it to my life…

The questions are not intended to be accusatory …. that you really should choose the last one in order to be deemed ‘saintly’. The most important thing is whether you actually read the bible!

At college we may not be required to bring our bibles to each lesson or lecture, where we talk about theology, liturgy and formation, but what has become obvious is just how vital Holy Scripture is to our faith. I don’t mean learning huge chunks of it off by heart or being able to recite whole gospels from memory, although it would be handy knowing exactly who said what, where and when sometimes… No, I mean looking to the bible to provide some guidance and answers to the many questions we have, not only about our faith, but about life in general. In the Book, or books to be more precise, lie all those answers. The problem so often is how we understand or interpret them – whether we accept them as instructions or guidance only.

Some people like to look up passages which have been selected as being particularly helpful for the different emotions we may be experiencing. When we’re worried, it might be calming to read, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life” or when facing bereavement to be comforted by “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”, both from Matthew’s gospel or when showing gratitude and thanksgiving to proclaim from the psalms “Let us come before him with thanksgiving.”

Even here though we have to be careful that this is not the only way we experience and use God’s word. There is always the danger that these become our preferred readings, to the exclusion of other, perhaps more difficult passages… and are they simply sentences in isolation whereas the whole verse or chapter may actually have more to tell us?

We also have to be aware of bias. So often nowadays we hear people asserting that their stand on different issues is fully justified because of specific passages in the bible. They trot out verse after verse of carefully selected scripture and vehemently declare this is the truth of the matter because it’s written in the bible and that the bible is the Word of God and you don’t argue with God!

All the while they either consciously or unconsciously blatantly ignore other scripture that might contradict their point of view… just think back to how the ordination of women was debated in the Church or how homosexuality is viewed in general. Surely these contradictory passages too are written in the bible and inarguably the Word of God?

What is does show is that it certainly isn’t easy. This book is not really a teaching manual – but it still does contain all the answers. Whenever we think or talk about God we are allowed to do so using all of our previous knowledge and information, but very much aware of the context in which we do so. What have been our examples, our own life experiences? What have we absorbed though our families, our education, our culture? All of these will give us a unique and corporate vision of what God is about, how he moves in our lives and how he moves us to be in his world. Yet we can’t truly be so individualistic without referring it back to and centring on the Scriptures.

Some people might nowadays treat as laughable the simplistic motto from the 80’s and 90’s of WWJD – What Would Jesus Do, but the basic premise makes perfect sense. When we find ourselves in situations where we have to make decisions it might not be a bad thing to simply ask… if I am trying to be more Christlike in my attitude and behaviour then I really need to understand what examples Jesus has given us… and where do I find that out… in the pages of the Bible.

Whether we’re reading about what Jesus was doing or where he was pointing us to what God was doing through him, fulfilling the prophecies; embodying the word that had gone forth or bringing us hope for the future, if we want to get the truest picture, not just some intellectual theologian’s take on it or an experienced commentator’s exegesis or the humble preacher’s attempt at exposition, then we have to go back to the source.

All those other things are subjective and come with lots of layers of opinion and interpretation. Not that I am saying that any or all of them are incorrect, but we need to peel back those layers and expose the heart of the matter, whether you believe it is the word of God to inspire or the inspired word of  God.  “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.Romans 15:4

'Go back to the source'

‘Go back to the source’

My original question emphasised the fact that the bible is a book that needs to be read. We need to make sure it’s not sitting as a pristine but dusty tome in our bookcases, but that it’s placed where it can naturally come to hand. Why not see it as your bedside table book, full of ripping yarns and adventures. Or put it with your dog-eared and food-specked cook books – using it to create delicious recipes for life or maybe in the glove compartment of your car – a combined road atlas and ‘Haynes’ manual to keep you going straight on the journey?

Wherever you keep it don’t forget that unlike a library book there’s no restriction on who could borrow it, it doesn’t have a return by date and each and every copy, whether it’s an original or translation will only ever be a first edition. Happy reading!

*Bible Sunday was celebrated on Sunday 23rd October 2013. It is an annual part of the Church of England’s calendar and resources each year are produced by the Bible Society. Follow this link for more information http://www.biblesociety.org.uk/about-bible-society/our-work/bible-sunday/