Advent is a season of anticipationand preparation, it’s a count down. But a count down to what? A countdown to a party? Is it just a countdown to a commemoration? Or is there more to it? Should Christmas somehow be more than a gift giving party? Advent is a countdown to a renewal of your faith. Do you expect something special to happen at Christmas? Now I know that December 25this probably not the exact date Jesus was born. But I believe that God has allowed the church to focus on this day as the day that we remember Jesus’s incarnation. It’s a bit like Queen’s Birthday. Jesus’ birthday. What are we counting down to? I believe that we are counting down to a day of spiritual renewal. Not manufactured renewal. But a day where if we really grasp what God was doing in Jesus, it will fill us with unutterable joy. I want to promise you, if you enter into Christmas and really try to understand what God did in Jesus – it will change your life. And today we are looking at how John the Baptist prepared the way for that discovery.
Who was John? He was the most popular speaker of his day, rock star, environmental activist, inspirational speaker – all rolled into one. He rallied against the establishment, people went out in their 100s, 1000s to hear him. And he was a little crazy, pure as the driven snow but also crazy. And remember in a world without face book, actually in a world without books – these great speakers – they were the entertainment. "Dad shall we go out and catch that new Jack Reacher movie?" "No son we’ve got 1900 years before cinema, but we could go and catch John the Baptist – I hear he’s got a new routine picking on Herod." I can tell you the religious details – he was a Nazarene, didn’t drink, ate honey and locusts, cousin of Jesus, foretold by prophets. But actually he was entertaining, and he ignited people’s religious imagination. "Get baptised, have a second chance." Everyone believed in God, they just didn’t do much about it – and here was John who was critical of half hearted religion, and people flocked to him. The religious and the ordinary. And here’s the best thing. He was really practical – a soldier asked him how do I live a godly life? He didn’t say 'stop working for the romans, risk death and impoverish your children'. No he gave straight forward advice, "Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely--be content with your pay.“ – you could imagine a soldier thinking, “I could do that.” A tax collector– despised creepy little man asks him what should I do? He says, "Don't collect any more than you are required to". I could do that. And to Joe average, “If you have two shirts should share with anyone who has none, and if you have food, do the same." He was kind of like the original hippie street preacher.
So why was John in Prison? Was he a criminal? Was he a political agitator? No he was being a moral policeman. But not in a minor sort of, 'sticking your nose into your neighbour’s business' sort of way. He was calling out the King for his bad behaviour. After ‘Herod the Great’ there were four demi-Kings ruling the Holy land. The one John got in trouble with was Herod the tetrarch. Herod the tetrarch had taken his brother Philips wife and John was calling him out on it. And Herod was not happy. In the Jewish law Lev 18.16 and Lev 20.21 you are not meant to marry your brothers wife. That was while he was still alive, because you were obliged to marry your brothers wife if he died childless. Now this might all sound a bit funny, but this all gets frightening close to incest, and close to damaging precious family relationships. In the ancient world, your brother’s house should be a place that your wife was safe, say if you were travelling, safe from being hit on, safe from having your wife stolen away. That household should be within the bounds of family safety. And Herod had publically gone against the social contract. Worse still Herod was acting as if he was above the law. So John called him out on it. And John got thrown in prison for his trouble. It seems that Herod’s wife Herodias was angry with John. She tried to have John killed but – (here’s how popular John was) – the King wouldn’t execute him because he was scared of the people! The story ends badly, Herodias had a daughter who danced for Herod. I imagine it may have been as sleazy as it sounds. Herod offered her anything she wanted, and prompted by mother she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Which she got. These were some scary women. I wonder whether Herod ever came to regret not taking John’s rebuke.
So our reading is half way through the story. John is locked up, perhaps anxious for his life and he sends some of his followers off to Jesus to check out how things are going. Is this Jesus the one? John was perhaps thinking about succession. Are you the one Jesus? Or should I be looking for someone else? That sounds like a bit of a slap down to me; especially if we take the earlier accounts seriously. The story about Jesus coming to John, getting baptised and John describing him as his superior, 'the thong of his sandal I am unworthy to untie'. So why the hesitation? I think John was just facing some self-doubt. He was facing death, and wondering if he’d got it right. He’s looking back. Perhaps he’d heard some bad accounts of Jesus. Remember in a whole lot of ways Jesus didn’t do what was expected. He wasn’t a puritan like John. Jesus hung out with drunks and prostitutes, sinners as well as saints. Maybe John had heard some rumours and wanted to check. Verification. I believe that Jesus does not get offended by that question when it is honestly asked. If you are real show yourself to me.
And Jesus is able to give a great answer to John, the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised. Wow, and good news is preached to the poor. Wow that musty have been such good news for John to hear. and perhaps John wanted his disciples to see that also!
Because John had a very special role at this time, a role I often describe to people as the John the Baptist role. He must become greater and I must become less. For John it was recognising the coming end of his life and ministry. But for many of us there is a time to embrace this role, when I left Papatoetoe many years ago my role was to fade into the background and to turn the focus on my successor Margaret Anne. Now I didn’t always agree with Margaret Ann, but my role was to become less as she became more. But notice Johns wording suggests a transition, reducing and increasing not just a dropping of the ball. It’s interesting that years later there are disciples in Ephesus who had only heard of Johns Baptism. So you can see how important it was for Jesus to be respectful of his predecessor. I find that also important, that new people acknowledge those who have come before them. When I see someone grasping hold and not letting the next person come through that makes me sad but I am sad also when I see a new person who shows no respect for those who had come before. So I think in John and Jesus we have a powerful example of leadership transition. And as we prepare for Christmas, who are you raising up?? Who is the next generation for you to be handing over to?
Let’s look at John and Jesus because they were also distinctly different. As I said John was more of a moral policeman. I think of him like a climate change activist . With John I get this impression that he was a powerful speaker and passionate, but also rather self-righteous. Annoyingly right. As I often say to my friends, no one likes a smart aleck, especially one who’s right. I also get the feeling that there was a bit of the Donald Trump about John. Not morally, but "Drain the swamp" I could see John saying that – he said to the religious politicians – you brood of vipers who told you to flee the coming wrath. So John was this passionate ball of vigour. Great to study John in advent. To feel his passion. But also to know he was not the final word
Sometimes I hear people say that our job is to be John the Baptist and bring people to Jesus. I disagree, our job is to be like Jesus, to bring people to Jesus. If you really live a life like Jesus that will cause people to notice. We are not Johnians, we are Christians. And Jesus has a superior word and kawa to John. As Jesus said – John is a great guy, 'among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist'. But Jesus says – 'he who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than John'. So Jesus is respectful, but then strongly realitivises John. What’s that about? I think what he means is this. The Kingdom of Heaven is not just quantitatively different to John – it’s qualitatively different. In the coming kingdom, John’s approach has been superseded. My guess is that we are talking about outward conformity to God’s ways, to pre-resurrection transformation. Outward conformity is good, but when you compare that to Jesus giving you a new heart, a new passion, when you compare that to Jesus’ inward transformation – that is qualitatively different. We can have the mind of Christ. That is infinitely superior to John. I think that in our community we want to be very careful of the Moral Policeman voice. Behaviour modification without inward transformation is not the gospel. I think our primary calling is to speak words of life rather than words of judgment. Words of hope rather than words of criticism. I know it can seem like a cliché, and I know that people often only superficially engage with Jesus; but our goal must be to hold out real hope to people – of inward transformation. The holy Spirit changing our desires. That is the Christian message, not just be a good boy.
I wonder if you to see this difference, the difference between being a puritan and being pure. One became about outward conformity and in the hay day of puritanism the Pilgrim fathers tried to establish Godly cities. This was a great ambition – but too often those cities became places of rigid conformity and quite honestly violent or forced conformity. How different true purity is. True purity thinks the best of people and desires to restore and heal. It tells the truth, and it seeks to draw out goodness from others. It is not naïve, because in fact believing that outward conformity will bring inward change is naive. What does this mean for us? I think in advent it means turning the searchlight of God’s holiness within. But not with a penitential view, not with the western churches obsession with sin and guilt. It means turning the searchlight within with more of the orthodox church’s belief that we are children of the resurrection. Beleiving that our lives are capable of being divinised, which means drenched in the power of the holy spirit. There is nothing more attractive and confronting than a life dripping with God’s character. A life where we believe that God is changing us, where we stop making excuses and through prayer and practice we believe that God can change our hearts and minds. The world is full of Herod’s, wanting to threatening our relational webs and behead those who disagree with them. But God is stronger. I believe that there are many moral challenges facing us. I’m sure you could list a stack of them today. But as we approach Christmas I invite you to think how was Jesus different to John?
So this advent, part of our preparation is to get a feel for Johnand his rallying cry and then to rediscover that Jesus is talking about something much deeper. A deeper love, a deeper conformity to God’s law, a morality that is not about following the rules, but instead internalising the rules. That is Jesus. A new heart. The son of God giving us his passion, his heart, his forgiveness.