Word gets out

Word gets out

Third Sunday of Advent
St Mark’s Church, Casino
12 December 2021

Detail from “Saint John the Baptist” by Alvise Vivarini

You may recall from last Sunday that we have a special focus on John the Baptizer in these two middle Sundays of Advent.

Last week we reflected on the role that John played in the Jesus story.

Far from being a lesser figure sent ahead of Jesus to make the arrangements, John was the spiritual master and Jesus was his disciple.

That describes their relationship around the time that John was arrested, but it does not properly describe how things developed from that point onwards.

You may even recall that I finished with the invitation that we each reflect on three questions during the week between then and now:

  • Do we have a John the Baptizer in our lives?
  • Are we a John figure for other people?
  • Do we allow ourselves (and them) to move in new directions? 

This week we shift our attention from the role that John played in Jesus’ life and give some thought to what he was saying, and more especially what people understood him to be saying.

What John was saying

We are on less certain grounds when it comes to what John was saying than when we considered the role he played in the spiritual development of Jesus.

The reason for that is very simple.

We only get to hear John’s words through the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, in other words as told by followers of Jesus. It is impossible to tell how accurately they represented the message of John and we simply do not know if John would have agreed with the way that followers of Jesus (some of whom may once have been his own followers) described his message from their vantage point on this side of Easter.

From the later perspective, John was preparing people for the coming of Jesus.

We would add that he was also preparing Jesus to step into the limelight once his own time had passed.

Even so, in the excerpt from Luke 3 which we read just now (and we have a parallel account in Matthew 3, both drawn from the early Q Sayings Gospel) we find John mapping out a rather different program from the one that Jesus would later pursue.

  • John did not share meals with people. He was more of an ascetic and solitary figure.
  • John did not move from village to village. People came to him at the place he chose.
  • John was not a healer and did not cast out demons.
  • John did not tell parables.
  • John did not forgive sins.
  • John did not send his disciples out in pairs to extend his program farther afield.

On the other hand, we do find John calling on people to get ready for the next big thing in the covenant history of the Jewish people:

  • John was more like an OT prophet
  • John condemned the temple hierarchy
  • John foretold a major upheaval which was about to occur
  • John denied that he is the Messiah when pressed into that role
  • John demanded that his listeners undergo a ritual bath used to convert Gentiles
  • John taught people to fast and pray
  • John demanded integrity in personal and public life
  • John condemned Herod Antipas for his divorce and remarriage

People knew what John was on about, and his criticisms of Antipas led to his arrest and eventually to his execution by the Roman puppet ruler whose job was to keep things calm in that corner of the Empire.

Word gets out

While we cannot be sure just what John was hoping to achieve, it is clear that he made an impact. Word got out. People heard about this weird guy down by the river and they formed an opinion about him.

A few years later, when the Temple hierarchy were conspiring to get rid of Jesus, the legacy of John and his reputation with the people (even though he was dead) remained strong:

As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him and said, “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?” Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.” They argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But shall we say, ‘Of human origin’?”—they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet. So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” [Mark 11:27–33]

Word gets out.

That is equally true here in Casino, of course.

Word gets out.

What is the story about St Mark’s Church that is going around in the community here?

For that matter, what is the story about Casino Parish going about in the Diocese?

Is that a story about a group of people who take their faith seriously but treat each other gently?

Do we have a reputation as regular folks who simply treat people as Jesus would do?

What about the people who used to come here but now stay away? What story about St Marks do they carry in their hearts and tell each other?

What is the story about this church which our kids and grandkids tell each other?

What story about us do the parents of the babies baptised here tell one another?

When people come to our OpShop what story (what experience of grace) do they take with them as they leave the store?

And what about the kids who break windows in the Hall every few days? What is their story about us? And how would Jesus respond to kids smashing up the place as they do? Would he add more metal grills or would he spend time with the kids and find a way to bring healing and hope into their lives?

It is easy enough to ask questions like this, but much harder to answer them; and even harder to answer them well.

But maybe that is the Advent task for this church in this town as we prepare to celebrate Christmas, the festival of Emmanuel; the God who is with us.

So once more I finish with three questions for your reflections this week:

  • What is the story we want people to tell about us?
  • What is the story they are telling about us?
  • And how do we replace the bad story with the good story?

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