John the Baptist was a sensation. Soon everyone knew of this wild man out of the desert, dressed in a camel hair tunic, with a leather belt, and with a funny diet, locusts and wild honey. The fiery preacher who went for the tax collectors and soldiers and religious leaders, and called all to repentance. Some of the more learned may have noted that the great prophet Elijah also was described as wearing a garment of animal hair, with a leather belt. People poured out of the towns and villages to see and hear, and many did repent of their sins and were baptized in the river Jordan. Again, the more learned would think of their ancestors who had crossed the river Jordan to escape from slavery and enter the promised land.
You will know that for centuries the Jews had been waiting for a messiah, and the whole question of what they meant by messiah is too complicated to go into now. But at different times they had hoped for a king who would bring in a time of peace, or a warrior to free them from oppression, or they had hoped for a saviour and redeemer, as some of the prophets had foretold.
In Isaiah we read God saying “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine”. And there is the promise of a child to be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
John was called the Baptiser. There is the curious little story in Acts 19 when Paul meets a little group of Christians in Ephesus and asks them if they have received the Holy Spirit, and they reply, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit!” So Paul asks them about their baptism, and they say they were baptised by John’s baptism. Then Paul has to tell them that John only came to lead them to Jesus, and that in baptism in the name of Jesus they will receive the Holy Spirit. We might guess that, in remote villages, there were many other groups who had heard the message of John the Baptist, and believed in him as the latest and greatest prophet – but had not heard or understood that Jesus was the fulfilment.
It is easy for people to get stuck at some point in the growth of their faith. Those people in Ephesus got stuck at belief in John the Baptist. There is a phrase I hear increasingly about ‘the baby Jesus’, as in “I’ll ask the baby Jesus to help you”. It is used mockingly by people who only know Away in a Manger with the little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay. Who have only taken in the story of Jesus as enacted by children in a school Nativity play. For them, Christianity is a sweet, soft, cuddly idea for simple people. They have no idea of the challenge of Jesus Christ, who overturned accepted ideas about sin, and about God, and about the law. Jesus who accepted a cruel death for our sakes, and rose again, and sits at the right hand of God on high.
Some of us have been coming to church for many years, but we are also in danger of getting stuck at some stage in our belief, not stuck with the baby Jesus idea, but stuck because the stories in the Gospels are so familiar, (It’s easy to think ‘Oh I know that story” and sit back), stuck in our prayers at a particular stage, stuck in habits and attitudes. We may pray “Give us this day our daily bread” just as a part of the prayer, while in some African countries it is said as a desperate plea for food. When we pray that God’s will may be done on earth, we should be jolted into thinking that means in our country with its inequality, its greed and lack of belief We can get stuck in the familiarity of the words.
John the Baptist was a sensation, and as well as the crowds who came to hear him, he had his own band of disciples. Then Jesus came along. Andrew, one of John’s disciples, heard him proclaiming that Jesus was ‘the Lamb of God’, and immediately Andrew left John and followed Jesus. Then he told his brother Simon Peter, and brought him to Jesus. Yes, John’s whole mission was to tell people that the Messiah was coming, but still, humanly speaking, it must have been hard to see his followers turning away to another.
John’s mission was to point to Jesus as someone much greater than himself. All true Christians leaders do that. They may say, “Listen to me! because what I am saying is important.” But never “Follow me!” John the Baptist came out of the desert, and he was a firebrand, rebuking authorities, urging people to repent, but our lasting image of him should be as a signpost, pointing away from himself and towards Jesus.
John was a great man of God, but Jesus said he was ‘least in the kingdom of heaven’. John knew and preached the rules, “Repent, be baptised, lead good lives, prepare the way”. Splendid. And true. But John never knew the love, mercy and self-sacrificing death of Jesus and his marvellous resurrection. It is a most amazing thing that it is possible for you and me to know more about God’s love than the greatest of the Old Testament prophets ever knew.
John knew the justice of God, the holiness of God, God’s hatred of sin, but no one could call John’s message good news, it was basically and fundamentally a threat of destruction. It took Jesus and his cross to show the length, breadth, depth and height of the love of God.
Jesus did not act according to some old prophecies and he did not always keep to the old laws. His preaching style was not like John’s. Jesus was not ‘wielding the axe of judgement’ nor ‘sorting out the wheat from the chaff’, and warning of the ‘fires of judgement’. Jesus certainly spoke words of warning, he strongly denounced those who led others astray, and those who imposed old laws about the Sabbath. He could be angry, and he even overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple.
Jesus was, truly, the dear little baby we think about at Christmas, who managed nevertheless to impress shepherds and wise men, as well as causing angels to rejoice. In due time, he taught by words and actions how a human could live completely in accord with God’s will. As the good news spread, people began to see him as the Messiah, the Saviour, God’s own beloved son, the friend of sinners, the one who could forgive sins. And, as Paul wrote, Jesus is the image of the invisible God.
Enjoy Christmas, the carols and cards, the nativity plays, the happy times with friends and family, always remembering the reason for the season, Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
Maureen Lampard, LLM