Toorak Uniting Church

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John The Baptist – "A Man is His Friends". – An Unexpected Window on Jesus

Luke 3: 1 – 6
Rev. Robert McUtchen
Advent 2
6 December 2009

The Rev John Flynn of the inland mission had a saying – a man is his friends. As advent proceeds we today examine the role of John the Baptist. Jesus was John’s second cousin, he came to John for baptism, and he spoke highly and commendably of John. So, in John Flynn’s terminology, as a man is his friends, by studying John and his beliefs we may discover new things about the thinking and views of Jesus.

John’s character deserves careful examination. What do we know of John? – like Jesus, he was conceived in extraordinary circumstances. In adulthood he assumed the life of scripture prophets such as Isaiah – even to his dress – camel skin clothes, (one source says was little more than a loin cloth, a broad leather belt,) and an organically sound diet of locusts and wild honey. We know John quoted Isaiah as authority when he foretold the coming of one greater than he; we know John was confronting and provocative – calling people to a return to godly living, an end to those things in life which were selfish or false living. He became something of a travelling show and may have been popular, till he accused Herod for his adultery and was arrested. Actually, speaking of prophets:

Speaking of prophets, there was a cartoon last week
1st Man – I saw a real prophet yesterday.
2nd Man – How do you know he was a real prophet?
1st Man – He had a sign the end is near – and he wasn’t there today!

Interestingly – in Luke we discover there is no record of a conversation between John and Jesus, nor a direct statement that John actually baptised him – it is implied, but not said. Only Matthew and mark specifically tell us John baptised Jesus.

But, if we sum John up as eccentric, brave, passionate, inspired, bit player in the introduction of Jesus, we seriously underestimate him.

John’s father was a member of a priestly order. It has been suggested John was conscious of his priestly antecedents. That being so, we may infer he was also well educated in the prophetic tradition which informed Jewish understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures.

To fully appreciate the significance of Jesus’ coming we should recount a little Jewish history. Israel had risen as a small power, and fallen before exile in Babylon. In the years of its decline prophets warned against the moral and spiritual decay of the people and the inevitable consequences. They also gave messages of hope, that the lord would one day redeem and restore his people. The prophetic witness to god’s future action was held dear by the Jewish people, and continues to be so today….Israel was restored after the fall of Babylon, but then occupied by the roman empire. John understood his role as being within this prophetic tradition, and he is seen as the last prophet before Jesus.

John’s preaching had two emphases: the imminent coming of the messianic kingdom, and the urgent need of repentance to meet it. John’s expectation was of a direct intervention in worldly affairs by god. (J D Crossan) – what you would call apocalyptic eschatology, based on the idea the world was in such a mess only a radical intervention by god could fix it. In that light John’s calling for urgent repentance and change are easier to understand – you snakes! Don’t say Abraham is your ancestor. The axe is ready!

The change of life John calls to is simple. Luke 3: 11 – 14 foreshadows themes of Jesus own teaching – give your excess to the poor, if you have food, share it; don’t rip people off; don’t extort or take more than you are due. Not just precepts for life, but living which is radically different in the knowledge of the inbreaking of god’s new kingdom on earth.

We should briefly touch on John’s further call – repent, lead a life of righteousness, and join him in bathing so that as the soul had been sanctified and purified, their bodies might also be made pure by washing. Baptism would not achieve sanctification of itself – it would correspond with an already accomplished inward change.

We have now examined something of John’s thinking and belief. What John believed, Jesus agreed with in full. In Matthew 11: 11 Jesus says of John – I assure you John the Baptist is greater than any man who has lived". So …… what we have examined of John we may deduce was also true of Jesus – that he held similar views and beliefs to John – at least to a point.

What we do notice in Jesus ministry is that he is less confronting than John, although just as insistent. Again J D Crossan – suggests Jesus talks about an ethical eschatology. Not one where we wait upon god to do it all, but where god waits for us to do something about the evil in the world. The ethical eschatology of Jesus is a call to do something about the world’s evil in conjunction with god.

Beginning a conclusion, it is through studying John that we are able to better understand what Jesus ministry would be concerned with. John is more than the opening act in the Jesus story – extreme and forthright as he is, John articulates and foreshadows the basic elements Jesus would teach.

Secondly, while both are concerned with eschatology – the coming of the kingdom of god, the subtle differences of Jesus ethical eschatology cast a new light on preparation for celebrating his coming. Ethical eschatology means we cannot be passive observers of a divine drama – rather, in celebrating Jesus coming, we also celebrate god’s unexpected invitation to be workers with him in addressing the disasters and dilemmas confronting the world and us. Seen in this way, Christmas looks different – to celebrate the divine mystery and drama, to acknowledge our own share in the work of god – what implications has this for Christians, for you and me, being involved in amnesty, missions to the poor, environmental issues, ethical behaviour in business? Does it help us understand better why we are already doing some of the community activities like op shop, John Macrae centre, and so on.

John Flynn said – a man is his friends – as a friend, John the Baptist tells a great deal about Jesus. Amen.

© Rev. Robert McUtchen, 2009


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