Today John the Baptizer comes to us: wild hair and beard, camel-skin and voice. He’s a sign Christ is coming. He is his herald, his forerunner. He prepares the way of the Lord. He was a historical figure. He was a prophet, a spokesman for God. He preached to the Jewish people of Jesus’ time, just before our Lord himself began his public ministry. He called them to repentance and offered them a baptism, a forerunner of our baptism. But he’s not just an historical figure. He was praised by Jesus. He features in all four Gospels. He figures in the Church’s liturgy, especially in Advent, this Sunday and next. Once he was a presence for 1st c. Israel, and now he’s a presence for the 21st c. Church and for us.
So today, yes, John the Baptizer comes to us. He’s part of our Advent.
So, who was he, who is he? What did he say and what did he do? A good way in is geography. ‘He went through the whole Jordan district’ says St Luke. He was ‘a voice crying in the wilderness.’ He wasn’t in the villages of Galilee, as Jesus would be. He wasn’t in the metropolis of Jerusalem, with its Temple and feasts and High Priest and Sanhedrin and Roman governor and Roman garrison, a world of theology and piety and politics. He was out of all that. He was somewhere else, on the edge: in the desolate desert country round the valley of the River Jordan just north of where it flows into the Dead Sea. Being there was already a message, already a word of God. And why? Because it was through the wilderness and through water that Israel, God’s people, had once entered the Promised Land. He was going back to the beginning, recalling the origins, evoking the great founding story of Israel: the Exodus from Egypt. He wanted the Israel of his day to turn round – the meaning of ‘repent’ – and remember and relive their Exodus. He wanted them to pass through the water of the Red Sea and the River Jordan another time, not just to be freed from social slavery but to have their sins forgiven. He wanted Israel to be God’s planting, God’s good grain, God’s bride, God’s people once again. Because, for John, the Jews of his time had forgotten this, had forgotten the demands of being God’s covenanted people, had become entangled in worldly things, compromised, at odds with one another. By being in the desert and baptizing in the Jordan, John was challenging all this.
And why? Why was he so passionate? Because, with the insight of a prophet, he saw that the Lord, the God of Israel, was about to visit his people. Here he was invoking the second great moment of Israel’s history, the return from Exile in Babylon, some 800 years after the Exodus and 500 years before Christ. God was coming to re-gather his scattered people, to complete the unfinished business of Israel’s history. Israel’s job was to lay the road, to prepare a way for the Lord, to make his paths straight. And those who didn’t would be felled like trees by axes, or blown away like chaff, or burned up in a storm of fire. It was strong stuff, a prophet speaking of judgement. But the other side of it was salvation: ‘And all mankind shall see the salvation of God’: Jesus, whom one day John would point to: ‘Behold the Lamb of God.’
That was the message of the John who was, given to the Israel of his day. What about the John who is, the John Jesus said was ‘more than a prophet’? The John who lives in the Gospels and the Liturgy and is speaking to us, the Church of God? Because to us too the Lord is coming: in the events of our lives, in our liturgy, in the word of God, in the Eucharist, and he will come, “when the day of Jesus Christ comes”. What do we need to turn back to and remember? What road mending do we need to do? What valleys in ourselves do we need to fill in, what mountains and hills do we need to level? What do we need to straighten out? We whose Exodus moment was our baptism? We who are Christ’s Church? We this parish? We who are going through the wilderness of this world to the Promised Land of God’s kingdom? What should we do? John the Baptizer is given us to help us answer. So is all Advent: the readings and prayers and practices of this season; they are all on our side. So are Mary and Joseph, Isaiah and St Paul. So is recalling the Christmas story. So are the opportunities for Confession? It’s all for us. It’s all at the service of our joy.
Let me just highlight one thing: this Sunday’s Communion Antiphon. It’s beautiful. It echoes the first reading from the prophet Baruch. It goes, ‘Jerusalem, arise and stand upon the heights, and behold the joy which comes to you from God.’ Think of the timing here: it’s a communion antiphon. We will hear it just after the celebrant has held up the Host and Chalice and used the very words of John the Baptist: ‘Behold the Lamb of God…’ We will hear it when Holy Communion is about to be offered and the processions to form. ‘Jerusalem’, that’s us, that’s the Church in this place. ‘Jerusalem, arise and stand upon the heights’. What are the heights? Faith, hope and charity, the theological virtues. ‘And behold the joy which comes to you from God’. Behold what ‘joy from God’? Behold the Lamb of God. Behold Christ present in the Eucharist. Behold Christ born in Bethlehem, crucified and raised in Jerusalem, and present in us and among us. Behold Christ waiting for us.
So, let’s connect Christmas and the Eucharist. Think of us all here, all related to the Eucharist in different ways. Here are some on their way to joining the Church at Easter and making their first Communion then. Here are children waiting to do the same. Here are some of us perhaps, who because of sins, must pass first through the door of Confession. Here are others who, because of a life-situation, cannot receive until it’s resolved. Here are others able to receive regularly. All of us though, one Body in Christ, can ‘behold the joy’, can approach one step nearer perhaps, can level our road, widen our hearts, for the One who is always there.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 9 December 2018