The lectionary passages this week are Zephaniah 3.14-20, Philippians 4.4-7, Luke 3.7-18. Canon William Gulliford, who is Diocesan Director of Ordinands (DDO) for the Diocese in Europe, as well as Vicar of St Mark’s, Regent Park, London, offers his reflection.
The traditional site of the baptism of Jesus. Photograph taken on recent CEMES* study pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Advent has lots on in many ways.
For many Diocese in Europe chaplaincies, ensuring the Christmas bazaar, the Nativity play and carol service are all done before many of the regulars depart, is a priority. Although a vicar in London, as well as DDO for Europe, I have much the same church-diary issues. Only on the second Sunday of Advent this year we had the St Mark’s, Regent’s Park Nativity as the sermon, while we were still singing On Jordan’s bank, the Baptist’s cry…. The poor Baptist was rather swamped by angels, tiny sheep, and the Christmas Tree.
Fortunately, the Advent lectionary presents John the Baptist on two Sundays!
The Gospel writers are of one accord that the Baptist’s ministry was a time of preparation for Jesus’ own. St Luke, our Gospel writer for this year, gives us much more detail about his background. If for all the Gospel writers the Baptist represents a tangible connection with the Hebrew Scriptures, this is especially underlined in Luke’s account of John’s infancy. Like many of the ancient prophets, he is of a priestly line, but this is of little significance in terms of what the Baptist will go on to proclaim, which seems to have no direct connection with the Temple, in which his father had served. As Zechariah concludes the Benedictus, Luke says simply “and the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness till the day of his manifestation to Israel.” (Luke 1.80) This statement is heavy with possible meaning, and is picked up when we meet John again in Luke 3.4 (last Sunday’s reading) when Luke quotes Isaiah 40.3-5 “The voice of one crying in the wilderness; Prepare the way of the Lord.”
As the CEMES* interns experienced on their journey to the Holy Land this November, the Judaean wilderness is a remarkable place. It is not some distant terrain, out of reach, for only the intrepid to explore. Immediately to the East of the Mount of Olives, the wilderness tumbles into the rift valley, towards the Jordan and the Dead Sea. Rain hardly falls there, and oases are miles apart. Only the Jordan, sustained by water from the North, and springs in the valley and its basin interrupts this hostile landscape.
A radical community sought to live in this barren wilderness at a place known today as Qumran. We are learning more about them as the texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls are published and studied. The overlap between the condemnation by the Qumran community of the Temple hierarchy, and what John says is striking.
A cave at Qumran where some of the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.
In this Sunday’s reading, John responds to the tax collectors and soldiers that make their way to him. The chastisement they receive is implicitly less severe than that offered to the Jerusalem authorities, at whose root an axe is laid. It could be that the directness of the Qumran rule, which calls it members to kindness, humility and self-control (1 QS 2:24) is being extolled by John, outside the walls of an otherwise tight and secret enclosure.
One key connection between John and Qumran appears to be a ritual washing. The Jewish historian Josephus speaks of the Essenes practising such a thing, “but one to hallow the body, not to forgive sins”.
Certainly, the Qumran texts are insistent on monogamy for the married and strict chastity for the monastic. John the Baptist’s imprisonment comes about because of his furious criticism of the Tetrarch Herod Antipas’ second marriage to Herodias. This will lead to his death.
There is a lot going on in today’s readings.
John was a historical figure, as borne out by many sources. He is also an intriguing one – until very recently there was a tiny community called ‘the Mandaeans’ in southern Iraq who revere John and not Jesus. For Eastern Orthodox Christians he is known as the Forerunner. He prepares the way, in preaching and as he challenges the strong.
We are called to rejoice as well! This seems a tall order with so much to ponder and the threat of violence in the air. Advent III is Gaudete Sunday, a moment of refreshment and rejoicing. Zephaniah explains that our rejoicing, even in the midst of foreboding, is possible. The eve of battle might be a moment of fear, or, we may rejoice if God is rejoicing (Zephaniah 3.17); and we must hold on to the truth that he will bring us home (3.20).
St Paul repeats this call to rejoice, for the simple reason that the Lord is near. This joy will be seen and known as gentleness. Joy and gentleness are not to be hidden virtues, limited to the initiated, but are characteristics of the faithful, which effervesce well beyond the Church – expressions of God’s peace which “surpass all understanding which will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
Where the Baptist calls in the wilderness, our Lord is near at hand and we will rejoice.
*CEMES = Church of England Ministry Experience Scheme: a church-wide scheme to give young people thinking about possible vocation to ministry a year of opportunity for practical ministerial experience and time for theological and personal reflection. Under William’s guidance the Diocese in Europe has participated in the scheme for several years.
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