Advent 3 / Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday…..we’re nearly there!
If you ever saw the musical ‘Godspell’ you’ll remember it began with a nice, clean shaven young man called John the Baptist who sings in a pleasing tenor voice ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord.’
Well, if that’s what you think John the Baptist was like, forget it. The Gospels tell us that John was more like a wild man, wandering in the desert, dressed in a camel skin, living off insects and plants, a man who mainly went around condemning people, threatening doom and destruction. Definitely not an attractive figure. Last week we reflected a little on his anger at the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to him for baptism.
The Gospel description of John is corroborated by Josephus, a famous Jewish historian who was writing at about the same time. Josephus mentions John’s weird way of eating and dressing, and also the fact that he lost his life for condemning King Herod’s marriage to a Gentile wife. Josephus describes how John used to follow Herod up and down the country, rather like John Knox pursued Mary Queen of Scots. Herod couldn’t set foot outside his palace without facing John with his pickets and placards, fulminating and ranting and calling down the wrath of God. According to Josephus things got to such a pitch that Herod had to get rid of him to keep the peace – and a good thing too, Josephus says.
Josephus was a sophisticated Jew who admired the Romans and wanted to make a civilised compromise between the Roman Empire and Judaism. From his point of view John was a rabble-rousing wrecker, a barbarian, a religious looney. He describes John at one point as ‘that hairy half-naked ranting vegetarian desert-dweller’. Yet at the same time you still get the impression Josephus rather admires him, if only for his obsessive persistence in standing up for his beliefs. In one sentence Josephus summed John up by saying:
He really was a peculiar creature, hardly like a man at all. The whole object of his life was to show up sin in its true colours.
Definitely not a comfortable saint. And of course, arguably not a Christian saint at all. In the Gospels Jesus says of John, ‘I tell you among those born of women, none has arisen greater than John the Baptist. Yet, the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.’
From the gospel point of view, John is the greatest of the Old Testament prophets; but as yet he is still outside the kingdom inaugurated by Christ. John’s ministry was essentially a ministry of condemnation, focussing the demands of the old law, pointing up our need, until the dispensation of grace in Christ. And John’s baptism was not Christian baptism, but only a washing in token of repentance, until the one who came would truly baptise in Spirit and power. John might have been righteously angry, but in Jesus a new way will come – as followers in that Way know well.
To be absolutely precise, the Gospels of Mark and Matthew say not that John was the last of the Old Testament prophets but actually the first one come back again. Mark and Matthew’s gospels actually say that John is none other than Elijah reincarnate. Elijah had never died. He was whisked up to God in a chariot of fire, and the Jews were – and still are – expecting him back. That’s why, if you go to a Jewish Passover supper, an empty chair and a full goblet of wine is left for Elijah. The very last words of the Old Testament, the last verse of the prophet Malachi, prophesy that Elijah will return before ‘the great and terrible day’ of the Lord’s coming, when everything will be wound up for good.
That’s why John dresses and eats and behaves in such a weird way. He is acting out the role of Elijah. He lives in the desert like Elijah; he dresses like Elijah in camel skins and a leather belt; he eats what Elijah ate, locusts and wild honey. But most of all he resembles Elijah in his unmitigated denunciation of sin. John’s denunciation of Herod and Herodias is a repeat performance of Elijah’s denunciation of Ahab and Jezebel, ‘showing them up in their true colours’ with all the invective at his command.
And all that might seem grim in itself, but the point was that the new Elijah was supposed to bring in this ‘great and terrible day’, the Day of Judgement. John’s message was that he himself might be bad enough, but the messiah he came to announce would be worse yet, a messiah who would come to sort out once and for all with the power of whip and flame:
“You brood of vipers”, we heard John say last week, “how shall you escape from the wrath to come? For the one to come will take his winnowing fork and thresh his granary floor. The wheat he will gather into barns and the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
That was the kind of Messiah John predicted and that everyone evidently expected.
But of course it wasn’t the kind of Messiah they got. And there is every indication in the gospels that when John first heard of Jesus and what he was doing he had grave doubts. Whereas John was ascetic, a desert-dwelling vegetarian, Jesus turned out to be something of a party-goer, condemned as a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners. John, in prison, now found himself in a disheartening and disappointing predicament. Nothing was working out as he expected. Sometimes that happens. John was a product of his time. His wild expectations were not met in Jesus. John was disappointed because he had faulty expectations. Sometimes we are disappointed, not because what we receive is bad, but because we have faulty expectations.
John the Baptist expected the Messiah to come by storm, but nothing much seemed to be happening. It was not Jesus who was at fault, but John’s expectations.
We are told in the gospel reading today that John actually sent messengers to Jesus to ask him, ‘Are you really the one who is to come, or should we wait for somebody else?’ And you remember Jesus’ reply – he quotes from Isaiah, holding the prophecy up as a kind of checklist. If these signs are happening, then the promised Saviour is indeed at work, even if the way it is being worked out is different from what John expected. There was to be no winnowing fork, no hell fire, and even the tax collectors and harlots would be entering the kingdom ahead of the righteous. Unless we let go of some of our unrealistic expectations, we may well find that we don’t recognise the kingdom when we see it.
For John it must have been quite a shock, maybe even a bit of a disappointment. Perhaps it is to John’s greatest credit that when at last he did see Jesus, he immediately recognised him, and he shouted out those words that we use in the eucharist, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’. John did realise in the end that instead of being the avenger of God to punish our sins, Jesus was the lamb of God who takes our sin away. And once he’d realised that, John had the humility to see that from now on his own ministry and the Old Law of Condemnation had to fade away.
Perhaps the question we ask ourselves in the light of today’s reading is ‘What needs to fade away in my own expectations in order that what God wants may be born in us?’
John the Baptist gives us a truly Christian example to follow: the example of the kind of humility which is willing to change its own ideas, unrealistic expectations and prejudices when it sees a newer and higher truth, a fuller and more balanced picture.
Benjamin Disraeli once said:
“What we expect seldom occurs,
what we least expected generally happens.”
May we allow God to surprise us with heaven in this season; may the wildernesses and dry lands of our lives blossom and burst into song; and may our hearts rejoice in the truth that even today – if we look and see – the lame are beginning to walk, those unable to hear or see clearly are having the senses of faith opened; new life is being proclaimed and there is, still, Good News to tell – that we, like Mary, wondering what on earth we can actually expect, will be able to sing with heart and voice: “Tell out my soul the greatness of the Lord, unnumbered blessing give my spirit voice.”