Matthew 3: 1-12
What do you picture when you think of John the Baptist? What type of person do you imagine? The filthy, wild looking man depicted in some famous films perhaps?
A semi-naked man wearing camel hair and eating locusts? The dress, we’re told, of a prophet.
A man bellowing out “Repent, the kingdom is near”, a bit like those sandwich board men you used to find outside big football matches?
Someone rather and scary and intimidating?
The forerunner to Christ, who emphasised Jesus’ superiority and described himself as not worthy to carry Jesus’ sandals, during Advent it is John’s pre-cursor status which is emphasised and it’s perhaps sometimes too easy to forget just what a powerful figure he was before Jesus came along.
John was the leader of a significant religious movement (some have described him as launching the mission which Jesus would go on to develop) attracting crowds of people from all walks of life from Jerusalem and all Judea as well as all the region along the Jordan. An important historical character he was so popular that Herod Antipas would fear an uprising and go on to have him imprisoned and executed. Later in Matthew’s Gospel we hear Jesus himself say “no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist”.
Just how significant a figure John was is evidenced by our Gospel reading today. People walked miles to hear him preach (a level of pull most preachers today could only dream of) and it wasn’t just the excluded or marginalised who flocked to the wilderness (that place of new beginnings in the Bible) to hear him but, we’re told, members of the Establishment too.
The Sadducees were part of the upper class and are thought to have dominated the wealthy and political elite at the time. They did not believe in any afterlife. The Pharisees were well known legal experts who, unlike the Sadducees believed in the resurrection of the dead. They advocated strict observance of the Law. Members of both these groups, responded like so many others, to John’s call to repentance and faithfulness. They seemed to recognise that their practices needed to change. Or maybe they just hedging their bets?
Physically distancing himself from the established religion, in the wilderness away from the Temple and Jerusalem, John, speaking from the edge not the centre, brought both extremes of society together.
I wonder, where do we find such places today and is it in such places that we’ll find God speaking?
Now, imagine yourself as one of the Sadducees or Pharisees, there with the common masses, approaching John for baptism, only to have him turn on you with the most offensive of insults, “You brood of vipers!” In those days vipers were thought to have been born by hatching inside the mother and then gnawing their way through the mother’s womb, killing her in the process. I wonder what the equivalent insult might be for Richard or myself if we were to take a similar approach with some of our baptism candidates here at Holy Innocents?! And whether, in the face of such a reception, candidates would still proceed undeterred?!
In John’s day many Jews believed that Israel as a whole would be saved at the end times. John warns the Sadducees and Pharisees in graphic terms that their privileged status and position as descendants of Abraham won’t of itself guarantee them salvation. At that time there were various views of Hell, with some believing the wicked would burn up instantly, and others thinking they would burn forever. John speaks into these fears, making clear that status and ritual purity alone won’t spare the Sadducees and Pharisees from God’s judgment and that the one to come will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.
I can’t help but wonder what kind of terrifying Messiah the people might have expected after hearing John speak in such terms!
John calls the Sadducees and Pharisees to account but, despite his insults, it would appear he does proceed to baptise them. His baptism of them comes however with the warning that the mere ritual of it isn’t enough. They mustn’t be smug. They must “bear fruit” and do the good deeds worthy of repentance. Simply confessing their sins and receiving baptism won’t be sufficient. They are to turn to God and begin a new life. In other words, they’re not simply to follow the crowd, have the ritual performed and talk the talk. They’re to mean it!
John calls his hearers back to faithfulness. His message is one of justice to others and piety towards God. In Luke’s gospel we hear him pronounce that whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none and that whoever has food must do likewise. Words we do well to remember in the difficult times our nation faces today.
When reading this account of John from Matthew I reflected on the recent Census which received so much publicity last week. The headlines declared that Christians no longer represent the majority in the UK. I couldn’t help but question the extent to which they previously did, noting that earlier censuses offered far fewer and less nuanced possible answers to questions about one’s religious belief and wondered how many people previously identified nominally as Christian as opposed to acting in the way John and Jesus exhorted their followers to. I wondered too whether a church holding a less central position within society might be more effective in calling people back to the faithfulness which John epitomised.
As one writer notes “Truth is often most closely spoken from the uncomfortable edge”
As pre-cursors go, John was a pretty impressive warm up act for the main event. By the time Jesus’ public ministry began John had amassed quite a following. In those early days I wonder to what extent Jesus was actually preaching to the converted given John’s preparatory work? John’s ministry marked a transition between the old age and the new. The start of something great. Not just pointing to Jesus but playing his own unique part in God’s mission, the mission which then proceeded with Jesus and in which we are all, as Christians over two thousand years later, called to play our own part.
Reflecting on John’s ministry leaves us, I think, with some interesting questions. What do today’s prophets look and sound like? Where are they calling from? What efforts do we make to hear them?
Which rituals do we follow and why? Do we cling too much to comforting rituals at the expense of something more profound? What changes do we, as members of an established church need to make?
In the 1990s there was a resurgence of the phrase What would Jesus Do? The acronym found its way onto all manner of merchandise.
But today I find myself asking “What would John say?”
What would John the Baptist be saying to us if we were in that crowd approaching him for baptism? Just how insulting might he be? What things would he be telling us to cast aside?
Are we bearing fruit worthy of repentance?
Richard Young (Rector)