What were they all doing?
All those people from Jerusalem and the surrounding area flooding out into the desert to repent and get baptised by John the Baptist?
Its odd because they all had work to do! Its not as if there was a great crowd of people just hanging around waiting for something to do; waiting for some kind of new entertainment.
Its odd because the wilderness had a particular resonance for the Jews: it was the place where the Israelites had come from after they escaped from Egypt, where they became a nation; it was for them a place of change before they were allowed into the Promised Land.
Its odd because although Jewish practice involved ritual washing and they had an idea that washing made pure, it was gentiles foreigners, Romans and Greeks who wanted to follow the Jewish faith, who wanted to become Jews, who were required by Judaism to be baptised (and of course also be circumcised).
So why would Jews be want to be baptised by John? They weren’t gentiles: Jews were the people chosen by God; they were sons and daughters of Abraham to whom God the creator of the universe gave his promise.
Being God’s children is their identity. Why would they need to be baptised like gentiles; like non-Jews, outsiders?
It’s as odd as hundreds of English people flocking to Whitehall to obtain British citizenship. Why would we want to do that?
It’s a question of identity: they were Jews why would they need to behave like gentiles?
Well not all of them did want to be baptised. We can get a sense of this from reading what John says in Matthew 3:7 as a response to what the Pharisees and Sadducees were saying or thinking, as they witnessed huge numbers of people from Jerusalem being baptised.
John knows what they are thinking. He says to them ‘Do not think that you can say to yourselves we have Abraham as our father’. In other words don’t think you are OK with God; that you are saved, that you will be saved from the coming wrath of God because you are a Jew, because you are a son or daughter of Abraham.
No – real repentance is necessary: your identity, your family, the way that you have been brought up is not enough. Spoken repentance itself is not enough. But, Matthew 3:8, produce fruit in keeping with repentance; if you have repented show it in your life. Its not enough, John is saying , just to go through the motions of faith. There needs to be a real change in your life in what you do, in who you are.
Of course you won’t ever be perfect, we all go on sinning but when we repent there needs to be some sort of real change, in our lives in how we conduct ourselves in what we do in who we are, if we are going to be ready, for the King to come….
In 1947 something very extraordinary happened in the Isle of Lewis in Scotland which sounds to me very like what happened in the wilderness when John was preaching and baptising.
There was a sudden consciousness of God in the community of Lewis in that year so that in a matter of hours, not days, the churches became crowded, full of people crying to God for mercy, before or near a church.
It seems that it started with a lady of 84 who had a vision of the churches in her community being filled with young people, even though not a single teenager attended church at that time. This vision led to setting up of a prayer meeting which went on two nights a week for several months.
Then a man who was part of this gathering was reading Psalm 24 ‘Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart’
He realised that it was just hypocrisy for that group to be praying that this vision would become a reality, if they themselves were not in a good relationship with God. A relationship which is only possible by real repentance.
So they each asked God what they needed to repent from. They asked God: ‘God is my heart pure?, are my hands clean?’ In other words, what have I done that I need to repent from and what have been my motivations that I need to repent from?
As God gently brought these things to mind, they were able to repent more thoroughly
Shortly after this, something started, like the days of John the Baptist in the wilderness which shook the whole community of Lewis. Hundreds of men and women were spontaneously gripped by a consciousness of God and his relationship with them.
People would meet in groups. Young men gathered together in a field.
All were talking about God
Duncan Campbell, a minister invited to help with this phenomenon by the local minister, arrived off the boat one evening in Lewis. He was asked to preach at the church meeting before receiving supper at the manse.
But he never had that supper. He didn’t get to the manse until 5am in the morning! Because there were 6 or 7 hundred people at the church; moved by a power they could not explain. Moved to confess and repent. And the only place they could think of where they might find help was the church so they went there!
There was a dance that evening in progress in the village and spontaneously the young people fled from the dance and made their way to the church.
2/300 people from a nearby village even went to the local police station because the local bobby was known to be a disciple of Christ.
When John baptised in the wilderness they flocked to him. And despite the implications
of doing so (turning away from their heritage) repented so that they could get into a right relationship with God; ready for the King to arrive….
We are at a bit of a juncture in this Parish.
Amanda is leaving, the Deanery Mission Action Plan for the next 10 years
is being put together. Because of the huge demand for clergy in city and suburban areas
to serve thousands of people and the colossal regulatory demands of various kinds (safeguarding and data protection to name two), the general thrust of the leadership of the rural church is towards centralisation – putting clergy in market towns so that they travel out to the villages.
A sort of Z cars approach to ministry as opposed to Dixon of Dock Green!
But everyone I speak to in church leadership says ‘but of course if you had a flourishing church the approach would be different’.
Whenever I used to hear this sort of thing as a church warden or PCC member I would think, well what else do they expect me to do? Give more money? Spend even more time?
What I think what we learn from John the Baptist in the wilderness, what we learn from what happened in Lewis, is that EVERYTHING can change with an 84 year old infirm lady and a small prayer group….and a community willing to repent.
But that repentance needs to start with us. It needs to start with you; it needs to start with me.
Get ready for the King! The King is coming!
Are your hands clean?
Is your heart pure?
Get ready for the King!
1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’ ”
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mk 1:1–8). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.