To me the biggest contrast between modern Christians and the earliest stories of followers of Jesus is that all too often these days the emphasis has become centred on what happens in acts of Church worship. This seems far removed from what was highlighted back in the gospel stories. Today’s singing and affirming religious words of admiration for God and Jesus may seem impressive but is very different from those earlier followers who apparently saw their main response to what Jesus meant coming in terms of action in the everyday world.
To take an early example, if I were looking for a single word to describe John the Baptist, the word would not be “religious”.
John was very much a straight talker – and from the Gospel record, sometimes almost inappropriately so. Last week we encountered John berating those who had come for baptism because he saw them as hypocrites. As background to today’s Gospel, we might need reminding the reason why John was now in prison was not so much that he was a religious prophet as it was that he believed in telling it as he saw it and in the process didn’t seem to soften his challenges just because in the process there might be those he offended.
John’s undoing in this instance was that he believed Herod Antipas the Tetrarch had done something quite immoral, and despite knowing Herod Antipas’ unpleasant reputation, told him so. Herod Antipas had been named as king by Caesar Augustus on the death of his father King Herod the Great, but the Romans had decided his power should be limited and only gave him a quarter share of his father’s territory.
Antipas set about trying to win back more power by building the city of Tiberius in honour of his current patron the Emperor Tiberius. The immoral action which had offended John was that Antipas also fancied his brother’s wife, Herodias, so he divorced his own wife and married Herodias. Well it is one thing to believe the king had done wrong, but telling him so was quite another. It is understatement to say upsetting a ruthless king from a ruthless family by calling him immoral was not a wise career move and it was probably no surprise to any of his contemporaries that John was now imprisoned, and, according to the historian Josephus, in the forbidding fortress Machaerus.
Remember now the reason why John had been offering Baptism in the first place was to prepare the faithful for the appearance of the Messiah. Now as the stories of Jesus teaching and healing in Galilee began to circulate, John appears to be a bit uncertain as to whether Jesus was in fact the expected Messiah. He somehow manages to send a message to Jesus from his cell. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
Jesus’ indirect answer, referring to deeds rather than any claim he might make, shows perfect sense. After all there were others at the same time apparently claiming to be the Messiah, and such claims can only be substantiated with evidence.
We should note in passing, that even today there are many claiming to be modern day prophets, and I understand most large psychiatric units have had at least one patient believing themselves to be Jesus reincarnated. Others are convinced that they are chosen by God to pass on a message, including those who have wrongly predicted the date for the end of the world. Almost invariably their behaviour is not consistent with their message and accordingly we would be wise to be extremely cautious about such claims. We would not for example be very much inclined to accept that Jim Jones was the prophet he claimed to be particularly after he is known to have made his followers commit mass suicide, any more than we would wish to follow a Church leader who absconded with Church funds or seek moral guidance from one who was known to interfere sexually with children.
When Jesus describes John as more than a prophet or says that he is not one who would bend with the wind like a reed, he is doing no more than relating what would be public knowledge. The Old Testament prophets were probably better known for their ability to stand up against kings and religious leaders than they were for their piety and John was certainly in that mould. John was a servant of the truth he had discovered and was going to speak that truth no matter how inconvenient this might have been for his personal welfare. Small wonder if some assumed that John was Elijah returned.
And yet this is where the commentary gets puzzling. Certainly we can admire John the Baptist, a man who gave everything – even ultimately his life – to express his understanding of truth and right and wrong. Regardless of his uncertainty about Jesus, we can also acknowledge him as a prophet – not so much in the modern sense of foretelling the future – but particularly in the Old Testament sense, when a prophet would describe the current state of affairs and the direction it appeared to be leading, regardless of who might be upset by the analysis.
But the tricky part comes in realising that this Sunday, when we remember this exchange between the imprisoned John the Baptist and Jesus, apart from being Advent 3, the third Sunday of the Advent season, is also known as Gaudete Sunday from the Latin word meaning “to rejoice”
The problem is really a question. Did John really have much to rejoice about given his impending execution? And the more serious question. What of the rest of us in the first part of the 21st Century?
Clearly we need to be honest. Jesus’ coming did not solve all problems. For example there are still those who live in grinding poverty, there are still areas of the world where personal safety is threatened, places where there are refugees facing a grim and pitiless future and cities where the air is acrid and poisonous, and the water polluted.
Remember $1.25 per person per day threshold for extreme poverty is currently the standard adopted by the World Bank and other international organizations to reflect the minimum consumption and income level needed to meet a person’s basic needs. That means people who fall under that poverty line can be identified — and according to the international surveys, that turns out to be about 1/6 of the world’s population, in other words 1.4 billion people who lack the ability to fulfil basic needs, whether it means eating only one bowl of rice a day or forgoing health care when it’s needed most. At the same time some of us live in great luxury. What does Gaudete Sunday mean in that context?
Perhaps it is just as well that John the Baptist now has his story associated with this Sunday because if the cause for rejoicing has any meaning at all it is that when times were grim someone cared enough to speak up. Since there is widespread agreement that Jesus’ coming brought thought provoking teaching and an attitude of compassion which is a source of hope, we may need reminding that there is an urgent need for those prepared to act in his name. The alternative of leaving this teaching and set of attitudes within the walls of the Church would hardly be good news for those on the outside.
I have heard it said that the real reason why Church attendance is now smaller than it was one hundred years ago, is that for many it is now the most boring hour of the week. Certainly if the only call for response is to expect us to drone fatuous words of praise without for one moment considering that the praise should affect any of our consequent decisions during the week, then it is both boring and irrelevant. If that was indeed the case, the sooner the Church closes its doors the better we might all be.
If on the other hand the call is to use the teachings of Jesus and example of the prophets like John the Baptist to seize on the injustices of our time and insist on a change of priorities, then there may be genuine cause for rejoicing.
I suggested at the outset that John the Baptist does not come across as being particularly religious. I even wonder if Jesus himself cared much for formalised religion. This does not mean that there is no purpose served by coming to Church. Where else might we be likely to encounter the stories of practical people of faith and reflect on the thought provoking teachings of Jesus.
But surely the real cause for rejoicing is that we too have the potential to respond to those teachings, not in history, but in the here and now. Perhaps then hopefully, inspired by those like John the Baptist, we can go out from our worship with the determination that what we learn as history will help reshape our future and the future of those like the folk for whom Jesus and John the Baptist first came.
It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who risked his very life for what he knew to be right in his speaking up against Hitler. He is quoted as writing “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”
Clearly we are unlikely to be called to speak up against evil as an everyday occurrence , yet as we move towards Christmas we still need to ask ourselves if Jesus coming, and perhaps if the example of John the Baptist or those like Dietrich Bonhoeffer should also challenge us to speak up for what we know to be true.
It seems to me that if we only find the gospel in the deeds of those in the past then we will never find the gospel of our present. Now that is a challenge, and a gospel discovered in the here and now may even be a real reason for rejoicing.