3rd Sunday of Advent, December 14 2014
Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24, John 1.6-8, 19-28
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
You may not have noticed, but this is the year of Mark.
At the beginning of Advent we began to read the gospel of Mark, and we shall carry on reading Mark until Advent comes round again next year.
This is the way our lectionary works: we have a year of Matthew, a year of Mark, and a year of Luke, with bits of the fourth gospel for the great seasons of the Christian year. Of all four gospels, John is very suitable for the high holy days, because John has the highest theology of them all.
But in the year of Mark we get a bit more of John, because for those who compile lectionaries the problem with Mark is he didn’t write enough to keep us going.
So last Sunday we read about John the baptizer in Mark, and this Sunday we read about John in the fourth gospel. John was much less interested in drawing attention to himself than in pointing to the one greater than him who was coming. But this does encourage us to look at the different ways our gospels present him.
Mark tells us that John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness east of Jerusalem and north of the Dead Sea, proclaiming a baptism of repentance. And people from Jerusalem and the whole Judean countryside were going out to him and were baptized by him in the river Jordan. This was about the year 28.
In the individualistic culture of the West, we have trouble understanding repentance. Or rather, we have trouble understanding it correctly. We think it means a confession of personal guilt and a willingness to do penance.
But this is to miss the context of John’s preaching and the point of his baptism and of the place of his preaching.
In the law and the prophets, the drama of history is a dialogue between God and God’s people.
The wilderness in which John preaches is full of symbolic meaning. The wilderness is a wild and lonely place where we may meet with demons and be tempted by Satan. The wilderness in the exodus story, the foundational story of the people of Israel, is the place where God tested his people and Israel rebelled and was punished. The wilderness is, above all, the place where the people may return to God by returning to the place where God’s dealings with God’s people began.
We read a lot of Isaiah in the run-up to Christmas, and rightly so. For more than any other prophetic book, Isaiah provides us with a template to understand the meaning of Jesus of Nazareth, the coming of Christ.
At the beginning of Isaiah we read:
“Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean, remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes. Cease to do evil, learn to do good. Seek justice, correct the oppressor, vindicate the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1.16f)
Washing here is a symbol of communal repentance, the return of the people to the Lord. Judgment is turned against God’s people when they go astray, and the people are saved by returning to God.
To be sure, washing can also be used as a symbol of individual repentance, as in Psalm 51:
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” (Ps 51.1f)
But psalms are meant for singing, the psalter is the hymnbook of Israel, and the question of the individual is itself a communal question: Do I really belong to God’s people, or do I just think myself to belong? Am I included in, thanks to God’s steadfast love and abundant mercy? Or by persistently going the wrong way, have I excluded myself out?
This is what John says to the crowds who come out to be baptized by him, in the traditions preserved by Matthew and by Luke: Don’t even think of saying, “We have Abraham as our father”. You are not children of Abraham by mere physical descent. Belonging to God’s people – and here John is at one with all the prophets of old – cannot be reduced to ethnic solidarity. You belong to God only by turning to God and by bringing forth fruits worthy of that turn.
People always need to turn to God; but not every moment in history is the same as every other.
John appears in the wilderness of Judea because he believes that the God of Israel is about to act in a final way to save God’s people. John is Isaiah’s messenger, preparing the way for God’s definitive salvation. As John puts it, “There comes after me one stronger than I, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to loose. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the holy spirit.” (Mark 1.7f and parallels)
Mark and our other gospel writers read this saying with hindsight, as we ourselves do; and Mark goes straight on to identify the stronger one with Jesus of Nazareth.
But for John himself, it seems, the saying was much more enigmatic. He didn’t know, at least to begin with, who or what this stronger one would be; perhaps he went to his death still not knowing.
When Jesus has already begun to acquire a reputation, John sends to him and asks: “Are you the one who is coming, or shall we wait for another?” (Matthew 11.3). Jesus replies with a string of allusions to Isaiah: “The blind see and the lame walk, people with skin diseases are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is whoever does not stumble over me.” (Matthew 11.4-6)
This summary of what Jesus was doing draws from Isaiah 29, 35 and 61, the last of these the passage Heather read this morning. But it homes in on the bits that are full of hope. It ignores the prophecies of judgment in the same texts. This is, no doubt, one reason why John asks his question.
John preached that the stronger one would bring a lot of judgement. Jesus had so far brought more repentance and less judgement than John had expected. “Are you the one?” was a reasonable question.
Jesus was reaping a harvest in Israel, as John had predicted, gathering his wheat into the granary; but there was much less fire and brimstone than John had anticipated. “Is this what God’s salvation really looks like?”
To which Jesus might well have replied: God is good; and God does not desire the death of a sinner, but rather that we should turn from our sin and live.
And John would have no quarrel with that. That was, after all, the point of his preaching.
This drama of judgment and salvation is acted out in the land of Israel. The dominant metaphor for salvation in the Hebrew Bible is one of return from exile. John’s imagery of gathering wheat into the barn transmutes this beautifully for people who lived in Israel. The true return from exile is not whether we are in the land, but how we are in the land. The true return from exile is the return to God.
This translates directly – may I suggest? – into our own time and place. Everyone in this land claims to want peace. But there is no point saying we’re on the side of peace if we are not prepared to take the concrete steps needed to make peace: if we are not willing, in Isaiah’s words, to cease to do evil and learn to do good.
Let me turn briefly to the fourth gospel, which writes about John with the most hindsight of all.
John is a prophet, indeed a major prophet; but the fourth gospel has him deny this. Jesus says that if we are willing to accept it, John is Elijah who is to come; but the fourth gospel has him deny this too. And of course John denies that he is the Messiah; that role all our gospels reserve emphatically for Jesus.
Why so many nots? The whole point of the denials the fourth gospel puts onto the lips of John is, it seems, to insist that the whole purpose of John is to point to Jesus.
And this is our whole purpose and point too.
For how else will people today come to believe in Jesus of Nazareth as the salvation of God except through what we are and do? It is through our witness that people encounter him. Perhaps we too need a baptism of repentance.
The Dutch writer Henri Nouwen puts the point rather well in a passage I read yesterday:
“The marvellous vision of the peaceable kingdom calls for its realisation in our day-to-day lives. Instead of being an escapist dream, it challenges us to anticipate what it promises. Every time we forgive our neighbour, every time we make a child smile, every time we show compassion to a suffering person, every time we… work for peace and justice among peoples and nations we are making the vision come true.
“We must remind one another constantly of the vision. Whenever it comes alive in us we will find new energy to live it out, right where we are. Instead of making us escape real life, this beautiful vision gets us involved.”
Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching (London & New York: T & T Clark, 2010)
Henri Nouwen, “Anticipating the vision”, December 13 2014
Geoffrey Preston OP, Hallowing the Time (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1980)