Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

December 13, 2015, 5:00 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

A sermon preached at All Hallows, Easton, Sunday 13th December 2015

John Baptist 02In our imaginations, let us get into our TARDISes and go back nearly twenty centuries to Palestine in the first century. For the second Sunday in a row our focus is on John the Baptist, who St Luke tells us was born six months before our Lord, to be a Prophet of the Most High, to go before him and prepare his ways; and then some thirty years or so later went out into the wilderness, to call the people to repentance and to announce that the Kingdom of God was actually arriving. But what were people thinking and expecting when they heard this? How did people react to John’s message?

Two thousand years ago Jewish Palestine was divided between Galilee in the north and Judaea in the south. The whole area was part of the Roman Empire, although Galilee was ruled by a local king, Herod Antipas, while Judaea was under the direct rule of a Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate. Judaea included the city of Jerusalem, with its Temple, the centre of Jewish religion, which meant that the Priests who ran the Temple formed a third power bloc.

Palestine then was in some ways very much like Palestine today. The Jews were an extremely ancient nation. King David had founded a small kingdom a thousand years earlier, but it had always been overshadowed by more powerful empires, either in Egypt or in what is now Iraq, later on in Syria and at the time we are thinking of by Rome. The Jews had suffered conquest, deportation, re-establishment, more conquest. The elite of the nation maintained their position by collaborating with Rome (accepting the reality of the situation, they would have said); while dissident groups like the Pharisees and the Zealots aimed to expel the foreigners by force, if they could. Just as today there were violent incidents which the ruling powers called terrorism, or criminal acts, while the dissident factions regarded those who committed them as heroic freedom fighters, and martyrs.

The Jews knew that they were God’s chosen people, and they interpreted their sufferings as God’s punishment for their unfaithfulness to him. But they also believed that a time would come when God would forgive their sins, restore them to their Land in freedom, and come and dwell with them again as he had once done in olden days. Many who read the old prophecies said that the time for God’s intervention was due.

The popular belief was that God would raise up a “Messiah”, a descendant of David and therefore rightful King, to defeat the existing rulers and establish a new kingdom of peace and justice. Not surprisingly, the existing rulers such as Herod and Pilate regarded the very idea as a threat to them (which of course it was). Anyone claiming to be such a Messiah would be dealt with ruthlessly.

That was the background; and now, here, up pops this prophet-like figure beside the River Jordan, announcing that the Kingdom of God is about to arrive- in effect, that the King himself is about to arrive. This is dynamite. This is not some weird bloke down in Broadmead shouting about the day of judgement. This is a revolutionary stirring up the people to get ready for a new regime. The axe is laid to the root of the tree, and it will be cut down if it doesn’t bear good fruit.

John was actually a priest’s son, so (although Luke doesn’t mention it) it was natural that some of those who came to investigate him were Temple priests- these are probably the ones he calls a brood of vipers. Was he claiming to be the Messiah? Could he in fact be the Messiah?

No, John replies- I am only preparing the way. You think I’m tough- just wait till he gets here. I use water, he will use fire. He will really sort out the wheat from the chaff. Even John expected a leader of power, one who would forcibly establish a new order, reward the righteous and punish the wicked, the sinners. This Luke calls “good news”. Well, good news for the downtrodden, not such good news for the oppressors, or the sinners.

But when Jesus actually appears on the scene, he identifies himself with the sinners, by asking John to baptise him. He does not raise an army, he goes about healing the sick. John himself, we hear later, was so puzzled by this that he asked, “Are you really the one we are waiting for? Or is it someone else?” Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed. It is the meek, not the violent, who will inherit the Land (not “the earth”, but “the Land,” that is the Land of Israel). “I am the Messiah,” he implied, “but perhaps not the sort you were expecting.” He came to suffer, not to inflict punishment. He was born, in order to die. As we prepare to celebrate his birth, let’s not forget what it was all for. The poverty of Bethlehem leads to the agony of Calvary, the crib leads to the cross.


2 Comments so far
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Thank you for the blog. If you wouldn’t mind, I may reproduce some of your sermons on the Portsmouth Mission Blog? God Bless

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You will be very welcome.

Comment by Fr Paul Spilsbury SSC

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