Sermon Sunday 8 December 2019
Lessons Isaiah 11: 1 – 10 St Matthew 3: 1 – 12
Prayer of Illumination
Let us pray.
Through the labyrinth of Scripture, the pathways of spiritual journey, we seek Your blessing on our reflections and meditations. With each step, may we draw ever nearer to You. Amen.
This morning we take ourselves back 2000 years to the Jordan River, to the barren chalk wilderness east of the Dead Sea, so that we may stand among the crowds that have gathered to hear the prophetic preaching of John the Baptist, John the Baptiser, Johanan the Immerser. With his feet submerged in the flowing, living waters of the Jordan, John called out a message of repentance. Dressed in rough coat of camel’s hair and leather belt, living on a diet of locusts and wild honey, John spoke to the hearts of the thousands who walked roads and crossed hills and mountains to hear him.
With words that hang in the air even today, John said, ‘Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is upon you!’ With hearts sore and burdened with concerns for family and health, with haunting memories of personal failings and shame, but charged with a true and pious desire to worship God, to be at one with the Sacred, people came to see the desert ascetic for themselves. Standing among the crowds, what do you see when you look at him? What do you feel when his eyes momentarily rest on you? Does the Baptist see into your soul?
Why was John popular? Some scholars suggest that John had more disciples than Jesus ever had in His earthly ministry. Why did people step forward to let themselves be immersed in the Jordan at the hand of John? In those days, forgiveness of sins was done at the temple in Jerusalem. People made their way to the city, converted their Roman coinage into shekels, purchased a sheep or dove and made their sin offering to the priests. The temple system disadvantaged those who lived in the countryside and it disadvantaged the poorest people, the peasants, those who could least afford the charges for money conversion and the purchase of an animal for sacrifice. People desired union with God but they could not afford it.
Standing in the Jordan, John offered new life, a new beginning and the forgiveness of sins. Repentance or teshuvah meant a return to God. Ritual immersion was not unique to John. In the Qumran community, a monastic settlement made famous last century following the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, ritual immersion was part of the rhythm of the community’s life. At the Jordan, the Baptist encouraged and exhorted people to live righteous lives, to practise justice towards their fellow citizens and to love God. He offered women and men God’s forgiveness of their sins. Cleansed, made clean, they were returned, restored, to God; at one with the Divine. The Baptist offered all but especially the poorest healing of their souls.
The powerful symbolism of standing in the River Jordan would not have been lost on first century Jews. After forty years wandering in the wilderness, Joshua led the Hebrew people, the slaves of Egypt, through the waters of the Jordan. The Jordan was a symbol of the Promised Land; it meant renewal of the Jewish people. John’s outlandish dress imitated the prophet Elijah and the stones, the stones that could become the children of Abraham, are the twelve stones we read of in the Book of Joshua which symbolise God’s deliverance of the twelve tribes of Israel. John stood in the Jordan not as a harmless eccentric but as a prophet who posed a deliberate challenge to the temple authorities and, ultimately, to secular power. His message was one of personal and social renewal. His eloquent sermons were proving to be dangerously popular. Was John on the verge of leading an uprising?
What else may we say of the Jordan? In the Old Testament, there is the story of the Syrian army commander Naaman who suffered from a dreaded skin disease. Naaman was commanded to dip or immerse himself seven times in the waters of the Jordan. Emerging for the seventh time, the army commander rose to a new consciousness, a new openness and awareness of God. Not so much a physical miracle, it is an imaginative story about the healing of a soul. John the Baptist offered that same healing.
Among the crowds were religious groups: Pharisees and Sadducees. With his acerbic tongue, John accused them of being a ‘Vipers’ brood!’ Less so the Pharisees, the Sadducees were a temple sect; it is no surprise that they came out from the city to argue with the Baptist. The Sadducees did not believe in life beyond death: souls die with the body, they said. They also believed that God was not concerned whether or not we do good or evil. ‘Vipers’ brood’ is a well-worn biblical slur and, would you believe, it was a term often used of politicians! For the Sadducees, faith did not necessarily lead to righteous living.
John the Baptist offered personal renewal: a life once torn and broken now can be cleansed and refreshed. The story of another John, the slave ship captain, John Newton is one of repentance, intimate renewal and refreshment. In April 1748 Newton was on a ship in turbulent seas; he thought he was going to die. In the distressing days during which there was no sighting of land, Newton believed that his selfish and shallow lifestyle had led to his precarious predicament. As dubious as that theology is, it seems that the serious and desperate situation in which Newton found himself opened his heart and mind to God, to the story of Jesus and the presence of the Spirit. Often, it is only when we fail and fall, when he hit the bottom and have nowhere else to turn, that we are ready to receive the Sacred in our lives.
Finally, the ship made its way to Donegal, Dunree Head and Lough Swilly. Once on Irish soil, Newton’s life began to change. He stopped swearing, started attending church, studied religious writings and received Holy Communion. In his private devotions, he committed himself to following Jesus. In 1764, Newton was ordained a priest in the Church of England. Although he did not always live up to his high spiritual hopes, his spiritual journey had begun. Wrestling with the contradictions of his behaviour, he berated himself for tasting the sweet communion of God in prayer and praise while evenings were spent in ‘vain and worthless company’. A womaniser, Newton perhaps appreciated the words of St Augustine: ‘O Lord, grant me chastity but not yet’.
Newton’s hymn, Amazing Grace, captures well the trials and struggles of the man. It is said that Amazing Grace is the most sung, most recorded and most loved hymn in the world. No other song, secular or sacred, comes close to the number of recordings. It is estimated that the poetic hymn is sung at least ten million times a year. It was written by Newton in December 1772 in preparation for his New Year’s Day sermon. However, once preached, Newton almost never returned to the hymn. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Church of England did not allow hymn singing in consecrated buildings. The hymn’s popularity is almost entirely attributed to its success in the United States.
At his desk in Olney, Buckinghamshire Newton wrote, ‘I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see’. Like the blind man in the Gospel of John, the blindness need not be physical but spiritual. We are blinded by the gods of this world: science, as if it has the answer to everything; or economics, as if being consumers rather than contributors is all that we are. The story of the Baptist, the Jordan, the army commander Naaman, the stones and the preacher/hymnwriter John Newton is the same: it is spiritual awakening, spiritual renewal.
The Baptist preached the importance of faith and deeds. Shortly after his inauguration, President Obama addressed the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC. He spoke of his faith. He did not grow up in a religious household. His father had been a Muslim but had become an atheist, his grandparents were non-practising Methodists and Baptists and his mother was sceptical of organised religion. He did not come to faith until after he had finished college. He said:
It happened not because of indoctrination or a sudden
revelation, but because I spent month after month working
with church folks who simply wanted to help neighbours who
were down on their luck – no matter what they looked like, or
where they came from, or who they prayed to. It was on those
streets, in those neighbourhoods, that I first heard God’s Spirit
beckon me. It was there that I felt called to a higher purpose –
The immense love of God changes lives. In time, Jesus stepped forward into the waters of the Jordan for what was a life-changing experience. In the mind’s eyes, stand on the banks of the Jordan yourself: let the Baptist speak to you.