Thought for the week - 11 December
As I mentioned last week the season of Advent is very much dominated by the extraordinary figure of John the Baptist – the forerunner, the voice of one calling in the wilderness, a figure who seems to have wandered into the Gospel story straight from the pages of the Old Testament. Even the events surrounding his birth are extraordinary as you will remember. His elderly parents the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth had given up all hope of having children when the Angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah in the Temple and tells him that Elizabeth will have a child who shall be called John. And he will be a special child:
“He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God.
And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous--to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."
Even his name “John” which means “favoured of God” is unusual. No one in his family has ever been called by that name. Coming from an hereditary priestly family one would have expected John to be a priest, but when we first meet him, in the wilderness of Judea, it is in the role of a prophet, and an extraordinary one at that. He is the voice of one calling in the wilderness and his message is one of a baptism as a sign of repentance.
The call to baptism is in itself extraordinary for it is not found in the Old Testament nor was it practised in Judaism at the time of John – it is a complete innovation, the idea that a simple immersion in water could bring salvation to anyone who repented. No wonder John was popular. The gospels tell us that all went out to hear him and the Jewish historian Josephus comments that he was well regarded by the whole Jewish people. I suppose his appeal must have centred on the fact that salvation was open to all who repented. The simple act of immersion, unlike circumcision, made salvation accessible to all.
But, of course, he was not universally popular. Anyone as outspoken as John was bound to make enemies. And when we meet him in today’s gospel reading he is in prison, imprisoned by Herod Antipas, the Judaean ruler, for denouncing him for marrying Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Herod. At the request of Salome, daughter of Herodias and Herod, John was beheaded. Josephus tells us a different story. This is what he says: "As great crowds clustered around John, Herod became afraid lest the Baptist should abuse his moral authority over them to incite them to rebellion, as they would do anything at his bidding; therefore he thought it wiser, so as to prevent possible happenings, to take away the dangerous preacher. . .and he imprisoned him in the fortress of Machaerus".
Whichever way you look at it John was a very powerful personality, popular with the people but not, obviously, with Herod.
But, however powerful John might have been, and however popular, he knows that he is but the forerunner of one who is even greater, the one whose way he has come to prepare. When he hears in prison what Jesus is doing he sends his disciples to ask him, as if in confirmation of what he already knows:
“Are you the one who was to come, or should we
expect someone else?" The answer that he receives back from Jesus is a startling confirmation of what he already knows: "Go back and report to John what you hear and see:
The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” In Jesus something wonderful has begun to happen. The Gospel message is proclaimed not just in word but in action. Perhaps that is something the Church ought to remember – we best proclaim the gospel of the kingdom not in words but by action. Jesus did not give a lengthy theological or doctrinal exposition about the role of the Christ; he simply said “Go back and report to John what you see and hear.”
As John’s disciples are leaving Jesus speaks to the crowd about John. And what he says is in itself startling:
“Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:
"`I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.'
I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
We, who are the least in the kingdom of heaven, are greater than John the Baptist. We have seen and heard all that Jesus has done. We are his witnesses and like John the Baptist it is our duty and privilege to make ready the way so that others might see and hear the mighty things that Christ has done for us; and seeing and hearing might come to believe on him who is this dark world’s one true light.