So life is getting back to normal in Melbourne. It has been wonderful to be able to sing together – it has been the longest time, which has demonstrated to me what a central part of my spirituality communal singing is. In a few minutes we will have communion together, again for the first time in months. And next week we will actually have supper together after the service – again, it has been a long, long time since we last did that.
It is good to gather together, mainly in person but, of course, also online, in our new mixed-mode reality. But this period of weirdness has raised a profound question: what is it exactly we do together? Why is it so important? Why is it different to watching a worship service online?
What is it exactly that we are doing here?
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.”
So begins our reading tonight. It’s not the exact start of the book – there is that famous philosophical preamble about the Word being with God and being involved in the creation of everything. And then, out of this comes the figure of John. He has, apparently, been sent by God, without himself being “the light.”
He came into the world at a time and place of great ferment. Things were afoot, people were expecting… something. We have talked about the ongoing sense of exile which the people of Israel felt. Here they were again, under foreign rule from the hated Romans. And, not only that, even the Israelites themselves were failing to honour God as they ought. There were different schools of thought about what to do about it. The Pharisees thought that if everyone were just a bit more holy, if they just followed the law more closely, then the Messiah would come. The Sadducees were more focussed on temple worship and thought they could probably live with the Romans. The Essenes separated themselves from the rest of the world, living in the desert and waiting for the coming apocalyptic Messiah. And the Zealots thought that a campaign of domestic terrorism would eventually drive the Romans out.
Lots of different ideas about what Israel ought to do. Lots of expectation. And it seems to have been centred on the return of someone sometimes referred to as “the Prophet”, or Elijah, or both.
Into this turbulent time comes John the Baptizer. He sparked huge interest – people from all across Judea, both from the country and the city, were flocking to him. Which appears to have raised eyebrows in the offices of the religious authorities. Who was this person? And why was he baptizing people?
This is the setting for the reading. John is being questioned, politely but insistently, by the religious authorities. They need the answer to one question: Who are you?
The scene is like a courtroom drama, with prosecutors putting it to John that he is pretending to be someone isn’t, someone important, without appropriate authorisation. If he were really the Messiah, then he would need whatever the 1st century equivalent of the correct papers might be. And if he isn’t – then what on earth does he think he is doing?
Apparently it is illegal to impersonate a member of the clergy, and if that’s true in post-Christian Australia, how much more illegal would it have been to impersonate the Messiah?
John is in hot water. But he sticks to his guns: he is not the Messiah – not the long expected one who is to come. But he does have a role in fulfilling the prophecy: he is the one Isaiah prophesied about, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”
I wonder what the authorities would have done if he had said “actually, yes, you’re right. I am Elijah come again” or something of the same. I reckon that, if he had co-operated with the authorities, they would they have rushed back to the head office with the exciting news, and then the next thing we know John would have been co-opted by the religious system. A seat of honour at the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees all clustered around hanging on his every word, whatever the first century equivalent of a corner office.
It’s a bit reminiscent of Jesus’ temptations isn’t it? Just fall into line with the authorities, and everything will be so much easier. If you have been sent by God, well, we’ve been waiting for someone just like you. Everything is falling into place, and now is the time. Welcome to the big leagues, son.
Of course… we just need to have this one council meeting, just to get your approvals finalised. There’s just this one point that the Chief Priest thinks you might usefully make. We’ve run a focus group, and people are a bit concerned about your camel skin coat – don’t you know that camels are unclean?
John, however, refuses to be co-opted. He keeps them off balance. After all, the whole point of a being a prophet and living in the wilderness on locusts and wild honey is that your authority comes direct from God, not from some human system.
No, the investigators are going to have to go back to head office and report their failure to make any sense of this John character.
Then, just as they are about to leave, he makes their day even worse.
Not only is he not going to accept their authority and come in from the cold, there is someone even more unsettling, even more powerful, even more dangerous waiting in the wings. The one who comes after John is so amazing that John, impressive as he is, is unworthy to even untie his sandals for him.
That is, this mysterious coming one was so amazing that John wasn’t even worthy to be his slave, let alone to be compared to him.
John was insistent. He wasn’t the messiah, and he wasn’t going to be co-opted into a religious institution. He had one job: to be a witness to the light.
So off the investigators went, back to their bosses in Jerusalem with this problematic report.
What does this all have to do with us? We aren’t prophets living on wilderness food, dressed like cavemen. We are sensible middle-class Australians – aren’t we? John the Baptizer’s histrionics seem pretty remote.
But, then again, here we are.
This is Wednesday evening, and here we are again, gathered together to pray and read the Bible and, in a few minutes, to share in an ancient ritual meal of the body and blood of a crucified and risen messiah. It might not feel very countercultural to us, but I think it really is. How many communities gather in person every week, year in, year out? How many communities explicitly try to form themselves as communities of reconciliation, in which there is “no Greek nor Jew”? Where there is no black nor white, no rich nor poor, where all are one in Christ Jesus?
We do a lot of things here, far too many to sum up in a catchy slogan. It is a multidimensional, multi-modal, multi-sensory whole of life thing.
But here’s one key thing we do:
Just like John, we bear witness.
We bear witness to the extraordinary power of the gospel, which has been changing lives all over the world for thousands of years. We bear witness to the difference God makes in our own lives. And we are a living testimony to the resurrected Lord Jesus, who was and is and is to come.
In the church we mark Advent – a season of watching and waiting. Waiting for Christmas, waiting for the coming time when all things are brought into fulfilment by God. We join with “all creation [which] waits in eager anticipation for the revealing of the children of God.”
Even in our waiting, we witness to that hope which we have within us, the hope that does not disappoint. The very fact that we bear witness is itself evidence of that to which we point.
Like John the Baptizer, we are not the light. We point towards the light.
And so, in this Advent season, we join with the whole church and say: Come, Lord Jesus. Make all things new.
Image: The Preaching of John the Baptist , Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566