A sermon for Advent 2
Readings: Isaiah 40.1-11 and Mark 1.1-8
Today – and indeed next week too, the Lectionary invites us to consider the place and role of John the Baptiser. We call him that, these days, because the word ‘Baptist’ has become linked to a particular theological viewpoint. Today’s ‘Baptists’ believe that adult baptism is the only legitimate baptism and that 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.
So let’s focus down on John the Baptiser – the man. Mark launches straight into his story by reminding us of Isaiah’s prophecy (which we’ve also heard, this morning). It’s a 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. Picture the scene: Imagine a rather dirty fellow, with mad scruffy hair, dressed in camel-skins, and covered in bee-stings (from raiding wild bee hives). He’s probably got blobs of honey stuck to his shirt, and he’s 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 mental health support!
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, attracted people out into the desert 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 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: saying “Just because you are Abraham’s children, 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.
I think that John had a different vision of what the Messiah would be like. John’s Messiah would be full of swift judgment against the evil people of the day. See what he says about Jesus 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 rooted in the language and concepts of the Old Testament. But, uncomfortably, 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? How many Conservative-voters assume God is a Tory? How many socialists are just certain that God would surely have voted 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? We all have a tendency to make God in our own image – rather than seeking the truth of God in whose image we are made.
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, transactional 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’ language, on the other hand, is of forgiveness, acceptance, and love. He speaks of journeys and the Way of faith. John is the apocalyptic doom-sayer. Jesus offers life, hope and an exciting journey.
Mind you, Jesus is not immune from the apocalyptic tradition. 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. (Mt 12.34). But on balance, Jesus’ tone is rather different to John’s. Instead of calling us to a desert of repentance, 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 call us to turn away from making up our own ideas about how things should be. He calls us instead to tune-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. Amen.