How wonderful to be back in church again after Lockdown 2.0! This evening it was in St John’s Itchen Abbas where Maj Gen Tim Tyler brought his customary enthusiasm, humour and talent to lead the Itchen Valley Parish Choir to sing our Advent Evensong. Thank you so much to him and to: Tim Tyler, Helen Wayne, Malcolm and Mary Hogg, Will Parry, Tony Gaster, Madeline Rakowicz, Maddy Woosnam, Lucy Cotter, and Laura Hanley. Thank you also to John Dover who played the organ.
The readings were Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8 (see below)
Revd Alex Pease gave the following talk (either listen to the recording which follows or read below)
He wore clothes made of camel hair and ate locusts. He lived in the wilderness. He probably did not cut his hair or trim his beard. Baths were probably not something that came naturally to him. He said some pretty tough things to the upstanding religious people of their time, the Pharisees..
He called them a ‘brood of vipers’ and asked ‘Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath’. Uncomfortable stuff…
He was just the sort of apparently deranged person that if you came across him in the street you would seek to avoid…
So why did the people from the Judean countryside (Verse 5) flock in droves to be baptised by John the Baptist …after whom this church is named?
I think it was because they were responding to humanity’s greatest need in every generation…
Humanity’s greatest need in every generation:
The need for forgiveness
The Ancient Jews had very elaborate mean of obtaining forgiveness from God. Its all set out in three books of the OT Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Numbers.
They offered sacrificed at the Temple in Jerusalem, oxen, sheep, goats and pigeons could be offered to obtain forgiveness for specific sins. There were sin offerings for unconscious or unintentional sins. There were offerings for deliberate sins with mitigating circumstances and some sins were punishable by death. Then there were burnt offerings and fellowship offerings….
Animals had to be perfect to be offered as sacrifices.
But whilst people might once have felt sorry for their sin and really meant it when offering their prize bull which they had spent years fattening up at the Temple as a sacrifice…the system eventually fell into a box ticking exercise with people buying animals to sacrifice at the temple, so effectively only sacrificing the cash….perhaps that was why Jesus overturned the money changers in the temple.
If people did see it as just a box ticking exercise, a religious thing to do, a thing to be seen by other people to have done, perhaps they did not actually feel released from the weight of sin on their shoulders. Perhaps the people from the Judean countryside and Jerusalem who flocked to John the Baptist were desperate to be released from their sins, and their existing religious system just was not doing it for them….
You may have read the book ‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan or seen the film. The main protagonist is a child who witnesses the rape of her cousin and for various reasons she mistakes the assailant and informs the police that the cousin’s lover was responsible. The result is that an entirely innocent man is sent to gaol and subsequently dies in the war. The cousin is killed in the Blitz. The child grows up with a huge sense of guilt…she cannot ask for forgiveness from the injured…. they are already dead. She is unable to close this chapter of her life even in her old age. She cannot obtain any forgiveness; no atonement for what she did….
Our own experience of guilt may not be as severe. But so many of us carry things that we have done of which we are ashamed.
I suspect it was the same for the Jews who flocked to John the Baptist offering as he did a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, perhaps sensing the emptiness of the Temple system and its religious rites.
John the Baptist offered an entirely new start: a washing in the river Jordan which removed their sins, which removed the offence against God which their sins represented, which enabled them to find God again.
But it was done in the expectation that they would sin no more, that they had repented, turned in the opposite direction, resolved to change from how they had been living their lives (even if from time to time they slipped back). This change of direction was symbolised by the immersion in the water of the river Jordan: rising up out of the river, they were washed clean from all that had passed.
But being washed clean from our guilt forgiven by God is only half the story….repentance gets things ready, a baptism of water cleans us up, but, because we are such broken people, living in a fallen world, it is not enough in itself, to get on the right path, to be changed not just externally on the surface, but changed in our hearts, being reborn, so that we can take our place as sons and daughters of the Creator of the universe, sons and daughters of the Father.
The people of the time thought that John must be the promised Messiah, but he was, in the words of Isaiah 40:3 ‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him’.
Repentance is the way of making a straight path for the coming of the Lord into the wilderness of the souls of the lost. The one who does not just give us forgiveness… but baptises us with the Holy Spirit:
Fills our bodies
Fills our minds
Fills our hearts with:
His Gentleness and
His Self Control
And like a dove, the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father, sent by the Son, can settle on us/in us and remain with us, provided we do not vex or grieve him and He will show us how to live our lives.
Lets use this Advent, like John the Baptist, to prepare the way for the Lord in the wilderness of our souls. Lets repent of our sinfulness and invite the presence of the Holy Spirit into our hearts and our lives will be transformed
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.