Our understanding of the emerging story of Jesus and the early Church is greatly enhanced by the scholarship of the author of the gospel of Luke, who many also understand to be the author of the Book of Acts. Yet if we insist on treating the writings as clinical objective history, we risk sinking into a mire of confusion and contradiction. Worse still, we may entirely miss the point of the good news. Professor of Religion, Russell Pregeant, once recounted an anecdote of a student who listened with mounting concern to a Professor in modern theology expounding on some New Testament ideas in such a way that the student’s notion of strict Biblical literalism seemed under threat. At the end of the lecture the student indignantly accosted the Professor waving a large leather bound copy of the Bible in the professor’s face.
“Don’t you believe that this book is the word of God?” The young man demanded to know.
The Professor gently reached out for the Bible and took it from the indignant student saying “It is… if it grasps you. It is not, if you are the one doing the grasping.” The ideas in the gospels gain their value not because they can be grasped and analysed for word perfect accuracy – but rather because their essence reaches out to speak to the heart.
Writing years after the events, Luke cannot be expected to achieve video accuracy to record the scenes he describes. Indeed any check against the other gospels rapidly reveals definite inaccuracy. Which Herod was the backdrop for Jesus birth? Which census? Which massacre of the infants escaped the attention of contemporary historians? How can Jesus be staying around to be presented at the Temple when another account says he has been rushed off to Egypt to flee the wrath of Herod? Luke and the other gospel writers would clearly fail Journalism 101 if we were looking for total hard objectivity.
If, on the other hand, we were seeking story telling which speaks to our imagination with vivid word impressions, storytelling which paints character pictures that can tug at the conscience, and above all showcasing stories which presents the underlying themes as coherent dynamic reality, then perhaps we might find why the word can sometimes reach out to grasp our very being.
The Baptism of Jesus has a very interesting implied sub-text. Isaiah’s prophecy now immortalised in the musical setting of the Messiah with the line “Prepare ye the way of the Lord” comes true here in a most unexpected way. Those who are content to allow orthodox Church tradition the final say in all serious issues should think long and hard about what we see in this story.
Our reading starts with Luke listing the points which place his story in an historical frame, listing for example the key leaders of the time. These facts enable us to ground Jesus meeting John the Baptist in a period setting but each of the facts he mentions should also remind us of the grim realities facing the people of the age. The ruthless Tiberius had replaced the Emperor Augustus and was insisting that the Jewish people in the Roman controlled part of the territory give absolute recognition to his status as a God. Two of Herod’s sons: Herod Antipas and Philip were retaining a shaky but ruthless control in the North, yet we might remember their methods were every bit as violent and unpleasant as the ruthless Romans.
John the Baptist, a man who couldn’t be further from orthodox religious hierarchy, convinced by the urgency in what he sees of the developing situation and seeing that before the people could make room for the Messiah there is first an absolute need to call them to repentance, he finally takes matters into his own hands. The baptism he offers is undignified in the extreme. The weedy and muddy waters of the Jordan could not be further from the crystal clear, artificially warmed token water in a 21st century ornate Church baptismal font. That Jesus seeks out this John to make this man and this setting part of his destiny, and that Luke finds in this encounter the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy speak volumes about the one we call the Christ and his message.
John is portrayed offering baptism as a spiritual clean-up and those who subjected themselves to his rough and ready version of baptism were acknowledging their need for this step in their spiritual journey. John’s chosen symbolism of baptism would not be lost on his onlookers since they would know baptism was a prerequisite for Gentiles to be converted to Judaism. To baptise Jews is then a challenge, in effect telling them that they are so far from Judaism that they require conversion.
Historically there have been a number of periods over the ages where communities drift so far from their ideals that only radical surgery can meet the cancers that eat away at the very fabric of society. As with the failure of the Church to deal with the Roman occupation at the time of Christ, and if it comes to that, the current failure to achieve lasting peace in Syria or Gaza, when the Church fails to lead, others must step up to meet the challenge. We think for example of the deterioration and corruption ignored by those in the Church hierarchy that triggered Luther’s reformation of the Church. We might also remind ourselves that the passive acceptance of the scandal of slavery required an Abraham Lincoln and not a Pope or Bishop to take control.
But remember if the Church leadership fails to step up to lead in such situations – the church is not just the leadership. The Church is us. The growing gap between the rich and the poor, the destruction of nature, the arms race, the failure to show acceptance of minorities and unpopular ethnic or religious groups, the failure to accept women into genuine leadership positions ….. none of these are new and despite the Church claims to show moral leadership, as Church members we are all often guilty of passive acceptance of that which we know to be wrong.
Repentance from wrong doing is a concept which is easily cheapened. Anyone who has attended the court sentencing of a convicted criminal will no doubt have sometime wondered at the sincerity of the expressions of remorse so often offered in return for lessened sentences. On occasion there is little attempt to hide true feelings when as in the case for more than one thug, despite an earlier statement of contrition and concern for the victim, once the sentence is read out suddenly the true character is revealed when the TV news item shows the one convicted turning to make a derisory finger sign at the spectators as he is led away.
We can scoff at such hypocrisy, but maybe we should moderate our criticism when we remember how often we are content to say Amen to perfunctory prayers of confession and intercession in Church services, yet perhaps show no signs of altered attitude or behaviour once we have left the place of worship. It might be a useful exercise if we were to reflect on the prayers of a typical Sunday and ask ourselves honestly, which of the prayers do we expect to alter our behaviour? It would be ironic if we were praying with the intention of changing God’s actions if we did not at the same time think we had any part in the answers to the prayers.
When an angry John the Baptist insists on repentance for those he baptizes, we should understand that he is calling for more than verbal assent to repentance. In the verses that follow this morning’s reading we find John spelling out the sorts of actions that would mark genuine repentance. In verse eight for example we can almost hear the indignant tone in his words when he says “you had better prove your repentance by bearing the proper fruit”.
Perhaps this is a message we should be hearing more often. It is very easy to recite words in liturgy and to pray along with the congregation, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Yet somewhere along the line, for this to show the marks of real repentance we must start with some honest self analysis and carry through to check on ourselves for signs of change. It is all very well to see John the Baptist calling the people to repentance and understand this to be part of the Jesus story. Surely to make the Jesus story our story raises the question of whether or not those of us who want to follow Jesus lead might also be called upon to do some self reflection.
Advent is of course ideally seen as a time of preparation and it is also true that Christianity is far more than repentance. Nevertheless if those wishing to ready themselves for the Messiah could find part of their preparation in the challenge of John the Baptist, perhaps we too might give thought to his call to put ourselves right before we continue in the next stage of our personal pilgrimage. John’s words may not lend themselves to a spectator existence of comfortable pew sitting…and in fact they are not conveniently grasped and treated as trophies. On the other hand John’s challenge can become our challenge. Not simply repentance as empty promise –but rather repentance to “make straight the way of the Lord”. Are these words drawing us to an image that might grasp our lives and even our hearts?