The opening line of the gospel spells out our theme for today: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” This week we remember Jesus’ place in salvation history – the actual event of his coming into the world, in the context of the story of God’s dealings with the world. So let’s start with Isaiah, who sets the scene, and then talk about John the Baptizer.
The first reading was, of course, from Isaiah.
A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:6-8)
He writes here of the lack of faith of the chosen people, and God’s countervailing faithfulness. The chosen people, Isaiah says, have not lived up to their side of the covenant that God established with Abraham. Their good intentions are about as long lasting as a spring wildflower. The word of the Lord – the promises of God, however, are another thing altogether. Regardless of the faithfulness of the people, God will keep God’s promises.
The context here is that of the exile; the promise is of return from exile to the Promised Land.
While I’m sure you are all very familiar with the broad outlines of the story, let’s run through it briefly, because it explains what exactly John the Baptizer was doing.
After the promises of God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Israelites found themselves slaves in Egypt. God chose Moses to lead them out of Egypt, into the Promised Land. One of the many useful learnings there: sometimes a week’s journey takes 40 years.
At first, they were a kind of loosely organised confederacy of tribes. But, after a time, the people demanded a King. God wasn’t, by all accounts, especially keen on the idea, but Saul was the one anointed, who was then replaced by David in around 1000 BCE.
David was, of course, the archetypal king of Israel, and recalled as a “man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22). David’s reign, imperfect as it was, was seen as a kind of golden age, to which people longed to return. To be the “son of David” was to share in David’s legitimacy as a ruler.
However, the subsequent generations of kings, were not so successful. The kingdom splintered in two – Judah and Israel, with Judah was centred on Jerusalem, and Israel in the north. The northern kingdom was destroyed by Assyria in 722 BCE. In 597 BCE, the Babylonians invaded Judah, sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and carried the people away captive into Exile.
This was a shocking event for the Jews. God had promised the land “to Abraham and his seed, for ever.” But here they were: there was no descendent of David on the throne, the temple – the throne of the Lord of Hosts had been destroyed, and the people were in exile.
Time, essentially, for a rethink. How had things come to this? It became an interpretive matrix: the Jews asked themselves “what have we done to deserve this” – not as a resentful thing, but as an honest question.
One definition of spiritual maturity is “to take responsibility for things that are not my responsibility.”
From the perspective of international relations, surely not much introspection is required. The Babylonians were a huge, savage, empire. They conquered lots and lots of people, and moved populations around like Stalin on a bad day. The story of Israel was no different – just another minor nation swept up into the greater glory of Babylon.
The prophets, however, sought a deeper truth. What had they done so that The Lord had abandoned them to their enemies? The conclusion was, in short, as Isaiah pointed out in the first reading: they had failed to keep their side of the Covenant.
Out of this, Isaiah speaks of the eventual return. So far, so unexceptional. What exiled people doesn’t dream of return to their home? What conquered people doesn’t hope to throw off the yoke of their oppressors?
The twist here is that Isaiah promised return not because the Jews were worthy, not because of some great struggle of national liberation, but because God is faithful to God’s promises.
Not because the children of Israel were worthy, but because of the character of God.
And the children of Israel did return to Israel. In worldly terms, this was because of the Persians, who were not only better at war than the Babylonians, but generally nicer people with a more humane religion. They appeared on the scene as liberators – Cyrus, the first Persian great king was called the anointed one of God – not because he was a convert to Judaism, but because he did what Isaiah had prophesied: defeated the Babylonians and allowed the people to return.
At last, the Jews presumably thought, everything is going to be OK.
However, having returned, having fulfilled the dreams of seventy years of exile, things weren’t straightforwardly better. Persian rule was exchanged for Macedonian and then Hellenistic, and then, after a brief period of independence under the Maccabees, Roman rule. There was no son of David on the throne – just he satraps of various pagans of different levels of awfulness.
And at a more individual level, things weren’t amazing. The Micah had prophesied
They shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; (Micah 4:4)
However the time-honoured story of the rich oppressing the poor continued. The cries of the pre-exilic prophets about the oppression of the weak by the rich continued to resound.
It was as though “return from exile” was going to need something else. Something different from physical relocation, something other than rule by one’s own national elite. Of course, it was good to be able to rebuild the temple and to resume the cultic ritual that anchored God in God’s house at the centre of the nation. It was good not to be forced to worship strange gods – and if you’re interested in what happened when a particularly egregious bunch of pagans attempted to change that, you should definitely read the books of Maccabees.
But, somehow, it was not enough. Something truly transformative was required.
By the time of Jesus, there was a lot of expectation floating around. A messiah was coming, who would drive out the hated Romans. People harked back to the prophecies of Isaiah and his ilk. Some withdrew out to the desert – the Essenes, for instance – and some, like the Zealots, plotted violent revolution.
Into this turmoil, John the Baptizer comes.
He seems like a remote, romantic figure to us. Why did he eat locusts and wild honey? Why did he abstain from meat and wine? What’s with the camelhair shirt, and why mention his belt? It all just seems so mysterious.
However, to the audience at the time, it was pretty clear what he meant by how he looked. Just like if I put on a suit and a tie, I’m saying something about myself (“I’m competent, I work in an office”), or if I appeared here with steel capped boots and a high viz vest, I would be saying something else.
To cut a long story short: The way he dressed referenced Elijah, who was described in 2 Kings 1:8 as “a hairy man with a leather belt.” And his diet also marked him out as a prophet. He is clearly putting himself into the linage of the prophets of the Old Testament, rooting him firmly in salvation history.
But this story isn’t really about John. The very first line of the Gospel passage gives the game away. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And, in scripture, that’s John’s purpose.
John is the one prophesied about. The passage from Mark claims it is Isaiah’s prophecy, but actually it’s more of a mashup of passages from Exodus, Malachi, and Isaiah. I know – It’s deeply shocking that scholarly standards of accuracy were not being followed by the gospel writers, but there we are.
John is pointed to in prophecy, in the understanding of the prophecies of scripture relevant to the first century Judaism of his time. But it’s interesting to note that John is not the main event here. He is the one “shouting in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” He has a thing to do, and it’s obviously an important thing. But he is not the main event.
He made an impression, that’s for sure. People were flocking to see and hear him. And not just to hear what he had to say, but to do something concrete. They were baptised in the river Jordan. All sorts of people – from the simplest country yokels to the sophisticated people in the big city. We might say: from the bogans from the outer suburbs, with their utes and holidays at Kuta Beach, to the most exquisitely dapper hipsters with their perfect tattoos and carefully cultivated beards, and everyone in between.
The message, the action, is for everyone.
It might be worth pointing out here that the word we translate as “gospel”, a good Anglo-Saxon word meaning, of course, “good news” is, in the original Greek, “Euangelion”. The odd thing about the term is that it had not previously been a genre of religious writing, like prophecies and books of ritual law. Instead, it was repurposing a word used in Hellenic culture to denote something like “good news from the war.” Our side won – hurrah! Call a day of national celebration.
When the Second World War ended, there were global celebrations. A great roar of joy and delight.
That was definitely good news.
And that is the sort of idea that Mark is getting at here.
People of all sorts were coming. And they hadn’t even got to the good news yet. They were coming to repent. They were coming to get ready for… well, who knew what? Whatever John was pointing to.
John doesn’t seem to have necessarily been sure either. In a later passage, while he is in prison, we see him sending his disciples to Jesus to ask: Are you the one?
Whoever John was pointing to, he knew he was going to be powerful. “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.”
Let’s pause here for a moment. I just want to emphasize how different this scene is to the idea we have of a great moral teacher. We would be much more comfortable with a picture of Jesus as being, essentially, the giver of the best TED talk in history.
But he had something else to do.
John, he says “baptises with water.” Fair enough – that’s what you baptise people in. British Biblical scholar N T Wright suggests that what John is doing here is leading people through a sort of dramatization of the story of Exodus – of the forty years in the wilderness – and crossing the Jordan to get to the Promised Land. But, you will point out, were they not already in the Promised Land? As we saw previously, while they were physically in the Promised Land, it was clear that they weren’t there in a full way. Spiritually, as we might say. The lion and the lamb were clearly not lying down together. Things were not yet complete.
That’s, of course, the other meaning of the baptism. For repentance. They needed to prepare themselves for what was to come.
This is the “good news from the struggle” after all. It means that struggle is underway.
What John is promising is something quite different. The one who is to come will baptize, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit.
From the reading, it is mysterious what exactly that means. But whatever is meant, it is something powerful. Something transformative. Something that is not an ethical teacher who could be anyone, come from anywhere, teaching a universal ethic.
Instead, the one who is to come is the one foretold in prophecies. He is Israel’s messiah, the one who will finally bring to fruition all the hints and suggestions in Scripture. He, Jesus, the son of God, is part of Israel’s story.
John the Baptizer is a prophet – in fact, the last of the prophets. As Jesus says of him in Matthew’s gospel “among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matt 11: 11) John is the end of something old. Jesus marks the beginning of something new. And Advent, the season of the church’s year in which we find ourselves, is our opportunity to ponder with John and John’s audience: who is it that is greater than the greatest of the prophets? What is this radically new thing, this baptism in the Holy Spirit that is promised? And am I ready for it?
A sermon preached at Glen Iris Road Uniting Church on the Second Sunday of Advent, 10/12/2017