Tag Archives: Pharisees

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

Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff?

Don't sweat the small stuff?

Don’t sweat the small stuff?

Readings: James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

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

There’s an American idiom that you may have heard of, ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’. It’s basically something that might be said to someone in order to tell them not to worry about things that are not important. It’s actually not a bad thing to suggest, because sometimes we worry about getting the small things sorted out and forget to look at the bigger picture. So are the small things unimportant?

The bigger picture as far as Jesus was concerned was teaching people what their attitude needed to be in relation to God, not whether they had dotted the ‘I’s and crossed the ‘T’s on their membership application to the Christian faith.

In this section of Mark’s gospel people are flooding to him – he has just fed the five thousand, had a brief respite in prayer; and then walked out to his disciples in their boat, when they were fighting against an adverse wind, to calm the weather and their fears. On landing he has been immediately recognised and word has spread and people are rushing about the region, bringing to him their sick, begging for and being granted healing.

Now in this passage, the Pharisees and scribes, who had no doubt been sent out from Jerusalem to gather evidence against him are interrupting a well-deserved meal break to tell him that he’s breaking Jewish law by eating with unwashed hands. No wonder he decides to tell them as it really is! ‘Stop sweating the small stuff!’

To the Jews, and in particular the Pharisees, however, the small stuff was important. They believed that, alongside the written Torah, there existed another body of oral laws, interpretations and traditions transmitted by God to Moses orally and then memorised. In fact there are 613 statutes stated in the Halakhah, or Jewish Law, most of which are derived from the Torah’s books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy … never easy reads!… but some are laws that have been enacted by the rabbis, who have interpreted the Torah over time.

A few of them are related to particular groups of people such as the Nazarites, whilst a large proportion of the others relate to sacrifices and offerings which can only be made in the Temple, which no longer exists. There are some that sound rather quaint to our ears, such as ‘not to make a bald spot in mourning’ or ‘not to eat worms found in fruit once they have left the fruit’… presumably it’s okay to eat them whilst they are still in the fruit then! But there are some that are abhorrent… that a rapist must marry his victim if she is unwed and is never allowed to divorce her. Certainly tells us a lot about the status of women if nothing else.

The laws to which Mark was referring to, and which he explained in some detail to his mainly Gentile audience, are part of the Kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws concerning kosher foods and its preparation and handling, and were part of a highly complex and developed system of purity regulations. For orthodox Jews even today they throw up problems, such as how you are going to use a dishwasher for both meat and dairy utensils in a kosher home. Still sweating the small stuff!

Kashrut symbols blog

For many modern non-orthodox Jews, however, they believe that the laws of kashrut are simply primitive health regulations that have become obsolete and that the legalistic aspect of traditional Judaism reduces religion to a set of rituals devoid of spirituality, which was not the intention of Halakhah, which can be translated better as ‘the path that one walks’. So they no longer see the need to sweat the small stuff, perhaps having been persuaded by changes in society that these laws are no longer important or relevant to their faith.

However, back in first century Palestine, Jesus points out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, in that by interpreting and applying scripture in this way they are only honouring God with what they say rather than what they do. His kingdom message has nothing to do with how and what you eat, that is not what will stop you becoming pure. Rather the challenge of the gospel is much more a challenge of the heart. He is insisting that good and bad external and physical actions come from internal and spiritual sources, and that it is human motivation that is the real problem.

His list of evil intentions seem full on, and perhaps it is easy for us to glance at the list and feel comfortable with the fact that on the whole we’re fairly sure we haven’t indulged in many of them, especially the biggies like fornication, murder or adultery. Yet can we be quite sure that in some small way we haven’t practiced theft… the pen ‘borrowed’ from work and never taken back; or licentiousness… the extra packets of cakes or food bought which never got eaten and which had to be thrown away; or slander… the sarcastic insult offered veiled with a smile? What about envy, pride or avarice?

Yes, we might say, but that’s only the small stuff… even so, Jesus doesn’t seem to rank them in order of importance; they are all equally said to be possible evil intentions that are present in and come from the human heart.

He also at this stage doesn’t seem to offer a solution as to what we can to do to either avoid or resolve this problem, we are simply left to infer it… of course later on and with our gift of hindsight we do know what the solution will be, through Christ’s ultimate revelation of the kingdom. However, our reading from the letter of James, does give us something concrete to act upon. It tells us that rather than drawing from our hearts those things that make us sordid that we should listen to that part of us that God has already placed within us.

We are to be quick to listen so that we can exercise self-control and know what the right thing to do is; take time to consider what the effect of our words might be on others so that we act with kindness; to be patient so that our actions are those of love rather than hate.

Christians are called to be above reproach and yet we are only too well aware that we so often fall short. But despite this we can’t casually set aside bits of scripture that we don’t like or understand. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to justify our actions because society around us doesn’t seem to worry about the small stuff; that’s how we become tainted by the world.

Yes, we make mistakes and get it wrong… yes we can seek forgiveness… and yes we will be forgiven; but we need to take an honest look at how we behave and change the things that make us follow human traditions rather than being doers of the word.

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets;
I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them’. Matthew 5:17

The important thing is that Jesus came not to set aside the law but to fulfil it. The scriptures were not necessarily irrelevant then or now. They act as signposts to the reality that was Jesus. Everything that they were getting at reached a climax in Jesus Christ, and from then on everything was different. He became the perfect law, the law of liberty. So by keeping his law we can constantly remind ourselves of our relationship with the divine so that it becomes an integral part of our existence.

The Pharisees were more concerned that the rules were followed and that keeping the laws was more important than how people were treated. Jesus was more concerned with how we treat others; that we were love God and our neighbours as ourselves, because on those two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Should we sweat the small stuff?… I’ll let you decide.

Amen

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil' Matthew 5:17

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them’ Matthew 5:17

 

Prayers for Passiontide

They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head

They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head

A weekend away at college brings lots of new insights and learning, and it also gives us time for reflection. In the midst of all the talk about mission and preparing for ministry we entered Holy Week with a day of silence which was to include an area set aside for prayer and contemplation. Several people brought with them some resources to set up separate prayer stations but it is amazing that what might be disjointed individual activities often come together beautifully to make a whole spiritual space. Here are just a few highlights and the ideas behind them.

Making Palm Crosses

They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!”  “Blessed is he who comes  in the name of the Lord!” John 12:13

They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” John 12:13

Making palm crosses is not necessarily easy at the best of times but to have to give instructions without speaking  makes it even more interesting. These were used for the Palm Sunday procession later on in the morning

The station reminded us that Jesus knew he was on his way to the cross when he entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday. Many of those who had been with him and who cheered him that day were soon to fall away, unable to follow his instructions.  Matthew 16:24-25 reminds us that if we want to become followers of Jesus that we are required to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses. We were therefore asked to think whether we were willing to do so.

Kneeling at the foot of the Cross

When I survey the wondrous cross

When I survey the wondrous cross

Kneeling down and looking up at the cross is a powerful image. It was an opportunity to lay down all the things that we had got wrong  and for which we asked forgiveness for.

Before the cross as we thought of these things we could write or draw them in the sand. As the prayer told us:

Know that God forgives you…
Forgive yourself

PS Foot of the Cross Sand Blog

Now smooth out the sand… You are forgiven

 Now smooth out the sand…
You are forgiven

The Stones Cry Out

if these were silent,  the very stones  would cry out.” Luke 19:40

if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” Luke 19:40

The cheering that accompanied Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem was upsetting the Pharisees and they ordered him to tell his disciples to keep quiet. His response that even if they were silent then the very stones that lined the roadside would cry out

A reminder that we can not keep silent about injustices, and we were invited to think and pray about all those who are suffering at this moment in time and then to place a stone before the cross

The Crown of Thorns

I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Philippians 4:13

I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Philippians 4:13

At the hands of Pilate’s soldiers, Jesus was mocked, spat upon and struck. People of faith often suffer this humiliation at the hands and voices of those who do not understand, who belittle their beliefs and who do so out of hatred; the answer being to respond with love. Jesus predicted that this would happen (Matthew 10:22) but there was reassurance that God would provide the strength necessary to endure this. Lighting a candle was a way of giving thanks for this

I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Philippians 4:13

 Consider the Lilies

Consider the Lilies - Stanley Spencer

Consider the Lilies – Stanley Spencer

A chance to contemplate one of Stanley Spencer’s beautiful painting that was produced as part of a series entitled Christ in the Wilderness (1939-54). Here we see Christ contemplating not the grand lilies but the humble daisy, whose faces are turned toward the absorbed attention of their creator. The reference is to Matthew 6:25-34 with its reminder of the futility of worrying. (Concept – Jenny Tebboth)

PS consider the lilies + flowers blog

 The Unity Cross and the Tree of Life

PS Unity Cross blog

The Unity Cross

Other things to contemplate were the Unity Cross and the Lindisfarne Scriptorium, Tree of Life. The cross had been especially commissioned  for our opening worship when as individuals we had each taken one of the small piece of coloured glass that were scattered on a table and placed them within the cross to symbolise our unity in Christ. (Concept Jenny Tebboth)

Likewise the drawing of the Tree of Life with Christ at the centre was used as an example of a powerful image for mission in one of the lectures

PS Unity Cross and Tree of Life blog

 Peg Prayers

Pegging out our prayers

Pegging out our prayers

Our own prayers were important as well and we pegged them knowing that God has promised to hear our prayers when we pray to him in faith

Other Prayer Activities

PS Prayer Activities

Also included were other prayer activities which included clockwise from top left above:

  • Poetry Corner – a chance to read and write our own poetry
  • Meditating on Christ on the cross
  • Tasting Scriptures
  • ‘Love Bade Me Welcome’ with its imagery of the Eucharist
  • Lectio Divina
  • Praying for the Nations
  • Stations of the Cross (not pictured)
  • The Potter and the Clay based on Jeremiah 18 (not pictured)

All in all a veritable plethora of activities and images to not only provide breathing spaces in a day of quiet contemplation but to help make us more imaginative in our prayer lives for the future

 And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”
Matthew 21:22