Monday, December 5, 2011

John the Forerunner


May my words be in the Name of the Father, the Son, & the Holy Spirit – Amen.

This is the time of year when we normally talk about John the Baptist … he is mentioned in the readings for both this Sunday and next … and this is perhaps not a surprising thing to do in the Season of Advent … the time when we think about the coming of Christ into the world … for John is the one whom Christian tradition holds was the one who came before Christ to prepare the way … Eastern Orthodoxy indeed refers to him as John the Forerunner more commonly than as John the Baptist …

So I thought it appropriate to talk a little bit about John today …

So what do we know about him? Very little really … apart from what we read in the Gospels and a few lines written by the historian Josephus we don't have much to go on … but if we take that information, and read it in the light of what we know of the life and culture of the time and place he grew up in and spent his life, & use our imaginations somewhat, then we can tease out a fairly good picture of what his life was like  …

Firstly we know he came from a very religious family. Both his mother and father were descendants of Aaron … so they were a priestly family on both sides … his father was a priest who served in the Temple … and so too most probably were his male relatives on both sides … not only that, but St Luke's Gospel tells us that both his parents were righteous people, devout, who kept all of God's laws … also we see both of them speaking prophetically in that Gospel … his father, Zechariah has a vision with an angel & later speaks prophetically about his son; and his mother Elizabeth speaks prophetically on the occasion of the visit to her by the Blessed Virgin Mary …

Priests like Zechariah did not do that work full time … he belonged to one of 24 priestly divisions & each division took turns spending a week at at time in the temple offering incense … he would have been in the temple for one week about twice a year … and then all the divisions would be there for the major festivals … but we have no hint of what Zechariah did the rest of the year … but it seems that he was able to afford to take several weeks off a year … so probably not a day labourer …

but he probably wasn't too wealthy … the kinsman of his wife Elizabeth was to marry a carpenter … and families of the time tended to stay within their own economic & social standing … and we know that Mary came and stayed for three months while Elizabeth was expecting … probably to help out … which means they probably couldn't afford to hire someone … so not wealthy but not on the poverty line … perhaps a skilled craftsman of some sort … or given that the hill country of Judah where they lived was a fertile area, filled with small vineyards, olive groves, and small farms, perhaps he had his own small plot of land which he worked …

So John would have grown up in the rural setting of the Judean hill country … not too far from Jerusalem … in a family where the religious traditions of their people were held in particular significance … watching his father make his regular trips to the Temple several times a year to serve as priest … no doubt adored by his parents, as the child they thought they would never have, the child given to them by God by the promise of an Angel, who said he would be their joy and delight … adored, but not spoiled … for he was to be brought up as a Nazarite … which was to live under a religious vow … drinking no wine … and avoiding the fruit of the vine in all its forms (grapes, raisins, juice) … not cutting his hair … he couldn't cut it, except once a year … and he could only comb it with his fingers ... a strict and ascetic way of life …

as he grew older, he would have been expected to join his father in his priestly division … so from about the age of 20 he also would have gone to the Temple regularly to offer sacrifice … and most likely would have joined with his father in his more mundane work also, on the land or at his trade … but it seems likely that John also spent a lot of his time in prayer, alone, in the wilderness … we know it was there that the spirit of God came upon him when he felt called to his preaching ministry …

perhaps he went there to ponder the words spoken to his father by the angel: that he would be great in the sight of the Lord; that he would be filled with the Holy Spirit, & the spirit and power of Elijah; that he would bring many people back to God … and the significance of his father's prophetic words: that he would be a prophet of the Most High; that he would go before the Lord to prepare his way; that he would bring people to salvation through the forgiveness of their sins; that he would bring light to those who walk in darkness and in the shadow of death …

He must have spent more and more time in the Judean wilderness … until the time came when he was spending almost all his time there … and then, when he was around 30, he realised what it was he had to do with his life … he found a rough, cheap coat of camel hair … a bit like sack-cloth, to wear and a tied it around him with a bit of old leather thong … his hair and beard were already long and unkempt – remember he couldn't cut it, except once a year … and he must have been lean … rake thin … living on locusts and wild honey doesn't make you fat … although when Luke says locusts he may well have meant locusts shaped bean pods that were more readily available that big grass-hoppers … and wild honey more probably means figs and other wild fruit … the phrase means he was living on what was available in the wilderness …

Did people come to John, or did John go to people? Probably both. At the beginning, he must have gone to them, otherwise how could anyone have heard his message? So he must have travelled the Judean wilderness, going from small village to small village … and to the roads that crossed it to preach to those who travelled in small groups or in large caravans … perhaps even to those who tended herds of sheep or goats, all that the sparse vegetation was good for …

until the time came when he no longer needed to find people to preach to … for one person told another and another until enough travelled out into the barren lands … hungry for the spiritual food that could only be found in that desert place … and as the crowds came he baptised them … marking that they had turned away from their old life of sin …

And as he did all this … what was it like for him to lead a life … knowing that it was the life he was called to before he was born … a life that was designed to prepare the way for another … a life that intended to point people to someone else … a life that even after he was dead had the purpose of reminding people of the life of another person?

Perhaps it was a life that he didn't find so strange … all the prophets that had gone before him had pointed to the life of this person … the history of all the people of Israel … every generation since Adam, had been designed to prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah … so perhaps it gave him peace and contentment knowing that he was the last in a long line of those who had gone before … and perhaps he also found peace and joy in the knowledge that there would soon come a time when all those who followed the one he went before would also be called to live a life that was much the same, in spirit if not materially … that they also would be called to go before all the world proclaiming the Messiah … leading lives that were designed to prepare themselves and others for the time he would come … not for the first time but the second …

I think he did find peace and joy and comfort in those thoughts or ones like them … and so may we … so that even as we prepare ourselves spiritually in this season of Advent we remember our task to be like John in preparing the world for the coming of its Messiah … something that I pray that I, & you, and all God's children may have the strength and courage to do. Amen.

Sermon notes: 27 October 2011 (2nd of Advent)

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