Sermon preached at Enmore, Second Sunday in Advent, 4th. December 2016
Readings: Isaiah 11.1–10; Romans 15:4–13; Matthew 3. 1–12
Our Gospel reading this morning introduces us to the strange figure of John the Baptist who appears suddenly in the wilderness of Judea proclaiming: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” I wonder what images the word ‘repent’ brings to mind. Some of us grew up in churches where we were frequently being told that we must repent and be saved. Some may find the word rather puzzling and identify with the refrain in Leonard Cohen’s song, ‘The Future’,: ‘When they said repent I wondered what they meant.’ So let us take a few minutes to look at John the Baptist and make sense of his message and its possible relevance for us today.
In all four Gospels the ministry of Jesus begins with John the Baptist. His is the first voice we hear in Mark’s Gospel (Mk.1.7). Luke devotes two lengthy passages to a description of the circumstances surrounding John’s miraculous birth and tells this in parallel with his narrative regarding the birth of Jesus. John’s Gospel begins with his famous prologue announcing the coming of the Word made flesh but this is followed immediately by the testimony of John the Baptist declaring repeatedly that he is not the Messiah. In John’s Gospel Jesus is the great ‘I am’ but John in contrast is the great ‘I am not.’ Matthew gives us a fairly detailed description of John’s clothing and unusual dietary habits but provides no other background information – he appears out of nowhere.
However, Matthew was writing for a largely Jewish audience and the little he says about John would have resonated with his readers. The Old Testament ends with this admonition:
Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of the children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse. (Malachi 4.4–6)
Jewish readers were also aware that the great Prophet Elijah was described in 2 Kings 1.8 as “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist.” Matthew’s description of John would have left little doubt that John the Baptist was Elijah returned to earth. Later on in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus will identify John with Elijah (Matt.11.14). After John is arrested Jesus speaks to the crowds about him and declares “For all the prophets and the law prophesised until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!” Some have identified similarities between John and the Essene community. His self-understanding as ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness’ was a virtual moto of the Essenes. It is possible, though by no means certain, that John had been part of that community of the Dead Sea after the death of his elderly parents and then went out on his own to call Israel to repentance, connecting the call with a baptism in the Jordan.
John, living in the desert and eating food that can only be gathered, relives the wilderness wanderings that the Israelites experienced after their exodus from Egypt. Israel’s experience in the forty years in the wilderness was both a punishment for its unbelief but also the place of its formation as a nation. In the desert Israel learnt to rely on God for her needs including living on food that came only as gift.
So John’s message, “repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” is not as obscure as it may first appear. In many ways John is the embodiment of what it means for Israel to repent. He is the fulfilment of Isaiah 40.3: “a voice cries out: ‘in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” When I was growing up and was frequently encouraged to repent in many a sermon, it was about being sorry for my sins and asking for forgiveness. But the word translated ‘repent’ in our New Testament means ‘a change of heart’ or ‘a change of direction.’ The water baptism that John called for was a sign of a desire for a new way of life. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it like this: “John’s call for Israel to repent is not a prophetic call for those who repent to change the world, but rather he calls for repentance because the world is being and will be changed by the one whom John knows is to come.” It is the proclamation that the kingdom of heaven is near that gives the urgency to John’s ministry.
We usually think of repentance in personal, individualistic terms- (Jesus is my personal saviour) but John was a prophet of Israel. He called not just for individuals to repent but Israel as a nation. Baptism was a radical sign of this. Until John arrived baptism by immersion in a river was unknown in Israel-they had ritual washing of hands and utensils but this was something else. It implied that Israel required a whole new beginning, a complete transformation. When John baptised in the Jordan he reminded Israel of their baptism in Exodus when God called them out of Egypt and walked them through the waters of the Red Sea. The exodus marked a new beginning. John’s message is that it is time for another new beginning: Israel must learn to live again as God’s holy people for the Messiah himself is coming.
John’s ministry clearly had a powerful effect on the population, crowds of people from Jerusalem and the surrounding areas came to listen to him and many were baptised. John made religion interesting and exciting. Everyone was talking about him. His message was radical and far removed from the stuffy debates about the fine points of the law that the Scribes and Pharisees engaged in. The religious leaders were not sure how to respond. They liked the fact that religion was becoming a hot topic but they were not sure that they liked John’s message. They were not convinced that Israel needed a change of direction. So when some of the Pharisees and Sadducees came to John for baptism he rebuked them for their complacency and misplaced confidence. He told them that it was not enough to claim to be descendants of Abraham. God, he declared, could raise up children of Abraham from the stones on the ground. What was needed was a change of heart for a new age was about to dawn. It’s was a “times they are a’changing message” and the religious establishment preferred the status quo.
John is in some ways the bridge between the Old and New Testaments. The prophets before him like Elijah, Isaiah, Amos etc. all looked forward to the coming new age of the Messiah. This morning’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah 11 is a lovely example. John’s task was to say, it is not something in the future but it is breaking upon us now, hence the urgency of his message.
Like the people of John’s day it is easy to be complacent and to think that as things are now they always will be. But we are children of the kingdom of God, the kingdom inaugurated by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ promise of a new heaven and a new earth is not just a hope for the future but a message that informs the way we live now and gives us hope even in the darkest times. This week I read an article by a Catholic priest, John Dear, who recalled hearing Desmond Tutu speak at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. in 1987 when the world was just waking up to the horrors of apartheid in South Africa. Tutu spoke of an elderly woman he had met in Soweto a few days earlier. She told him that every night she got up at 2am for an hour in order to beg God to bring apartheid to an end. Tutu then said, “I know we will win now because God cannot resist the prayer of that poor woman.” And then he wept. In the article John Dear then recounted an interview he had with Desmond Tutu in Cape Town in 2014. He asked Desmond how he kept going in the face of all the problems still afflicting South Africa and in so many other parts of the world. Desmond replied: “My favourite prophet is Jeremiah…Why? Because he cries a lot. I cry a lot too…..but think how much God cries! We have a God who weeps. God weeps because we don’t get it. We don’t understand that we are all brothers and sisters.” He also said: “In a situation where human life seems dirt cheap, with people being killed as easily as one swats a fly, we must proclaim that people matter and matter enormously. To be neutral in a situation of injustice is to have chosen sides already. It is to support the status quo.”
Advent reminds us that with the coming of Jesus, the kingdom of God has already come so therefore we continue to have hope. In the words of the Apostle Paul in today’s reading, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”