Today, the Church invites us to consider the place and role of John the Baptiser. We call him that, these days, because he wasn’t a member of the ‘Baptist’ church. Being a ‘Baptist’ means believing that adult baptism is the only legitimate baptism. In other words, Baptists believe that the Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, Methodist and just about every other mainstream church is wrong in baptising children who can’t confess their own faith. That is a fascinating argument…of course. But there isn’t time to go into it now.
This year, we are confronted with the opening lines of Mark’s Gospel – or as Mark himself says, “this is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God”. You’ll notice, I’m sure, that Mark launches straight into his story with Jesus as an adult. Mark is the oldest of the Gospels. And yet he makes no mention of the Nativity, the Virgin Birth, or the events at Bethlehem. It is only the Gospels of Matthew and Luke which contain all wonderful story-lines that we will be focusing on in a couple of weeks – and they were written rather later in history than Mark. Again, there is a lot I could say about this – but again, there isn’t time. If you are interested in ‘decoding the Christmas Story’, you might like to join us next Saturday, here in church, for FaithTalk – when I’ll be thinking a bit more about these themes.
Today, though, let’s focus down on John the Baptiser. Mark launches straight into his story by reminding the reader of Isaiah’s prophecy of a messenger who will be sent ahead of the Messiah. Mark is absolutely convinced that John is that messenger – so he goes on:
“John the Baptiser appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”.
John is the last of the Old Testament prophets. He follows the tradition of living apart from civilisation, and of calling people to repent of their evil ways. So, picture the scene: Imagine, if you will, a rather dirty fellow, who has probably never visited a barber, dressed in camel-hair, covered in bee-stings (from raiding wild bee hives) with honey stuck to his shirt, and munching on a locust...and declaring at the top of his voice “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near”.
I wonder what our reaction would be if we met someone like that in the streets of Havant – or even here inside the church. I think we’d try to get him some serious help from a mental health professional!
But there was something about John that attracted people to him. There was something about his message which, according to both Mark and Matthew’s Gospels, had people coming out to him in the wilderness from “Jerusalem, all of Judea, and all of the region along the River Jordan” (Mt 3:5)
According to Matthew’s rather expanded account of Mark’s bare-bones passage, John was not a man to mince his words either. He taunted the religious leaders of the day with phrases like “You viper’s brood” (Mt 3:7) He warned them against the complacency of their religion. “Just because you are Abraham’s children,” he would say, “don’t go thinking that gives you an automatic right to heaven” (Mt 7:8 - paraphrased)
There are, in fact, a number of puzzling questions about John. First there is the fact that he didn’t join up with Jesus. Why didn’t he set aside his baptising, and become a follower of the Lord? And then there’s the fact that when he was in prison he sent word to Jesus to ask him if he really was the Messiah.
It’s pretty clear that John had a different vision of what the Messiah would do – he seemed to expect a Messiah who would be full of swift judgment against the evil people of the day. See what he says in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 3:
“...he will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”. (Mt 3: 12).
John’s expectations of the Messiah are based in the language and concepts of the Old Testament. He expects the ‘great and terrible Day of the Lord’. John expects action – he expects the Lord to arrive with a winnowing fork – scattering the grain into the air and separating out the wheat from the chaff – and he expects it to happen soon. Later, John uses the metaphor of an axe which is being put to the root of the trees – a sense in which ‘any minute now’ the tree is about to be chopped down.
Jesus simply doesn’t match up to John’s expectations of what the Messiah would be like... should be like. And he was Jesus’ cousin! I wonder how many of us sometimes do that? How often do we simply assume that God will be as we expect him to be…rather than how God actually is? How often do we assume that God must surely agree with our beliefs? Entire nations go to war over that mistake. To put it in our own terms - how many Tories assume God is a Tory? How many socialists are just certain that God would surely vote for Jeremy Corbyn? How many racists or homophobes automatically assume that God agrees with them? How many religious extremists – on every side, assume that God condones their violent actions?
But Jesus has his own agenda. He himself speaks of the coming day of the Lord, and the separation of sheep from goats – later in Matthew’s gospel in fact. But Jesus places that event at some distance in the future – and in very mythical language. He won’t actually separate actual sheep and goats – but there is a difference between those who chose his Way, and those who do not.
John’s language is the language of criticism and warning. “You’d better do what I say, or God Almighty is going to smite you!” John’s kind of repentance is a rather mechanistic thing. “Repent, and be baptised, and you will be forgiven of your sins – you’ll be saved from the wrath that is to come”. John is offering a rather simple passport to heaven – rather like the indulgences that Martin Luther rightly condemned 1500 years later.
Jesus, on the other hand, speaks words of forgiveness, acceptance, and love. John is the apocalyptic doom-sayer. Jesus offers life and hope.
John is an important figure in the Bible – but we need to see him in his context. As I said earlier, he is often described as the last of the Old Testament prophets. He marks the passing of an age when dire warnings were used to persuade people to change their ways. A great deal of the Old Testament is precisely that…a lot of dire warnings of peril. It’s great stuff for the news-channels – who like to appeal to our inbuilt fascination for danger.
Jesus is not immune from that tradition, either. Certainly he gives plenty of warnings, and he even appropriates John’s use of the phrase ‘viper’s brood’ – to describe the religious leaders of the day. But on balance, Jesus’ tone in very different to John. His ‘new testament’ is an invitation to join in with the good in the world, not to focus on the bad. He invites us to commune with each other and with him around a meal. He even includes Samaritans, Zealots, tax collectors and even his future betrayer into that community. He even includes women(!) – which in his time was an incredible thing to do.
Jesus speaks the language of radical inclusion, whereas John speaks of unquenchable fire and winnowing forks. Jesus invites all of us on a journey of faith, self-discovery, community-life and growth. He calls it the Way, and the Kingdom.
Jesus wants us to repent, yes – just like John. And Jesus also advocates baptism - but as a sign and a seal on the beginning of that journey. John’s call is a for a simple legal transaction – “repent, get baptised, and you’ll go to heaven”. Done. Dusted. It’s like those Christians, even today, who are more interested in whether you have ‘accepted Jesus into your heart’ or 'washed in the blood of the lamb' than whether you are actually living Jesus’ kind of life.
Jesus’ call is a deliberate, daily, turning away from human ideas about how things should be, and a deliberate, constant, tuning-in to God’s loving, merciful, ultimately positive view of the universe. The baptism of Jesus marks the very start of an entire journey of faith.
That’s why, incidentally, I do believe in infant baptism. For I think that it is never too early, in God’s inclusive Kingdom, to invite another person to journey with God.