Jesus: the main movie. Are you ready?

Do you like watching the trailers when you go to the cinema or do you time your arrival to miss them? I quite like them because they give me a flavour of an upcoming film without having to pay to watch it! Of course, the best trailers build up enough excitement and anticipation that you must come back to see the whole film when it comes out.
The season of Advent, properly understood, can be seen as kind of trailer, not simply for Christmas, but for the story which unfolds afterwards; Good Friday, Easter and Pentecost. The first two Sunday’s of Advent speak of God preparing the world for Jesus firstly in the lives of the patriarchs such as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and then through the prophets who helped his people understand the true context of the events of their history. Today, the focus turns to John the Baptist, the last trailer before the main movie; Jesus Christ.
So, what do we know about John? The gospel of Luke tells us the story of his birth, linking it with the birth of Jesus. Mary and Elizabeth, John’s mother, are relatives possibly cousins or second cousins. Both births are announced by Gabriel, the angelic messenger, both are soaked in the presence of the Holy Spirit and both have a miraculous element. In John’s case, Elizabeth has passed the normal age of childbearing. Also, his father, Zechariah, reluctant to believe the news that Elizabeth will be pregnant, is unable to speak until in faith he gives John his name; the one he had been told by the angel, writing it on a tablet. These are remarkable events, but Luke tells us at the outset of his gospel that he has researched them well. He would have no doubt spoken with surviving members of the family, Mary herself in all probability being still alive to tell Luke her story.
We know nothing of John’s upbringing although it was likely to have been near Jerusalem in the Judean hill country. This would make it possible for him to be influenced by a group called the Essenes who had a base at Qumran not far away in the valley near the dead sea. This group rejected much of the grandeur and status of the temple in Jerusalem preferring to live a frugal existence on the edge of the desert. The remains of their settlement can still be visited today and shows how they developed sophisticated ways of channelling water in a dry place, not only for their own consumption but also to conduct some form of ritual washing or baptism. They spent much of their time writing, copying parts of the old testament and creating other sacred texts. These scrolls were hastily hidden in stone jars and placed in caves when the site was threatened only to be discovered in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd boy. They have become known as the Dead Sea scrolls and have provided much interest to scholars in recent years.
Was John ever a member of that community? We cannot be sure on that. He bursts onto the scene at the beginning of the gospels coming out of the wilderness or desert wearing his camel hair coat eating locusts and wild honey. Even by the standards of the day he was certainly alternative. His message is clear and stark. ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is come near.’ (Matthew 3.2) The word ‘repent’ means more than just to say sorry. ‘Metanoia’, the Greek word means literally to turn around, to give up old ways, bad ways and follow a good path. John had no doubts that those who came out into the desert to hear him were going in the wrong direction; their lives were full of sin and they needed to repent. They needed to show that their repentance was genuine doing good things like sharing their possessions. Tax collectors were told to collect only what they should, and soldiers were asked not to abuse their position to get money but to be satisfied with their wages. (Luke 3.10 -14) When the powerful religious leaders came along, John calls them a brood of vipers. (Matthew 3.7) Those who considered themselves good Jews needed to repent just as much as the unclean tax collectors or the Roman Soldiers. Repentance said John was for everyone.
His message is just as relevant today. We are all aware of those we might call sinful in our society: corrupt people in big business, government or sport, those who deal in drugs and traffic human beings, feckless fathers who get women pregnant and expect them to have an abortion or bring up the child on their own; those who are rude selfish and abusive. The ills of our society are many varied and devious fuelled by media and social media. But John would not just be speaking to ‘them’. He would speak to the nice people, those who pay their taxes and recycle their rubbish. Yes, he would challenge us too; those who are religious. Sin is a neglected word in our vocabulary today, but it describes that which is deep in all our hearts which rebels against God, seeking personal gain over the glory of God, ensuring our own wellbeing over the needs of the disadvantaged. For many of us, social conditioning and upbringing will have helped us control these uglier instincts of our humanity better than those who get themselves in trouble. Yet, until that sin is dealt with through repentance and faith, it remains a block between us and the holy God we who holds our eternal destiny in his hands.
That’s why John’s message is stark, clear and uncompromising. It is the trailer for the coming of the kingdom of heaven that was about to appear in the person and work of Jesus. Such a message was not going to be popular. It eventually landed John in prison. He had been so bold as to denounce even the sin of the King; Herod Antipas, the ruler in Galilee for luring and subsequently marrying his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias. It was while he was in prison for his troubles that John begins to wonder about Jesus. John clearly understood that he was the forerunner, the trailer: ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness’ (Matthew 3.3 after Isaiah 40.3)) quoting the prophet Isaiah. But was Jesus really the one to come? Was the one to whom crowds were flocking the same person he had baptised when there was a dove and a voice? John wanted to be sure.
The messengers return from Jesus with a further quotation from Isaiah: ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the leapers are cleansed, the dead hear, the dead are raised and the poor have the good news brought to them.’ (Matthew 11.5 after Isaiah 35.5-6) These are words which Jesus had ascribed to himself when preaching in the synagogue at Nazareth. (Luke 4.18-19) They sum up the ministry of Jesus in both physical and spiritual terms. Indeed, in his ministry these words find fulfilment. Yes, Jesus affirms, he is the long-awaited Messiah; the movie is now showing.
Two further points. Firstly, Jesus adds to the prophetic words ‘and blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me’ (Matthew 11.6) Jesus affirms that it is now all about him and not the trailer, John. As John says of Jesus elsewhere: ‘he must increase, I must decrease’. (John 3.30) It is still all about Jesus. Let us take no offence at him, let us receive him as the only one in whom our sin may be truly done away with allowing us to fully come to God. To realise that this is not film or make-believe, but the eternal reality that every human being must face.
Secondly, Jesus’ words seem hard on John. Even the least in the kingdom of God will be greater than he. (Matthew 11.11) This is not to do John down but to remind us that he was just the trailer. The main movie is really where it’s at. It’s possible for us just to watch the trailer and not see the film itself. To see Christian faith as something interesting wholesome and helpful without ever getting into the real adventure as members of the kingdom of God; without living our lives with Jesus, without fully understanding the amazing love with which God adopts us as his children in Christ. This is not film, this is real and a message for life, not just for Christmas.
Advent 3 15.12.2019

Rev'd Jonathan Smith

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