14 December 2008
3rd Sunday of Advent
9.00 Communion, Stone & 10.30 Parish Communion, Woodchurch
Readings: Isaiah 6, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28
May I speak in the name of God, +Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
I am sure that none of you good people here have ever and would never drink alcohol to excess but I am told by a very good friend of mine that if you drink too much it can cause a thing called a hangover. My friend said that whilst hangovers can happen at any time of year they are particularly common on New Years Day and that when he was younger, before he had children to look after, sometimes the whole of New Years Day could be spent hungover from the night before. You understand that I am speaking here on the basis of research rather than personal experience. In other words whilst we might like to start a new year with an entirely clean slate in reality what we have done and experienced in one year cannot help but shape our experience of the next.
Well, the season of Advent represents the start of the Church’s New Year and although we are now just starting the third week of Advent and our eyes should be fixed on the coming of Christ at the nativity in less than two weeks, I am still feeling a sense of something ‘hanging over’ from the end of the last Church year which we celebrated with the feast of Christ the King. It was obviously a really good feast for the hangover to last three weeks!
So what is this feeling that is following me from one Church year to the next? Well, at the feast of Christ the King and in the weeks running up to it, we thought about the end of the Christian story that culminates with Jesus’ returning as King with judgement and mercy to establish a new heaven and a new Earth. I don’t know if you remember the tone of the bible readings in those weeks but they are all about faithfulness and patience as we watch and wait for the return of Jesus.
Perhaps it is becoming clear why I can’t quite shake off the influence of the last year – although the calendar tells us that we are in a new year and that we are back at the beginning of the Christian story in many ways we are still watching and waiting with faithfulness and patience for Christ to appear on earth – although rather than looking forward to Christ’s return we are now looking back and, in a sense, remembering with anticipation the fact of Jesus’ birth.
Now, without wishing to overburden you with yet another layer of anticipation we should remember that this week’s gospel reading was not about John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus’ birth and nor was it about the second coming. Rather John was preparing the way for the start of Jesus’ ministry on earth as an adult.
I am going to say a little more about John the Baptist in a moment but I just wanted to reflect on the fact that at this very moment, about half way through Advent, we have an exciting confluence of expectations about Jesus – there is the remembered expectation of only a few weeks ago about the second coming of Christ, there is the expectation of the nativity which lies just around the corner and in the middle we have John the Baptist preparing the way for Christ’s earthly ministry – this is really exciting stuff –we are being told in every possible way to anticipate the presence of Jesus Christ – that Jesus was amongst us, that Jesus is amongst us and that Jesus will come again – and the question is being posed, sometimes tacitly and sometimes expressly: How are we preparing the way for the Lord in our own lives? I will leave that question hanging for a moment.
John the Baptist is one of the truly great characters from the New Testament. But before I go any further I should sound a note of caution about his name as we are now being told that we ought to be calling him John the Baptiser. The argument goes that this is both closer to the Greek and is more grammatically correct but I suspect that it is a plot by others to stop the Baptist churches claiming John as one of their own – after all there are no characters called for example Andrew the Anglican so why should the Baptists get a biblical character of their own? (That was a joke by the way!).
Actually to “Baptise” means to “Immerse”, which is of course exactly what John was doing, so another name for him could be “John the Immerser”. Actually that one grows on you when you live with it for a while as not only is it wonderfully descriptive but it may also alleviate some confusion about how John’s activity fits in with what we would understand to be Christian baptism – after all whilst John was a forerunner of Christ, and is a saint in the church, he was never expressly a follower of Christ and he never baptised other followers with the Holy Spirit, which is what we would understand to be a distinctively Christian baptism. The Immersion offered by John, as he said himself, was in water alone and needs to be understood within its Jewish context as a symbolic washing from uncleanliness that could be repeated often rather than being the once in a lifetime entry into new life that we might assume is meant by baptism.
In many ways although John the Baptist, or the Baptiser, or even the Immerser is one of the truly great characters in the New Testament he is also a thoroughly “Old Testament” figure and I often think of him as a bridge between the Old and New Testaments. And of course those around him at the time also saw John as a figure from their past – in fact they say to him (I paraphrase slightly) – “if you are not the Christ, who are you? Are you Elijah, are you the Prophet?” And it is easy to see why they said this – we are told in Mark 1 that John dressed in a simple camel hair garment tied with a leather belt and in 1 Kings that is exactly how Elijah the prophet is described. And at the end of his ministry we are told that Elijah did not die, but rather was taken up to heaven in a flaming chariot and the prophecy (from Malachi 4:5) was that Elijah would return before the Christ would come. So in a Jewish environment in which the people were waiting for the Messiah to come and save them from oppression they were also waiting first for an Elijah figure – and then suddenly there emerges from the wilderness a wild looking man dressed exactly like Elijah who says he is preparing the way for the Lord – no wonder they asked him if he was Elijah! But when he was asked this question John denied being Elijah, and of course he knew that he was not Elijah in the literal sense as he has not just arrived back from heaven on his chariot. But it is really interesting to note that in Matthew 17 Jesus not only speaks to Elijah during the transfiguration on Mount Carmel but he also says that John was the Elijah figure that was foretold. So John was not only a prophetic figure in his own right in the sense that he forth-told the coming of Christ and identified Jesus as the Christ but John himself was also a fulfillment of earlier Jewish prophecy whether or not he recognised himself in that light.
So John was a prophet, in many ways he was the last in the line of Old Testament prophets who may not have realised that he was appearing in the New Testament. He was the fulfilment of the prophecy of Malachi about the return of the prophet Elijah and when he was asked what he thought his purpose was he quoted another prophet Isaiah:
“I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’
And how did John seek to make straight the way for the Lord? Of course through his ministry of Immersion – of seeking to get others to take their distance from God seriously and to encourage them to wash away everything that is polluting their relationship with God. In many ways that basic need to rid ourselves of sin has never changed – but one important thing has changed and that is the effect of God’s mission to us in the person of Jesus. One of the central paradoxes of the Christian faith is that we learn that it is impossible for us to cleanse ourselves from sin in order to draw close to God – rather God himself cleanses us of our sin and that is done by God imparting himself to us – in the person of Jesus Christ who takes away the sins of the world and the person of the Holy Spirit who baptises or immerses the whole church with the living presence of God.
So we are in the season of anticipation and we have so many prophets coming out of our ears that you would never guess we were in a recession and the question remains, how are we preparing the way of the Lord in our own lives? In response I would come back to the concept of Immersion – into what are each of us immersing ourselves? Whatever else is going on in our lives we always have a choice – in the final run up to Christmas how about choosing to really immerse ourselves not in last minute shopping and getting the best bargain at Woolworths but in really soaking up the excitement and anticipation of the fact that God was born as one of us for the purpose of saving all of us.