This Sunday we remember the Prophets, and the thing about John the Baptist is that there hasn’t been a prophet in Israel for 400 years. The passage is full of symbolism, a lot of which we won’t naturally understand
John dresses in the same way as Elijah (2 Kings 1:8) – and the old prophets (Malachi 4:5) say that Elijah will come before the Messiah.
He (mis)quotes Isaiah: A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
In pre Roman times most roads were not made up – the only roads that were made up were for the King to use – so the passage is equating the Lord with the King – the Messiah.
At the heart of the passage is a call to repentance, and a call to trusting in God’s grace. Jewish faith believed in repentance as the way (back) to God. There were nine norms of repentance:
Make yourself clean
remove evil doings from God’s sight
Cease to do evil
Rescue the oppressed
Defend the orphan
Plead for the widow
The latter three of these being a constant refrain – to care for the alien, the orphan and the widow – perhaps something to contemplate in the forthcoming election!
The condemnation of the Pharisees and Sadducees comes because they believe that keeping the law is what is required, and that being children of Abraham guarantees that they will be right with God – not repentance. In Aramaic the words for children and stones are similar, and so John is using word play to attack them.
Finally we come to the axe at the foot of the tree and the winnowing fork. Those of us who lean towards a loving God struggle with these images – but they only apply to those who do not repent, and repentance can happen at any time. However, I would want to argue that the sooner we repent the better – life is better lived in the light of repentance than it is otherwise and life lived without repentance is already a form of hell!
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
The baptism of Jesus.
Aren’t there times when we all feel like a fresh start
though sometimes difficult enough to put into practise
But what about those more difficult issues
Life isn’t perfect, we’re not perfect.
We make mistakes, we have regrets,
There are time when it would feel wonderful to leave all these behind us – in the past –
and start again.
One of the great comforts and joys of the Christian faith
is that we know and love a God who by his very nature is forgiving
who allows us
to let go of past failures and begin again.
And because this is what our God is like,
this is how he would have us be as well.
‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’
During every regular act of worship there is an opportunity to remember our failures before God
accompanied by assurance of His forgiveness.
When we are very troubled we can seek a private opportunity for the consolation of confession.
And indeed the very moment of the start of our life in Christ is a moment of new beginnings
Of turning away from evil – towards Christ
Of being washed clean in the waters of Baptism.
For each of us these are very personal, precious moments
moments between me and my God.
But just think, as we say the words of confession together, aren’t we also to consider our failings as a community,
To bring these before God and to find a better way.
At the time we read about in today’s Gospel it seems that a vast number of the Jewish nation were seeking a new way.
People went out to John in the Judean desert from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.
Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the river Jordan.
Not one or two people, but almost the whole nation.
There’s practically no reference to any form of baptism in the Old Testament
So at this time baptism was a very recent development.
We know that the Jews of the Qumran community, made famous by their writings we call the Dead Sea Scrolls, living beside the Dead Sea not far from John,
attached great importance to ritual washing.
They viewed the Temple worship of Jerusalem as corrupt.
And refused to take part in the Temple sacrifices.
They compensated for this by immersing themselves daily in a communal bath – in a spirit of repentance for cleansing of sin.
It’s not really surprising then to find John the Baptist,
just up the road,
demanding Israel’s repentance,
signified by a once for all baptism in preparation for the coming judgement of the Messiah.
John was what we would now describe as a “hellfire preacher”.
He demanded total immersion from his followers,
which symbolised that inward purity and repentance which would deliver them from immersion in the coming river of fire.
John was thought to be the last of the old prophets who preached about the coming day of reckoning,
and who visualised it as something utterly terrifying.
The images of purification are always of refiner’s fire,
as though the badness and evil could only be burned out of people’s souls.
Hence the medieval images of Hell.
The people revered John’s preaching,
and although some left him to follow Jesus,
he still had plenty of disciples of his own at the end of his life.
In fact his following continued long after his life,
some, called Mandeans, survive to this day.
So John’s baptism was a turning to God baptism
‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’.
A conversion baptism
– this link between conversion and baptism remains constant throughout the New Testament.
Jesus was one of those who came to John for baptism by total immersion.
And this seems to have been a transforming moment in Jesus’ own life,
for it was after this that he began his own ministry in Galilee.
Indeed, St.Mark, with his characteristic immediacy, starts his Gospel with this very moment in his account of the Life of Jesus,
he doesn’t record anything before.
At this moment St.Mark describes the heavens as “rent asunder”, torn apart,
using this identical phrase again at end of Jesus’ ministry,
when Jesus is hanging on the cross and the curtain of the temple is torn apart.
At the same moment a dove,
a symbol of the Holy Spirit borrowed from Genesis,
from the creation of the world when God’s spirit hovered like a bird over the waters,
is seen hovering over Jesus.
It is tempting to suppose, as many modern commentators do, that this experience awakened in Jesus a consciousness of his unique relationship to God, and of his vocation as Israel’s Messiah.
This may be so, but it is not a safe interpretation.
– it is a conjecture inspired by a modern desire to enter into the psychology of the religious experience of Jesus.
In the texts we’re never given any hint of the way Jesus’ mind works.
This is not what the Gospel is dealing with.
The message to us here, lies in that Epiphany word – Manifest
God in Man made manifest
Manifest – to reveal – to show clearly
For this moment of baptism is primarily about revelation.
Here we have revealed before us
Jesus the Son of God.
And look at the wonderful trinitarian imagery
God the Father in heaven
Sending his Son Jesus into the world
Empowered by the Holy Spirit coming in the form of a dove
Here we have God’s supreme fresh start
That which we find in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Let us pray
Lord of all time and eternity,
you opened the heavens and revealed yourself as Father
in the baptism of Jesus your beloved Son:
by the power of your Spirit
complete the heavenly work of our rebirth
through the waters of the new creation;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Serving the Villages North of Farnham: Badshot Lea, Hale, Heath End & Weybourne