Sunday 10th December 2017
The Second Sunday of Advent
First Reading: Isaiah 40: 1 – 11
Second Reading: 2 Peter 3: 8 – 15a
Gospel Reading: Mark 1: 1- 8
By Leslie Spatt
Who was John the Baptist anyway?
Just imagine the situation – the country under occupation, infested with an army of foreigners who don’t speak your language, or know anything about your religion or your customs; whose distant rulers demand exorbitant, crushing taxes from the locals and submission to a series of administrators who just don’t understand or care much about the welfare of either the country or those who live in it.
A time where, trying to carry on faithfully worshipping a God you believe to be the only God, you’re finding it increasingly difficult to trust that God will take care of you and your people, the people God chose to be witnesses to the world about the real Kingdom God wants for everyone. And so you start hunting through your holy scriptures to see what they have to say about the current situation. After all, the Jewish nation has been through so much, isn’t about time that the promised one, the Messiah, will come to rescue the Jews and destroy their oppressors?
Yes, sure….dream on. But then…we’re hearing those prophecies of Malachi and Isaiah in the synagogue, and isn’t that exactly what that crazy man in the wilderness is going on about? Asking all of us to turn to God, to repent and change the way we act, ask forgiveness for all our sins? After all, we must be sinning, because we’re having all this misery. And this nutter, dunking everyone in the water, saying that they’re washed clean – it sounds like he might even be Elijah, God’s messenger, the one who will turn up just before the Messiah arrives. Didn’t Elijah preach a message of repentance? And…listen to this…he’s talking about someone who will come after him, someone much more powerful.
This is all hypnotising, heady stuff. We can see why the people of 1st century Israel, Judah, Palestine or whatever you want to call it, were getting so excited. Maybe, just maybe, this was really the start of the coming of the Kingdom of God – where the promised Messiah would throw out the all the Romans and establish God’s rule, where the word of God will stand for ever.
John the Baptist wasn’t an event happening in isolation. He was totally connected to his cultural and religious history. By the time he and Jesus arrive on the scene, messianic hopes had been circulating around the eastern Mediterranean for at least 100 years. A messiah would turn up, a saviour, God’s anointed, who would rescue the Jews from their foreign political domination. And the people who had strayed from the path would be reconciled, find their way back to their God, forgiven, comforted, says Isaiah. Jerusalem, the many conquered city, has served her term, her penalty is paid. Once the way is prepared by the messenger, then God will come and bring captive Israel home.
Observant Jews would have been well aware of the prophecies in scripture – of the promises that a rescuer would come to save them from their troubles. And there would be clear signs of this happening. It was expected that the prophet Elijah would appear as the messenger to announce the Messiah’s arrival. The prophet Malachi says “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” Was John seen as the returning Elijah? Elijah was keen on repentance and turning back to the Lord. John was perhaps a convenient hook for the gospel writers to hang this expectation onto. He was preaching that same repentance; and baptising people as a symbol of sins being washed away, forgiven by God. Elijah is described as a hairy man who wore a leather belt. John wears hairy clothing and, yes, wears a leather belt.
Could the Gospels have been written without any reference to specifically John the Baptist? Yes, possibly; but there was a need for someone to be the one who announced that the Lord God was coming with might. Someone who would be recognised as having the authority of scripture to back them up. Without those signs given by the prophets – in the holy scriptures which were the only sacred writings available to the Jews – Jesus might have been seen as just another prophet in the long line of them who appeared and disappeared without having much influence in the continuing sad story of the repeatedly conquered Jews. Is he actually the Messiah, people might say; so far Elijah hasn’t appeared, and we know that this has to happen first.
We might wonder why we need to know about John the Baptist or why he appears in the Jesus story at all. Rather unusually, all 4 Gospels mention John, and all of them refer to him in the same context – the one who is to come, the preparer; before the far greater one appears who will bring God’s salvation. Or, as we think of it, the Messiah, the anointed, the Christos; all three words mean the same thing. So, yes, John was undoubtedly very important to people telling the story of Jesus.
When the Gospels were written down, in Greek, things like chapters and verses didn’t exist. In fact, punctuation and upper / lower case letters as we know them didn’t exist either. Reading fluently was a highly valued skill because it was difficult to easily figure out where one sentence stopped and another began. So, where translators put modern punctuation often makes a quite a difference. Here’s a little exercise: the opening two sentences of Mark’s Gospel. We’ve heard it read this morning in the conventional way. But without punctuation it could be read, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God as it is written in the prophet Isaiah. See, I am sending my messenger…” That can put quite a different slant on the interpretation of the opening statement in Mark: what the coming of the Messiah, the Good News, would be like could be found in the writings of the ancient prophets. So the messenger, this John, was indeed saying to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’ The Good News which Mark announced was a continuation of those writings. The prophets long ago weren’t giving magic predictions about Jesus, but Mark was reminding people of the expectations and hopes raised then, and about to be fulfilled now. So the messenger, this John, was indeed saying to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’ The Good News which Mark announced was a continuation of those writings. The prophets long ago weren’t giving magic predictions about Jesus, but Mark was reminding people of the expectations and hopes raised then, and being fulfilled now.
However…and it is a very big “however”…as we know, Jesus wasn’t going to fulfil what many thought of as a Messiah. Jesus never intended to do what his contemporaries hoped for, to raise and lead an army to release them from a mostly secular, worldly situation of foreign rule and to establish a religious, earthly kingdom where God and only God would reign. In many ways, the Jewish people are still waiting for that sort of ruler. If current events are anything to go by, they definitely have an extremely long wait ahead of them. Jesus wanted something different, something much more than a temporary release from oppression. He preached about a radical change of heart and mind, a genuine turning away from the sin of self-centredness which forgot about what God really wanted for all of creation.
But John the Baptist was a start. He was the one who grabbed the attention of people who hoped for something new, something better. John was the one who unselfishly pointed to another person, to the one we believe reflects and embodies what God is like, who for us is God. The one who will lead us back to the Father and save us from our incomplete selves, to a God who will feed us like a shepherd and gather us like lambs, protect us from evil.
In Advent, we wait. We wait in hope and faith, listening to John the Baptist announce that the Lord is nigh. What are we waiting for? Might it be something like the people listening to John were hoping for? We wait for the One to appear again. Not as terrible judge, not as someone to condemn us for our sins. But as the One who will continue to show us the way to return to God. Amen.
©Leslie Spatt 2017