Tag Archives: John the Baptist

Useless?

Why does Jesus need John the Baptist? There’s not much competition between them; Jesus outshines John from the moment his ministry gets into its swing. So why? Is it an accident, some sort of political gesture – or have we missed something?

The first thing that comes out of these readings (Luke 3:1-6, and Malachi 3:1-4) is that John fills the role of the forerunner, the “messenger preparing the way” foretold by Malachi (and indeed Isaiah 40:3). It is part of God’s plan that those who knew the writings of the prophets should have had several chances to recognise and understand what was happening, as John revived the long-dead tradition of prophecy, and Jesus came with his teaching.

That would mean John was needed to explain the significance of Jesus as fulfilling the Old Testament – and I am sure that is true. But, even so, isn’t that just a detail? Will Jesus not be heard, because he is Jesus, or because of the delightful message he gives?

Look again. Malachi 3:2 “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap;” burning and caustic – that is not quite the gentle message we expect. But John has heard the same tone, for he proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” Luke 3:3

Why? John’s message is not an optional icing on the cake. The coming he speaks of is dangerous; there is the possibility of catastrophic failure. Those who would not repent were heading for disaster. The reality of judgement, even in the ministry of Jesus and not only at his second coming to judge the world and – us; is something we like to leave out, but should not. John’s ministry, even in its ferocious and forthright denunciations, was an act of merciful warning – of a real danger. A danger that is not past.

It would be nice to say that John gets through to those who need shouting at, and Jesus speaks with love. Nice, – but not true. Jesus is quite capable of speaking sharply and directly, of judgement and hell, as well as of God’s love and forgiveness. We may have trouble fitting them together, but he didn’t and we need to learn.

In the same way, John offered people a way of escape and salvation. Repentance and baptism were freely available, and clearly popular as well. John the Baptist is part of God’s plan, and in that sense Jesus needs him. He

  • makes clear the fulfilment of the Old Testament in Jesus
  • shows us that new life doesn’t happen without leaving the old; repentance, commitment, faith are not “options” but the necessary route to heaven
  • he announces the demands of a holy God, who requires holiness in his people.

John the Baptist is a forceful antidote to a sentimentalised Christmas which does little more than excuse a conventional holiday. He won’t have that. The arrival of Jesus is the turning point of world history, an opportunity for every human – but one which could be missed, with eternal consequence.

Repent!

The realism of the gospel story sometimes gives us a glimpse of real evil, as it does with Herod in Mark 6:14-29.  Hearing of the mission of Jesus’ twelve disciples, travelling two by two, he fears Jesus is John the Baptist reborn – and Mark doubles back to tell the story of John’s earlier death.

John the Baptist was imprisoned by Herod because of his criticism of his liason with Herodias.  This was against Old Testament law, both because Herodias had been married to Herod’s brother, and also because of their close relationship (in a family tree that is very complicated!).  Adultery and incest may be good for selling books and films, but Christians stand against both because of the need for families to be places of security for people to grow into adulthood and be safe from exploitation.  Few families are perfect, but “anything goes” means the vulnerable and weak pay the price, often a heavy price!

Herod is torn.  His wife wants revenge, but he knew that John was a “good and holy man” and “liked to listen to him, even though he became greatly disturbed every time he heard him”. Why? Because he is guilty, and knows he is wrong. But he won’t do anything about it. John stays in prison. – perhaps he was frightened of the political consequences of letting him go. (Josephus says that is why he had him killed).

Then a Princess dances at his party, and he makes a foolish promise.  Herod should have seen the danger, and even after the request should have said no, given the girl something else, and sobered up.  But instead, John is murdered.  Later, Herod’s guilt appears as he hears of Jesus.  He knows he is wrong; perhaps he is even frightened. Is that enough? No, because he won’t change sides; he won’t repent – that would mean going beyond knowing he is wrong, even saying it, to turning away from it.

So what is Mark telling us? Yes, that guilt is a terrible thing to live with, but to get rid of it, you need not only to know you are wrong, and say that, but to repent. To turn away to what is good, and do that.

But Mark is also setting the scene. It’s not just about Herod and John. John was a prophet, preparing the way for Jesus. His truth telling takes him to prison and death. What will happen to Jesus? Will he also end up being buried by a few friends?

You know the answer – or do you? Yes, Jesus will confront the evil; evil that will not be won over by good, that cares only for itself. But who will win? Appearances can be deceiving; Jesus will die – and rise. Herod, Pilate, the plotters: they are the ones who will disappear and lose.

Herod was not a nice man. He was given every chance, but failed to take each opportunity. He thought, rather guiltily, that he had removed a threat. In fact, he had been swallowed alive by evil. Don’t be sorry for him, keep a safe distance.

Change, Promise and Worship

This Sunday, many will celebrate the “Nativity of John the Baptist”, looking again at the way Luke begins his gospel.  He has a story of change to tell – radical change, as Jesus brings a new way of finding God, living life fully, and belonging to his people and his world.  Yet the story begins with an elderly couple, not known as especially important, with worship (even at its most traditional, in the temple in Jerusalem), and the fulfillment of promises.

Zechariah the priest is no celebrity.  He does his turn of duty in the temple, and may have been surprised to be chosen to offer the incense.  He was certainly surprised to meet an angel with a message for him! But the experience was not all celebration – he is dumb for a time.  (This is all part of Luke 1, though before the reading set which is Luke 1:57-66, 80). The angel’s promise comes true, and a boy is born.  We shall know him as John the Baptist, a cousin of Jesus, and the “forerunner”, who prepares the way for Jesus’ ministry.

Strange, isn’t it, how radical change begins with a relatively elderly couple, faithful to the old ways of worship and living, and works through promises, both old and new?  Perhaps it’s not so strange.  Our God does new things, but with a sense of continuity.  The promises of the scripture give pointers and reassurance to those who want to keep up.  We celebrate the Nativity of John (and perhaps also his beheading, in August), knowing that both we beyond his immediate control, as God let his life and death be a sign for those watching.  That would be quite something for use to be given, too!

Obedience

One of the issues not often talked about in Christian discussion is obedience. Who is Jesus, that I should obey!?

The story of Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:4-11) gives us some answers. This is the start of the Epiphany season – looking at how Jesus was “shown” to the world: first the Wise Men, then Jesus’ baptism, later miracles, healings, calling disciples . . But let’s go back to obedience. A lot of people will do some religious things – they don’t mind a bit of church, moral teaching, things to think about. That’s all very well for a start, but it isn’t Christian commitment, because that’s about obeying Christ. (Yes, I know there are questions about how your orders are delivered, but the first issue is whether you are going to obey orders, or simply think about them).

What makes you – what would make you – pledge obedience to anyone? For me, it would have to be someone very special, and someone who didn’t have a big head, or a threatening manner, or an urge to manipulate me for his/her profit . .   So look at what Mark tells us about the start of Jesus ministry. Does he burst onto the scene and say “I’m the greatest” “You’ve must look at me, take notice of me, do what I tell you!” – No, he doesn’t. Does he come and say “Follow me or go to hell” “I’m the only one who can save you from eternal punishment” ? No again.

Mark tells us how it starts (missing out the childhood bits). It starts with a messenger of God, preaching in the desert places – and it isn’t Jesus. Only when John has set the scene does Jesus appear. And what happens then? Jesus joins the movement that has already been started. He is baptised, showing his acceptance of what John has been doing, recognising that God is behind it.

And that’s the point. Just as John wasn’t out to make a reputation, so Jesus is not concerned with his “career development” and his “rating in the polls”. He is about what God is doing, and he knows what it means to obey. That’s very important.

If you have any doubt, see how, after he is baptised, (and has the dove and the heavenly voice), he follows the direction of the holy Spirit and goes off into the desert to be tempted / tested. Nobody’s idea of a fun time, no holiday, but Jesus isn’t committed to having fun. He is committed to doing what God wants, even needs, doing. He obeys

What would it take to make you pledge obedience, not just interest, and being influenced, and wanting to hear more. But – obedience? Would it be a saviour who is able to join what someone else has started, who takes orders himself (even when it means struggle and difficulty). Would it be Jesus, who is able to command your life – time, money, relationships, job, spare time activity?  Perhaps you are already there, and just value the reminder. Perhaps you haven’t thought of it like that, and need to look again at this saviour who is being shown to the world. Do – he bears a close examination. But have no doubt that what he asks of you is nothing less than the committed, obedient service – that he himself gave.

The story of Jesus’ baptism is not about self-advertisement or super-stardom. It shows even Jesus being obedient, and so calling for our loyalty.

The Value of Antiques!

Antiques are popular! Perhaps some like them for good workmanship, others for their style. At any rate, shops, books, fairs and television programmes abound.

In the New Testament, if you were to look for antiques, you would immediately turn to John the Baptist. (John 1:6-8 and 19-28)  Perhaps he was himself an antique, to judge by what other gospels say about his clothing and style – the “classic” Elijah-type prophet.

There hadn’t been a prophet for several hundred years, then John arrives, insisting on bringing up things from the past.  The WILDERNESS: the place where a group of slaves became a nation, and a nation of God’s people, with identity, Law, and leaders. John lives in the wilderness, teaches in the wilderness, about JORDAN the original way in to the Promised Land; his baptism seems to be saying “go back to the beginning and do it right!” It’s not just individuals who have sinned, the whole society needs to repent and make a new start.

So it comes to a crisis. John has preached with some success, he has a group of disciples of his own, and then – they send a delegation. John is the son of a priest, so they send Priests and Levites. Who are you? Explain yourself! No, he’s not the Messiah, not Elijah (as Malachi 4:5 expected to return before the Day of the Lord) nor the prophet of Deuteronomy 18:15. His answers get shorter; he’s not interested in being classified. But they go on, they have to have an answer. Eventually, John quotes Isaiah 40:3 (though the Septuagint, Greek, version rather than the Hebrew), for now the voice is in the wilderness, shouting about preparing a Way for God.

John may be the antique dealer of the New Testament, going back to the old style, bringing back a fashion for wilderness, and ways in by Jordan. But he’s got his eye firmly on the situation of Judah, and the future of God’s people. He knows something is happening, and he is desperate to direct people, not to analysing his style, but to preparing for the one who will follow him.

Antiques are junk, unless they adorn modern living. John deals in religious antiques, and perhaps we ought to pay attention to his sales talk, – and buy before the price is our of our range.

Excitement!

Mark begins his gospel (Mark 1:1-8) with an excitement, which I hope has not worn off. To him religion and the message he has to deliver is not only important, and therefore serious, but also exciting and good. Losing that sense of excitement can be one reason why religion becomes boring – and that is the death of motivation!

The good news – the gospel – is of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Again, something we lose sight of at our peril. Jesus is not only God’s gift, through whom we can see the invisible God, and understand what the incomprehensible Deity is like. Jesus is also the way we are brought back to God, forgiven and freed. Mark doesn’t waste time or paper – this is the first line of his gospel!

So, how does it start? With an Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, and his announcement of a messenger to prepare the way. As Mark will make clear, the whole Old Testament has been unfolding God’s plan, and preparing the way for the coming Messiah, the great King. As we shall discover, the King was rather different to what was expected, and so preparation was needed. The prophecies of Isaiah’s book play a part (they feature in Carol Service readings!), not least by creating hope and expectation – an important element.

Then there is John the Baptist. verse 4. Mark understands him to be the messenger Isaiah was talking about, and he comments on his dress and prophetic style. Prophecy had died some hundreds of years before, but its sudden rebirth is a sign of something happening. John calls people to repentance, as part of making ready for his successor. The message is for rich and poor, religious and secularised, and is uncompromising and straightforward: You need to be forgiven, and before my successor comes!

There’s a buzz about all of this. Excitement, urgency, something more than personal preparation. Now is the time to face up to things we have been avoiding. Now we can sort out and put right. Now we can get ourselves right with God, other people and ourselves. It had better be now, because something new is coming which will take our time, effort and attention, but needs us to be ready.

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. . . .

Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

Spreading Light (Epiphany 2a)

It is a dark time of year, and I enjoy light – winter sun, illuminations, shop window displays. Little wonder that, from the time of candles and oil lamps, people have spoken of the darkness of evil, and the light of Jesus. In the second Sunday of Epiphany, we are continuing to look at the way the gospel spread, and continues to spread.  Early in his gospel John tells us about the spread of the light, as Jesus lights up people. Today’s gospel takes the process further (John 1:29-42). Its an interesting and important process, that we need to understand and repeat.

First, John the Baptist has recognised Jesus – he had known there would be someone, but didn’t know who until he saw the person on whom the Spirit came and stayed. He tells the people round him, and two (including Andrew) go and see.

The initial contact is tentative – Jesus speaks first. His question “what are you looking for?” is significant. Open ended, it offers conversation without buttonholing, but encourages them to think about what, in fact, they want.

Their answer is odd “Where do you live, Rabbi?” They are not yet ready to trust Jesus, though there is respect, but want a little time. If that is the right understanding, Jesus understands, and instead of saying “29 High Street” says, “Come and see”. Of course, as they go, they talk.  “ So they went with him and saw where he lived, and spent the rest of that day with him.” (v39)  Jesus is ready to engage, answer questions.

That time – time to see, ask questions, to check and see for yourself what others may have said – is important. But you can’t stay there for ever! Andrew has decided. It’s no longer what John or anyone else said, he now has his own position. Andrew “found his brother Simon and told him, “We have found the Messiah.” (This word means “Christ.”)” Jesus has gained a disciple. First attracted by what other people said about Jesus, he has made contact, taken time, and made a decision. Now he is part of the next stage of the process – he is the one talking about Jesus and spreading the light. Simon, of course, is Peter, who will lead the apostles. Andrew will not be as famous, but will be a point of contact for others on their journey to faith (and so associated with Mission).

In just a few verses, John has taken us through the life cycle of the Church:

  • those who know encourage others to look
  • seekers make contact, and see for themselves what Jesus is and offers. It may not be their first desires, there is a need to allow time as they see what it really means for them, but many understand his importance and mission, and become disciples themselves.
  • They become, however imperfectly, those who know and, as they continue to grow, encourage others to look.

How does the light spread? By a process involving all who follow Jesus. We call it evangelism, which someone once defined as  “One beggar telling another beggar where to find food.”