Lectionary Sermon for 8 December 2019 (Advent 2A) on Matthew 3:1-12

AN ADVENT REFLECTION ON THE GOSPEL:
Isaiah was not only a great prophet and apparently had a real way with words, but this doesn’t mean he was too holy to be infallible.

I guess over the years I have frequently heard the two readings for this morning…. and indeed so often, as Christmas approaches that I have almost forgotten how strange they are. Yes Isaiah was a great prophet who could weave a wonderful story with his prophecy of the coming Christ. The only catch was that his description of Jesus included some very human errors. In short he was wrong. When the Saviour, Jesus arrived, he just wasn’t that sort of King. When Jesus came… The wolf didn’t lie down with the kid and Jesus didn’t judge the poor, or strike the Earth with the rod of his mouth or kill the wicked with his breath …yet in a strange way Jesus still came with a message that made a huge difference to a lot of people.

And, from the reported scene from the gospel today what was John the Baptist all about? Why even put his strange story there when we are thinking about the coming of Jesus.?

But on reflection, if Baptism marks the beginning of a Christian life – then why not have a story of Baptism mark our approach to Christmas?

In our familiar Church setting, the rite of John’s style of baptism must seem strange and archaic to those with no familiarity with its history and meaning. The uncomfortable truth is that when we move from whatever form of baptism we are familiar within our own tradition, and instead look at what others do with the same ceremony, the act of baptism should raise almost as many questions as it does answers.

Admit it… The mental image of John the Baptist, wild eyed, unkempt and dressed in animal skins, berating members of the crowd before dunking them into the weedy, dirty water of the Jordan river doesn’t tell us what happens in this Church for a Baptism – nor most other churches I have encountered. Contrast that picture of John the Baptist with the typical genteel image of a robed minister or priest reciting a few carefully proscribed words from a standardized prayer book before gently sprinkling a few drops of pre-warmed water on the forehead of a tiny baby and then baptizing him or her in the names from the fourth century formula of the Trinity.

Can I suggest that at the very least it should take great leap in imagination before assuming that the words and actions of even – say – the British royal family witnesses at the baptism services of its various princes and princesses as somehow the equivalent of Matthew’s reported version of the ranting and threats of John the Baptist in full voice?

Even for our own setting, while it may be somewhat embarrassing to raise the issue, it is probably fair enough to ask what, if anything, is retained in most modern versions of John the Baptist’s offered baptism when set against Matthew’s original gospel account.

In the interests of truth we might remind ourselves John was not the first to baptize in Palestine. Please note the ritual of baptism back then was usually the dramatic symbolic step in the initiation for the gentiles who wished to convert to Judaism. It should be emphasised that this was not the case for most of those born into the Jewish faith. Those from a family in good standing with Judaism would be presented to the Temple or Synagogue soon after birth and be expected to go through another ceremony at about age 12 before they could take their full place in Jewish society.

The understanding at that time was that baptism was unnecessary for Jews since being born into the Jewish family community was enough to begin as a member of the “Chosen Race“. On the other hand to join that Chosen Race from the outside meant setting aside one’s old faith, which was seen as needing evidence of total commitment. Thus the ceremony of baptism by full immersion in the river was considered to be the outward display of one prepared to renounce their previous beliefs and take on the new life and new direction.

At the time of Jesus, the emergence of small number of baptizers, including John the Baptist, wanting to baptize Jews, was part of a growing movement reflecting the desperation experienced by the Jews at the time of the Roman occupation. Their historical understanding had been that they were a special people – chosen by God – yet the promised Messiah who had been expected to appear like King David to lead them to their rightful restored place had not arrived. Now some, like John, were now teaching that this was really because the Jews had gone so far from the ways of God that they might not even have the right to be thought of as God’s people.

Jews they may have been be in name- yet as far as those like John the Baptist were concerned, what was required was for them to re-join the faithful and demonstrate their commitment by having themselves baptized. Only then would the Messiah appear.

Matthew’s version has John calling the Pharisees and Sadducees amongst the crowd “a brood of vipers”. In Mark’s earlier version of the same story, it is the crowd in general who are thereby addressed, and although we would almost certainly be shocked if a modern preacher were to address those who arrive at one of our places of baptism in those terms, it may usefully remind us that if baptism is to mean anything at all we should at least reflect on why it is needed.

Historians amongst the congregation may remember that many years ago, the Greek Orthodox Church could not accept soldiers who were still serving soldiers as candidates for baptism, since a baptised Christian was not allowed to kill.

In fact when the Russian emperor Ivan (I think from memory… Ivan the Great) wanted to marry a Greek Orthodox princess he offered to have his personal guard of top soldiers baptized at the same time. The Greek king (so the story goes) said once they are baptized they wont be able to kill anyone because this is what baptism means. Ivan’s solution (if you believe the story) was to have the guards baptized but to hold their sword arm up so that the arm would still be able to kill on the King’s behalf

Each soldier was baptized but the un-baptized arm could still kill in the service of the Emperor. Baptized – yet not quite totally baptized…er..like us perhaps. Ok, I don’t think many today still believe that Baptism means a perfect life from then on.

Is there not a parallel with what we find today? Most of us – (and I include myself here), can probably identify activities where our religious beliefs take a back seat to more immediate concerns. Quite apart from the continued attraction of the so called deadly sins, many Church goers can be noticed demonstrating characteristics that put them in opposition to Jesus’ teaching.

Can you imagine a congregation where some members are into storing up riches, taking thought for the morrow and holding grudges instead of forgiving those who wrong them? I can too……..

Surely most modern societies treat Baptism in a far more cavalier fashion. For example, these days all soldiers are expected to be allowed to kill the designated enemy – and I suspect if you were to approach their commander and explain that those under his command were unable to go into combat because as infants they had been baptized, the commander would refer you to the Army psychiatrist.

Very well then, if not for soldiers, what other context is expected to matter for baptism? Remember that baptism is also a public display of an intention not only not to kill but also to live in a different way, associated with a whole new way of life. As we reflect on our own lives it is fair to ask what changed or different characteristics an independent observer would notice about us as a result.

When it comes to baptizing a small child I don’t think it is being unnecessarily cynical to admit, at least in a typical worst case scenario, the action of baptism or christening is typically seen as a desirable custom rather than a genuine declaration of intent.

I have on occasion put it to a congregation that where the child is baptized and is subsequently brought up as a virtual stranger to the Church, this is roughly equivalent to going along to a sports muster day, signing the child up for a football or basketball team, and perhaps even paying the club fee, then never encouraging the child to turn up as a participant for the sport. If we find that silly – why do we not find encouraging baptism to be equally silly in the case where no difference in behaviour, or action, is intended?

No doubt what happens after infant Baptism is largely a parental responsibility yet if the words of a typical service are to mean anything, the responsibility goes rather wider than that. When the congregation is invited to vow that they will support the child being brought up in the faith but then do nothing to ensure that happens it also seems to me that the words of the service become empty and that the public vow is vacuous.

John the Baptist enjoined those he baptized “to bear fruit worthy of repentance”. This is a helpful reminder that Matthew’s use of the Greek word for repentance, metanoia, does not simply mean to be filled with penitent remorse – but actually suggests something closer to the Jewish equivalent word teshuva – meaning turn about face – or at least to undergo a change of mind or change of direction. We may well claim that has happened, but should still at least wonder if others might notice that the change is enough for others to see. If we can’t think of at least some evidence, honest reflection might encourage us to ask why not?

Although probably a majority of denominations still use the ceremony of baptism at least as a preliminary to the induction into the Christian faith, we might also pause to ask ourselves why some denominations teach it is not necessary. The Unitarians and Salvation Army for example do not practise the rite and before we, who do practice Baptism, insist that our customs are more correct, we must also be honest with ourselves in checking that we are the better Christians in the life expression of our faith as a consequence of our way of starting in the faith..

Since some can start to live their Christianity without recourse to baptism we might also wonder whether baptism is critical in practice and may even need to be more relaxed about which form of baptism is absolutely essential, no matter what tradition might teach us. At the same time, if we become aware that our course in life is not leading us in the direction our consciences tell us we ought to be heading, I wonder if we can just make out Matthew’s reported words of John the Baptist echoing faintly down through the centuries, reminding us to bear the fruit of repentance …what was it again…. metanoia, the change of direction.

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