Tag Archives: Old 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

Day Three – Part 2 – The Holocaust & The Christian World

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Street Art in the centre of Jerusalem

In Shoah and Genocide I wrote about Professor Yuhuda Bauer’s insights into why the Shoah or Holocaust was unprecedented. However, for any genocide to occur there has to be a history behind it. Dr Jesper Svartvik* suggests that however painful it might be we have to recognise the part that Christian anti-Semitism had to play in it. So what was the history of this anti-Semitism?

He suggests that this can be explained as a sevenfold process:

  1. SIBLINGS (Mark) In the beginning Judaism and Early Christianity had something in common. However, like most families where there are siblings, although they have a common origin that can be very different in character
  2. RIVALRY (Marcion) For more than 100 years, Christians had been using the Old Testament as Christian Scripture, and even the most sacred documents of Christians referred to and relied heavily on, the Old Testament. The solution for Marcion, a second century theologian, was to completely reject the Old Testament and establish a canon that de-emphasized Christianity’s Old Testament and Jewish roots as much as possible, to move from the LAW to GRACE. Although his solution was rejected it did cause the early Church Father to do some re-evaluation, after all they were reading it through Christian spectacles
  3. NECESSARY (Augustine) Despite speaking out against the Jews, he did not consider Judaism a problem, in fact he is quoted as saying that Jewish scripture was vital to the Christian faith, “If any adversary should say you have forged these prophecies, let the Jewish books be produced. They are our librarians.” But he did not consider the survival of Jews as necessary, after all they were the ones that had said ‘no’ to the Messiah and had therefore been relieved of God’s promises (replacement theology).
  4. OPPOSITE (Luther) Martin Luther believed that there is no valid way of being a Christian that will make you Jewish, it could be agreed that they had the right texts but they were doing the wrong thing with them. At first Luther wanted to convert the Jews to Christianity, it had been done before because Christ himself was a Jew, but when this failed he said ‘Away with them’. As he grew older this attitude became more and more polemic, using the rudest and vilest scatological language, perhaps the politest example being ‘throw sow dung at him . . . and chase him away’. The effect though of this is that defendants in the Nuremberg trials after the war were able to quote from his treatise, On the Jews and Their Lies, written in 1543, as justification
Martin Luther

Martin Luther

5. UNNECESSARY (Enlightenment). You would have thought that the Age of Enlightenment in the Eighteenth century, with its metaphorical image of light, would mean that these differences would disappear. However, when you become a minority, marked by your religious symbols and customs, these are seen as making you more religious, rather than part of the establishment . Therefore, religious attachment becomes a problem.
6. POISON (Nazi Germany) Christianity remained the dominant religion in Germany through the Nazi period. That Nazi ideology was able to come to the fore was due in part to the social and economic situation between 1918 and 1933. However, the Nazi’s didn’t even consider Jews as human and started talking about them as ‘rats’, a natural pest to be destroyed. Using a Christian perspective it was considered that there could be no salvation without the defeat of the Jews. The commandment to ‘love your neighbours’ was interpreted as ‘they live next door to us, but they are not my neighbours’.
7. SACRAMENTUM (Nostra Aetate) The Nosta Aetate is the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions of the Second Vatican Council and repudiated anti-Semitism and the charge that Jews were collectively guilty for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It said that we were all children of Abraham and that Christians and Jews were a blessing to the world. It also drew on Romans 11, the fact that ‘they are our brothers’.

This seems to bring the seven points in full circle – from Siblings to Sacramentum because Early Christianity and Judaism were so similar, but that Christianity had stepped out of the ashes of the 2nd Temple’s destruction. Christianity being the word that became flesh whilst Judaism was the flesh that became Word.

Jewish and Christian Thinking

Dr Jesper Svartvik
Dr Jesper Svartvik since 2009 is the holder of Krister Stendahl’s professor of religious theology at the Center for Theology and Religious Studies at Lund University and the Swedish Theological Institute in Jerusalem. Between 2005 and 2009, he was chairman of the Swedish Committee against Anti-Semitism

 

Day Three – Part 1 -From The Beginning

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The Partisans Panorama includes a tree of people which pays tribute to the Jewish fighters who joined the partisans during the Holocaust. As the sun hits it it glows red.

Taking part in this series of seminars becomes a real privilege when you realise that you are listening to world experts in their field. You frantically scribble down your notes, trying to capture if not every word at least as many as you can (I am already up to 29 pages of foolscap notes). How then to share that without reducing it to unconnected bullet points? The beauty is that the lectures are presented in chronological order and so there is some logic in just taking what you consider to be interesting and informative it, because after all this is a blog and not an essay. So the next couple of days may appear to be more academic ponderings but hopefully they will be thought-provoking as well. So let’s start at the beginning:

Shoah and Genocide

genocide-iraqProfessor Yehuda Bauer* states that the main question we should be concerned with is how to prevent the mass murder of one group of humans by another because genocide ‘disfigures the world’. International law talks of genocide as the ‘crime of crimes’ against ethnic and national groups with the intent and action of annihilation.

Why then do human groups murder other groups? Perhaps we have to go to the very beginning. Human beings were and are inherently predator mammals; more specifically we are hunter predators, and although nowadays we don’t dash out to spear a passing hairy mammoth for supper we do, as a group, raise animals and farm fish specifically for our food. We are ‘programmed to be killers’ as well as collectors.

We are also members of a herd, a group, a nation, but ‘to kill inside the herd destroys the herd’, so to justify killing we have to turn to laws and principles in opposition to our predator instincts. But what about the fifth commandment I hear you say… what the commandments actually says if you accurately translate the Hebrew word is ‘You shall not murder’ not ‘you shall not kill’; therefore killing is permitted murder whilst murder is prohibited killing.

Acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part’
Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention
and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948)

The crux of the matter revolves around racism and religion, and yet there are no racial groups because we are one race – the human race. Nevertheless racism exists, although this wasn’t always the case. It wasn’t until Christians reconquered the Iberian peninsula and expelled the Jews and Moors (Arabs) in 1492 in Toledo that the first racial law was passed. Since then there have been many ‘racially’ motivated incidents that we can classify as genocide but there was something different about the Shoah or Holocaust

It has parallels with other genocides in that it was mass murder; it was committed by the best possible means at the disposal of the perpetrators (whether gas chambers or machetes) and it mirrors the suffering of victims which is unquantifiable. The difference, however, lies in the motivation. All other genocides were committed for pragmatic reasons, in that the perpetrators were seeking power, domination or revenge. Yet the Jews had no real political representation in any European countries, they had no army, they didn’t really control any large national companies and didn’t have control over the economy. They were therefore murdered for ideology.

It showed itself in anti-Semitism (which is a singular contradiction as you cannot have a positive, i.e. Semitism) which was happening even pre-Christian times as shown in the allegorical story of Esther (Chapter 5). By killing Jews you are attempting to eliminate cultures different to yourself, which explains the roots of anti-Semitism and it arises not at a biographical level but a cultural level

 

Anti-Semetic Cartoon

Illustration from a German textbook used by primary schools (c. 1934)

 

However, it then reaches a theological level beginning with St Augustine of Hippo’s tract of 429BC Adversus ludaeos, which eventually mutates into nationalism, so that by 1941 Nazi ideology has reached the stage that it is necessary to kill ALL the Jews in the world. This has a new global element in that by the twentieth century it was physically possible to reach all corners of the world. So despite being very clearly part of genocide it is also very different because it was so unprecedented.

Where then does this leave those of us who profess a Christian faith, because after all the Jewish culture is part of our inheritance, and a Jewish man is the Messiah

A Torah Scroll

The Torah and The Old Testament

Yehuda-Bauer

*Yehuda Bauer was born 1926 in Prague, Czechoslovakia. In the 1930’s his father tried to raise money to get his family to the British Mandate of Palestine. On 15th March 1939, the day that Nazi Germany annexed Czechoslovakia the family managed to get past Nazi officials onto a train that took them over the border to Poland and from there they moved to Palestine via Romania. He continued his studies, including studying history at Cardiff University in Wales on a British scholarship. He returned to Israel, completing his doctorate in 1960 and began teaching at the Avraham Harman Institute for Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University. He served on the central committee of Mapam, then the junior partner party of Israel’s ruling Mapai (Israel Labour Party), and was a visiting professor at Brandeis University, Yale University, Richard Stockton College, and Clark University. He was the founding editor of the journal Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and served on the editorial board of the Encyclopaedia of the Holocaust, published by Yad Vashem in 1990. He continues as a professor of Holocaust Studies at the University as well as travelling around the world talking out genocide and discussing ways to prevent it.