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ADVENT: JOHN THE BAPTIST

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Today, as I write this, we are celebrating the Second Sunday of Advent. (Advent begins on the Sunday nearest to November 30 -- St. Andrew's Day -- and is the beginning of the church year). Advent is the time in the Christian calendar when we prepare for Christmas, and the coming of the Saviour into the world -- and into our lives. The word is derived from the Latin 'adventus', 'coming'. This season in the Christian Year is also the time when we focus on the 'Second Coming' of Christ.

Two great Bible characters are associated with Advent -- Mary and John the Baptist. Each of them, in their own way, wait for the coming of the Christ. And they speak to us of two very different kinds of waiting. Mary was called to place her whole trust in God and be radically open to the working out of God's plan. She said 'Yes', then she waited. Her waiting was truly pregnant. Mary has the confidence of someone who believes that the promises made her by the Lord will be fulfilled.

John the Baptist announced, with strange and compelling power, the coming of the Son of God -- his 'winnowing fork in his hand, ready to sort the wheat from the chaff.' John's approach is marked by an urgent call to repentance and change.

Mary waits with patient hope. But John is all challenge and judgment. Mary is quiet, John is loud!

So in our praying during Advent we may at times share in the patient confidence of Mary. Sometimes we might be disturbed by the fiery call of John.



WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT JOHN THE BAPTIS

If you have ever sung or listened to Handel's Messiah, you will know that passage from Isaiah about the valleys being lifted up and every mountain and hill being brought down, the rugged places being made smooth and the mountain ranges becoming like a plain. Thus, says Isaiah, will the glory of the Lord be revealed, and all humankind shall see it together. The scepter had departed from Judah (Genesis 49:10). Tiberius was emperor in Rome. Pontius Pilate was ruling Judea, Herod Antipas Galilee, Philip Itouria, Lysanias Abilene. Annas and Caiaphas were joint high priests. Deep corruption and cruelty in government and religion were common.

John's ministry was very significant to the early Christians. All four Gospels mention him. After 400 silent years God was speaking to his people through this new prophet. He was the 'Elijah' who was expected to announce the coming of the Messiah: the forerunner, or 'advance man'...

Luke (1:57-80) tells us about the strange events surrounding the birth of John the Baptist. John's mother Elizabeth and Jesus' mother Mary were related. John's father Zechariah was a priest, and he and his wife Elizabeth were quite old. An angel tells Zechariah his long desire for a child would be fulfilled, and his son's name would be John. Zechariah can't believe it and asks for a sign, so he is struck dumb, and doesn't get his voice back until after John's birth. Then, filled with the Holy Spirit, he utters the prophetic song we call the Benedictus (from its first word in the Latin Bible): God is about to break into history and redeem his people through the coming of the Messiah, as was promised by the prophets. This would be a new 'Exodus', where God's people would be freed from their enemies to serve him 'without fear, in holiness and righteousness.' John would be a 'prophet of the Most High' to prepare the hearts of the people to receive God's 'visit'. The people will receive forgiveness for their sins, and light for their darkness. The people of Israel have been 'sitting in darkness' like travelers who can't go anywhere because it's night. But eventually the dawn comes, and they can move on again -- and then be guided 'into the way of peace'. Jesus Christ would be the 'sun' who bursts over the horizon in splendor (Malachi 4:2).

Then Luke notes that 'the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day he appeared publicly...'

Matthew (3:1-12) and Mark (1:1-11) also tell us John came preaching in the Judean desert. About a year and a half ago I was in that wilderness. We drove from the city of Jerusalem down to Jericho, then up the valley of the Jordan River. It is a dreary, desolate, forsaken, lonely place -- rimmed by desert mountains, barren and sere and dry. And yet people left their towns and villages to trek 20 or 30 or 40 kilometres into this 'howling wilderness' to hear John preach...

Deserts have always been the training grounds for God's prophets. All of them spent time there. The desert is where there's no telephone or television -- no distractions. Just you and God, and your 'demons'. Now the PR people might not think you reach people best that way, but it's God's way.

This week I counseled a Pentecostal pastor who had 'landed running' into pastoral ministry twenty years ago, but had recently suffered 'burnout'. His whole life had now come crashing down into a blubbering heap of anxiety, stress and exhaustion. He had no emotional or spiritual energy left. He couldn't 'push the church uphill' any more. As we talked I think we both agreed that it was time to spend a year in the desert -- which his church, bless them, underwrote financially. I look forward to the promise of his healing there...

When I was young we had a favorite song:

'God is waiting, in the silence
Midst the rush and roar of life
Waiting someone's heart to enter
Someone quiet in the strife.

God is waiting in the silence
Oh to know that he is near.
Earth recedes and heaven opens.
God is waiting, God is here.'

It has been said that in terms of training to know and serve God, the wilderness is more important than the university or seminary...

Matthew goes on to tell us he wore clothing made from camel's hair, with a leather belt -- the clothes of poor people, and also like the clothing Elijah wore (2 Kings 1:8). John's food -- grasshoppers (yuck!) and wild honey. His diet, by the way, was balanced. You food faddists will recognize immediately that grasshoppers provide protein, and honey, carbohydrate. John's diet was in beautiful balance, so that he was a healthy man.

When I was a boy in our very conservative Brethren church, I used to be told we wear our best clothes to church. The rationale was 'You're having an audience with the King of Kings. If the King (Queen these days) invited you to Buckingham Palace wouldn't you dress up well for the occasion? But I used to read the story of John the Baptist and he dressed and lived and ate pretty rough. I wondered what we'd do with him if he came dressed like that to our 'Morning Meeting'? I think he'd have been tolerated for a while, but the elders would eventually have taken him aside and warned him about the dress (and hygiene!) protocols around here!!!

I read on the Web of a pastor describing one of his church members -- a devoted, I'll-be-there-every-time-the-church-doors-are-open woman -- came up to a visitor one Sunday and said, 'It was nice to have you with us today. But if those are the best clothes you have, why don't you come by my house and try on some of my old clothes and let's see if we can find you something nicer to wear the next time you come.' Do you think that visitor came back to that church?

I was preaching for an Anniversary Weekend in a prestigious Australian city church. I asked the elders what kinds of people they were expecting on Sunday night. 'Oh, young people,' they said, 'and hopefully some who'll come in off the street.' 'Should I dress casual for that kind of audience?' I asked my hosts. 'Oh, no,' they said. 'Our preachers always wear suit and tie.' I did, and they did, and hardly any young people or people-off-the-street were there... (I don't blame them -- all those severely dressed people would scare most people off!).

People who are 'down and out' don't feel welcome in our churches, and no wonder! As I type this, my wife Jan came in and said, 'Those wild teenage girls we had for the party last night broke one of our glass candles, and when they were playing pool knocked the clock off the wall, and now it won't work.' But she added, 'It was great having them here despite all that. (And despite the food on the carpet and the hour it took us to clean up after them!). But for one of those girls the night was special. We discovered it was her birthday, and no one in her fragmented family had acknowledged it. So I went to the Supermarket and bought a lot of goodies -- and she had the birthday party of her life!

John's message included a call to share clothing and food (Luke 3:11). He warned tax collectors not to take more money than was allowed (Luke 3:12-13). Soldiers were to be content with their wages, and not abuse their power over the common people (Luke 3:14). He attacked the idea that you were spiritually secure because you belonged to a particular group (descendents of Abraham, Matthew 3:9).

John was 'preparing the way of the Lord, making his paths straight' (Mark 1:3). John was the forerunner of a mightier one -- who would baptize with fire and Spirit (Mark 1:7-8)

Jesus began his ministry at the time of John the Baptist's death. John was imprisoned by Herod Antipas in the fortress of Machaerus on the lonely hills east of the Dead Sea. From there he sent messengers to Jesus to ask him to affirm his Messiahship: 'Are you the Coming One or do we look for another? (Matthew 11:3). John was eventually executed by Herod because, says the Jewish historian Josephus, Herod feared John's popularity might lead to a revolt. But Mark (6:17-19) tells us it was also because John spoke out against Herod's immoral marriage to Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip.

Jesus said of him that among those born of women there has not ever been anyone greater than John the Baptist. But the least in the Kingdom is greater than he. John was the last and greatest of the pre-Christian prophets (Matthew 11:11-14).

You will know that two miracles are needed for someone to become a saint in the Roman Catholic church. John performed no (recorded) miracles, but he's the second greatest human being who has ever lived... Or, perhaps he's down the list, if that sad girl with the birthday and people like her are among the 'least in the Kingdom...'

It's interesting that John's disciples were still discovered here and there after his death. When Paul went to Ephesus nearly 30 years later he found a group of them there (Acts 19:1-7). Some of John's followers must have thought of him in messianic terms. Which compelled the author of the Gospel of John, written also from Ephesus about 60 years later, to emphasize Jesus' superiority over John (John 1:19-27; 3:30).

So, this Advent, what is John saying to us? There are three aspects to his message:


1. SIN / REPENTANCE

John the Baptist's thundering message: 'Repent'. 'Change your ways'! 'Live straight!'

In our English language we talk of people being straightforward, straight dealing and straight speaking -- even 'going straight' (forget the sexual-orientation overtones for a moment!!!) Whereas criminals are twisters and crooks. So little wonder that John the Baptist wanted to make a straight path for God.

I learned the other day that when they were building the first motorways in the U.K. they built them as straight and as flat as possible. You can test this out by driving along the M1. The idea, of course, was to make the journey as fast and efficient as possible. So the valleys were lifted up and the hills brought down and the path of the motorway was made straight as possible . But the powers that be soon discovered that flat and straight is not the best way to do it. Drivers get bored and they're more likely to fall asleep at the wheel. So now, when a new motorway is built, it goes much more with the landscape, with curves and gentle hills and dipping valleys. The straightest path through a flat landscape -- John the Baptist style -- may not be the best for motorways, but it's the best for moral living!

Repentance is more than changing your mind; or feeling sorry about your sins; or even 'doing penance'. It's a radical change of mind and heart which leads to a new life.

We repent of our sins. What are they? Anything we do or think or say which is against God's will for our lives. And God's will for our lives is our wholeness. Sin is the self-centred desire to act independently of God. To be a God-unto-ourselves... And such self-centredness leads us to exploit others, or ignore their pain -- which is why John was so specific about people with power using it for the good of others.

So whatever it is in your life that's against the will of God and the well-being of others -- stop justifying it! Don't blame others for your shortcomings and wrongdoings! Repentance -- taking responsibility for who you are and what you're doing -- is the opposite of blaming -- where we offload responsibility on to someone else. (I think Freud has taught a couple of generations to do that!).

Where do we find the power to repent of our sins and live straight? The clue is in another statement of John's, about Jesus, 'Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world' (John 1:29,36). The cross, for followers of Jesus the Christ, is the place where we 'are freed from the burden of sin.'

(When I felt a call to pastoral ministry, and applied to the Baptist Union of NSW to be accepted as an ordination candidate, this is the text they gave me to preach about. It was a little artificial preaching from this gospel-text to a group of solemn males sitting around a big table! But they must have thought I was orthodox enough, and was one of four accepted that year -- out of 16 who applied!).

John's message and his ministry are stirring, and they provoke reactions. But Mark says it was the beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ. John's message wasn't all doom and gloom. But you've got to realize that in a culture where most people are victims of various injustices they'll go any distance to hear Good News about wrongs being righted, about God's judgment on the powerful, and about freedom from their inner guilts and torments ...

I heard of a pastor who was a hell-fire judgment preacher. His aim, he said, in the first six months of any pastorate, was to 'blast them with the Gospel!' (To which his bishop responded: 'How do you "blast" people with good news?') That man later committed suicide by gassing himself in his car. He was projecting his deep anger on to the people through his preaching. That sometimes happens: pastors had better know that about 99.9% of our preaching anger is probably wrongly motivated!

John believed that an inner transformation ought to be validated by an outward sacrament. So he baptized his 'converts' -- a baptism which symbolized moral regeneration. Many of these people who chose to follow Jesus would later be baptized in water in the name of the triune God and in the Holy Spirit.

But, of course, what is good news for some may be bad news for others. Which brings us to the second emphasis of John's:


2. DESPAIR / HOPE

The second part of John's message, says Matthew, is that 'the kingdom of heaven is near'. The Messiah was about to come. ' The hopes and dreams of all the years' are soon to be fulfilled. God was about to invade history. The Jewish rabbis talked about the Messiah and the Messianic age as 'the coming one, the coming age'. John announces: 'It's near! It's about to happen. Get ready!' John believed his mission was one of reform and preparation, like Elijah's. Indeed it was the popular belief at the time that Elijah would return from heaven to prepare the way for the Messiah (Malachi 4:5-6).

John forecast, I believe, two kinds of hope -- an inward hope and a societal hope.

The Kingdom of the Messiah is all about humility. The first shall be last. Children are first in the Kingdom. John said he was not worthy to stoop down to loosen Jesus' shoestrings. In other words: "I am not even worthy to be Jesus' servant." That is true humility. Inwardly, our pride can be healed. That's good news.

Secondly, this good news has implications for our living in society with others. John told soldiers to be satisfied with their wages. In a financial culture which knew almost nothing about 'inflation' or 'recession' you don't need people with arms creating selfish havoc. Second, tax collectors are not to rip people off. Third, religious authorities are not to be so cocksure they're 'in the Kingdom' simply on the basis of their genealogy -- children of Abraham. John's strong words to the Pharisees and Scribes had to do with the injustices these people perpetrated, in treating people as religious objects (and in terms of the Sadduccees, financial gain). And John also attacked Herod Antipas -- which eventually got him into deep trouble, and then martyrdom.

I believe that a Christian today is called to be an awareness-builder. A Christian today is called to the fresh task of a radical spirituality. I believe that, like John, are called to be awareness-builders, and then engaged in strategic advocacy. An advocate is one who speaks out, on the behalf of someone, or something else. We too are to challenge the political, religious, financial, and military authorities not to abuse or misuse their power against the little people. Rich nations and rich people (that's us!) are not good at social justice: they have most to gain by using up the world's resources, throwing their economic weight around (it's not a level playing-field out there), keeping the 'status as quo'!

What are we supposed to do? Start with one group, one project. Research it, get to know the people involved, and then act! See this site for more ...

(I believe that if incoming U.S. Presidents had to live with a displaced Palestinian family in Gaza or Lebanon for a month the Israeli/Palestinian issue could be solved almost overnight!)

One Christian writer has said,

"All cheap and easy talk about a God of sovereign power who is in control of a world in which there is so much poverty, suffering, and injustice is obscene. All self-confident talk about a powerful church that has the mandate and the ability to change society with this or that conservative or liberal social/political agenda or with this or that evangelistic program is increasingly absurd in a disintegrating church that cannot solve its own problems, much less the problems of the world. The only gospel that makes sense and can help. is the good news of a God who loves enough to suffer with and for a suffering humanity. And the only believable church is one that is willing to bear witness to such a God by its willingness to do the same thing"

Shirley Guthrie, Human Suffering, Human Liberation, and the Sovereignty of God, Theology Today, April 1996, p. 32

There's an interesting little aside in John's words about Jesus: 'Among you stands one whom you do not know...' (John 1:26). It is still possible for Jesus to be near us -- in our street, our town, among our relatives, in a refugees' tent in Afghanistan, or among the persecuted Christians in Sudan or Indonesia... and we do not recognize him ...

The message of John to those in despair because of their pride -- or because they're being ripped off or dehumanized by religious, financial, military or political authorities -- is that the Kingdom is near. It's a Kingdom of love -- and light...


3. DARKNESS / LIGHT

The writer of the Fourth Gospel describes the ministry of John the Baptist with these words: 'There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him.'

Now, mind you, John the Baptist will make it abundantly clear that HE is not the light, but one who comes to make other folks aware of the PRESENCE of the light in their very midst.

John comes to "bear witness to the light." That's out task too. John -- and Jesus -- and we -- are sent to dispel the darknesses within and without ...

Darkness? What darkness? Half the world goes to bed hungry every night, and 24,000 people -- mostly children -- die every day through hunger-related diseases, largely because the wealthier nations of the world consume most of its resources and want more.

What darkness? A 25-year recovering addict who has just been awarded custody of his two children commits suicide and leaves them abandoned.

What darkness? My wife and two daughters work with women in prison. Just about all of them have been seriously abused in childhood. But their abusers are mostly not in jail. As we share God's love for/with them, they will cry again (some have children whom they will not see this Christmas) ...

What darkness? The Middle East continues to be a place of civil strife and bloodshed, threatening the security of the entire region and perhaps the world, despite our best efforts to find a way to a just and lasting peace.


CONCLUSION

So this is why Isaiah said the forerunner of the Messiah would come like a giant bulldozer, building a highway in the desert for God. 'Every mountain shall be brought low, and every valley shall be lifted up; the crooked places shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.' True repentance does this -- levels out our pride, and fills the valleys of depression and guilt and fear and injustice. And John's promise that all flesh shall see the salvation of God cannot come too soon.

John invites us, no... encourages us.... no DEMANDS of us that we prepare for the coming of the Lord -- by repenting of our personal and social sins, experiencing hope for inward or outward despairings, and as we are involved in bringing the light of the Good News to the many corners of our lives and our world that wallow in darkness...



FOR DISCUSSION:

  1. Share with each other your church's Advent traditions.

  2. If John the Baptist came to your town, what would he look like, what would he be saying, and who would get excited or angry at his message?

  3. How does 'the cross' help us with our sins? Does 'the lamb of God taking away the sins of the world' mean anything to people these days?

  4. What do you make of the statement about 'preaching from our anger' above?

  5. A friend who has just finished a court-case where she defended herself against Australian federal and state government departments, and two television networks, said of her experience, 'Anyone who doesn't believe in political conspiracies everywhere must be living on Mars...' Why?

  6. 'If incoming U.S. Presidents had to live with a displaced Palestinian family in Gaza or Lebanon for a month the Israeli/Palestinian issue could be solved almost overnight!' What do you think about that?

  7. 'Repentance is the opposite of blaming' -- want to talk about that?

  8. What might John the Baptist say about the war in Afghanistan?

  9. 'For fundamentalists/evangelicals "darkness" equals "living in sin" or "doctrinal error"; for social justice people it's where the powerful rip off the poor; for pentecostals/charismatics it's where Satan and demons operate.' Who's right?

  10. 'John the Baptist encouraged people to grow... I once read in a marriage counseling manual that the most important single ingredient to a successful marriage was the desire to make it work... it all comes back to the question of desire.' (John Claypool, in a sermon on John the Baptist). How is such 'desire' awakened and nurtured?


Rowland Croucher
December 2001 [an error occurred while processing this directive]