Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Gracious Denial...



OUR TEXT of study for the Third Sunday of Advent comes to us from the Gospel According to Saint John. In keeping with the writer’s theme, John the Baptist came to the Jordan as a sign of that great deed which God was doing among his people…

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light…
 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, he did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.”  “Are you the prophet?” And he answered, “No.”
 They said to him then, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?”
 John answered them, “I baptize with water; but among you stands one whom you do not know, even he who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” This took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
                                                                                         (John 1:6-8, 19-28)

Prophetic Voice!
Spurred by the Holy Spirit during the last decade of the first century, this gospel opens with Jesus being introduced as God’s eternal Word. In this first section, called the Prolog by biblical scholars, the prophetic character of John the Baptist emerges as a prophet giving first sign of Christ’s work of salvation.  This gospel leans heavily on “signs”, thus enlisting the Baptist as our Lord’s first prophetic sign.
 We note that in the Prolog section of today’s reading, in vss 6-8… the gospel speaks of light being present in two forms. Like a verb that points to a noun in a language, John is described as a lamp bearing “witness” (Greek – martyr). Jesus is named as the Light of the world. Therefore, our author started this text using the language of the religous Gnostics, and as we read later we find that the Gospel According to Saint John has a definite anti-gnostic bent.
 You see, Gnostics spurned the flesh. They believed that through knowledge, a person could work their way intellectually from darkness into light, thus climbing the scholastic ladder toward becoming a mystical purity… an “enlightened” one. However, in John's gospel, instead of embracing this philosophy, the writer directly combats that thought-world by stating firmly that Jesus, being both God and man… is the Light of the world. This knowledge comes to us as a gift, and the awareness cannot be learned or earned.
 Note that the witness of John the Baptist was made specifically before the priests and Levites who were sent from Jerusalem by the Pharisees. Those sent to Bethany to investigate him are portrayed by the writer as persons who were jealously guarded. They were sent by the powers that would stand over against the Baptist’s message, Therefore, we may assume by this tense, hostile portrait, that the author had already experienced the separation of the early church from the parental Jewish synagogue communities. That the Baptist was described in the way of the ancient prophets to a lost and wayward people becomes evident. We are reminded by the Hebrew scriptures…

“Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
“For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord.” (Malachi 1:1-3)

 In his condemnation of the Levites, therefore, John the Baptist spoke also to those who were their powerful allies. In this way, our author worked through the Spirit to condemn the synagogue leaders in the later days of the first century in this gospel writing. Further in the gospel we find that our author repeatedly wrote of these leaders as “the Jews”, because they were collectively unbelievers in Christ Jesus. However, this is not to be taken as a call to hostility toward the whole of the Jewish people. We are to avoid anti-Semitic persecutions which persist even to this very day.
 Remember! This gospel was addressed not just to those persons who were present with John the Baptist at the water’s edge. I offer that this message of our Lord's coming salvation can be found prominent in the early house churches… that the one who was to come according to the Baptist…was given the title of “Christ” rather than the writer using the exclusive Hebrew term of “Messiah”. This I believe was due to the makeup of the reading audience.
 You see, by this time the early church was populated with baptized Christian Jews who were cast out from the synagogue… and also many baptized Gentiles who had been brought into the early church. Portrayed as doing that for which he was sent, therefore, John the Baptist told the gospel those who immediately believed, and then for those who had yet to read the gospels. His witness thus claimed for all time that the man Jesus is indeed the Christ… the Son of God… the Messiah.
 At the time of the initial conversation, however, it seems that even John did not fully know how he fit into God’s plan of salvation. Consequently, our Lord eventually addressed that confusion…

From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear. (Matthew 11:12-16)

 This last was offered because there were those who confused the prophetic role of John the Baptist with the role of Messiah. Jesus consequently identified John's role. Today, whenever we look back in hindsight, the role of John the Baptist was foretold in scripture…

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40:1-3)

 However, Jesus' declaration caused contention in some who followed the Baptist. These did not follow Jesus. As evidenced in the gospel, our author described that John the Baptist kept offering the practice of annual purification through water baptism (see John 4:1). John the Baptist’s prophetic ministry was thus very active until his public confrontation. arrest, and his subsequent death by the order of Herod. Of that final event, we read the gospel witness that tell us that just before his death, John asked whether Jesus was the one looked for, or should they look for another. Only then it seems, was the Baptist to know the fullness of God’s grace.
 We note that the Baptist’s repentant watery touch reached to Ephesus (see Acts 18:25, & 19:1-7)… and this led to an eventual baptism in the Spirit for many. However, we find that some of John the Baptist’s followers stubbornly did not accept his role as just restricted to prophecy. This contention to his being the Messiah even persists today in the present Mandean sect. These last are yet baptizing Jews who until recently were centered primarily near Baghdad, in Iraq. They are still hostile to the Christian message.

The Same, Yet More!
Our gospel writer clarified for us the distinct and differing roles of John the Baptist and our Savior. John the Baptist performed a work of temporary washing purification as preparation. John’s baptism was a symbolic, external religious act demonstrating God's graceful forgiveness, one in which the administrator did not internally participate. Thus John could not discern true repentance in the receiver. Thus the Baptist could not guarantee a person’s acceptance before God beyond the watery banks of the river. We need to remember that only baptism into Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit can provide the fullness of grace both inside and out. Therefore we may understand baptism into Christ is a far greater event.
 Finally, we conclude that Holy Baptism is not a work that we sinful humans do, but is an event begun and completed by God through the power of the Holy Spirit. Through water and the Holy Spirit, and not by the striving of the priest or pastor... we receive divine forgiveness and the gift of eternal life. Indeed, through this holy act done in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, our old sinful-self is drowned. A new person thus arises! Coming out of the waters of baptism we then walk as sinners made saints, empowered to become what we already have been declared to be… true children of God! Surely, after baptism the Spirit of God remains with us throughout our lives as we grow in faith given... teaching us daily and showing us signs of blessedness for all of our days. That is… unless we foolishly cast this wondrous gift away.



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