SUNDAY 6 DECEMBER 2015
“I am not the Messiah, he is the one who is coming after me.” “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me.” This is what John the Baptist says to those want to know who he is.
What does it mean to be a forerunner ? To be sent ahead ? To point the way ? Is it easy to be a forerunner ?
The English dictionary defines a forerunner as someone who not only goes ahead but also bears a message. So for us it could be a parent, or a teacher, or a family friend, a prophet, or even a politician – someone who by pointing ahead is able to inspire us in some way.
Our Gospel passage today concerns John, called the Baptist, who said the words: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” and in John’s Gospel “I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him”. He was replying to people who had been sent by the Pharisees to ask him if he was the leader who would save Israel from foreign domination and from a host of other problems. “I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.” How did this come about ?
John was born just before Jesus, and he was born as a messenger. We know this because his father Zechariah had a vision about it. This vision led to a wonderful outburst which has found its way into our service of Morning Prayer, which we recite every morning here in this church. It is called The Benedictus or The Song of Zechariah, and, after blessing God for his promises to Abraham and the prophets, Zechariah says these words about John: “And you, 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 all their sins”.
Zechariah was a priest and his wife Elizabeth (who was the Virgin Mary’s cousin) was descended from Aaron, the first priest of the Jewish people and brother of Moses. We are told in the Gospels that Zechariah and Elizabeth led a blameless life, but that their one sadness was that they had no children, and they were getting on in years.
In Zechariah’s vision the Angel Gabriel (who later appears to Mary and Joseph) appears to him and declares that his wife Elizabeth will give birth to a son, who will be named John and who, in the words of the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, “even before his birth will be filled with the Holy Spirit”. So this is to be a very special child. Then, when he is born, and everyone expects him to be called Zechariah after his father, it is announced that his name will be John – to general astonishment.
We know nothing of his early life (in the same way as we know very little about the early life of Jesus), but we read that he grows up and goes into the wilderness, eating locusts and wild honey. We hear that he begins preaching in the region around the river Jordan, and is proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He does this fearlessly, and doesn’t hesitate to criticise King Herod for making off with his brother’s wife – a fact which eventually leads to John’s death at the hands of an executioner. He is also fearless in criticising the Jewish priestly class of the time, the Pharisees and Sadducees (as Jesus does later), telling them that it is not enough to claim that they descend from Abraham, and reminding them to bear fruit worthy of repentance. Why ? Because ordinary Jews had over the centuries been misled into thinking that all they had to do to ensure their salvation was to fulfil all the stipulations of the Law (over 600 of them) each year, which had reduced the original Ten Commandments almost to meaninglessness. With the system of animal and bird sacrifices in the Temple, and the requirement to change daily money into special Temple money to buy the sacrifices, the Law had also become something of a racket – hence the overturning of the Temple moneychangers’ tables by Jesus, who of course was well aware of his destiny that people would be given (in the words of John’s father Zechariah) “knowledge of their salvation by the forgiveness of their sins”, and not by just ticking the boxes of the Law.
John is frequently asked if he is the Messiah for whom the Jews have been waiting for hundreds of years. As we know, he says he is not but has been sent to point the way and prepare it for the Messiah, whose sandals he says he is not worthy to untie. Eventually his disciples melt away to follow Jesus, whose ministry has begun in the meantime, and we hear no more of him until he is killed.
It is not easy to be self-effacing in this egotistical day and age of ours. But the fact remains that as Christians we are to follow John the Baptist’s example, to point the way not to ourselves and all our wonderful deeds, but to our Lord and King Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Because of the sacrifice he made for us we are to point the way to him in all we undertake, in all we say and do, and so to demonstrate where we stand – something it took me far too long to learn to do, let alone be self-effacing !
To gain the strength to do all this we gather together week by week, day by day for some of us, here in St Mary’s, knowing that we are in the company of Christians all over the world, so that we may be fired up in faith to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves, with all its implications. As I was writing this sermon I remembered that it’s exactly two years since Nelson Mandela’s death. He too was a forerunner, pointing the way to a better future for all, for a time convinced that it could only be achieved through violent means, then after long years of suffering in prison emerging with a message of peace and reconciliation which inspired the whole world.
So we are to be like John the Baptist and Nelson Mandela in their different ways. To quote the prophet Malachi, which is the third reading for today, chapter 3:
“See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears ?”
PBW – 4.12.2015