Advent 3 b 17-12-17 – The Sunday of the Baptist – Ps 126 Jn 1 6-8, 19-28
The Sunday of the Baptist
Today’s Psalm begins as a song of the returned exiles. We joined in their joyful song, celebrating their home-coming from a far-away country. They were proud that other nations saw how much God cared for them. But the second part of the Psalm becomes suddenly more worrying; the people are asking God to restore them again. They’re asking God, Bring water to our drought-stricken lives, so we, who are planting our crops in tears now, might shout with joy at the harvest.
Something’s gone wrong. This Psalm’s joyful freedom song has become a sad prayer to be restored from exile again. But they’re praying to be set free from a different type of exile this time. They’re caught in a spiritual drought. Is God still with them? A special sort of divine watering is what’s needed.
So it’s no accident that the last prophet sent to Israel in answer to this prayer is John the Baptiser. Water was the means God called John to use when he tackled his people’s spiritual exile – their spiritual dryness – very special water. We read in today’s gospel that ‘John was baptising in Bethany on the other side of the Jordan’. We remember that this is the river the people of the Exodus crossed when they followed Joshua into the land of promise. This is probably also the river the people crossed when they finally returned from exile in Babylon.
John has gone down to that river – the lowest point on Earth. He’s gone to the other side of that river – because you have to cross that river if you’re coming back from being a slave – coming back up to be one of God’s free people again.
Our Psalm reminded us of these things; reminded us particularly that the gift of being restored to God’s people is a gift to those who were God’s people once before, but who were lost. And once again they feel lost to God. But they remember that by God’s grace, their ancestors were granted return from exile. So now the Psalm asks if that grace is available to them again in their time. That question stayed with them: How long, O Lord?! Restore us again?!
John has gone down to the river to show them the way God provides for their return. They need to leave the land again, and ask for the grace to return. John calls those whose lives are in spiritual drought to come down to the river; to come and cross it again. He asked people to come to where he was on the other side of the river; he went physically to the place where the people were spiritually. He called them to that place too, to show with their bodies what had happened in their hearts.
The Psalmist would have said that the lives they were living were nothing for the nations to marvel at now. In fact, they shamed God’s name before the nations. John came to change that. They were a people called to be a light to the nations. They were meant to be a people ready to greet the coming one. John came to turn them to the light; to prepare them for Jesus’ coming.
In calling people to baptism on the other side of the Jordan, John was asking Jewish people to do two things.
As we’ve seen, in asking them to leave their land, he was asking them to acknowledge that the lives they were living were not up to scratch. They weren’t the lives of a people who were to be a light to the nations. You couldn’t live in that land and live the sort of lives they were living. So he called them back to the river – to the other side; the side where exiles and outsiders belonged.
That was the first thing. And the other thing was the baptism he gave them. In Judaism at the time of John the Baptist, there was such a thing as baptism. It was a rite of conversion. People who weren’t Jews were baptised as part of the process of becoming Jews.
So when he called the people of Judea and Jerusalem to baptism, John was saying they needed conversion.
It was complete renewal he was calling them to.
Looked at symbolically, you could say the Psalmist only asked for God to send rain, but John decided a river was needed. He was determined that when a person crossed the river with him back into the Land, the one who emerged from the water would be a new person; a converted person.
So there’s the symbol of leaving their own land, and there’s the symbol of the dead people of God being converted to become the living people of God again. And that’s on top of the two older images of the Exodus and the Exile. John’s baptism was an enormously powerful symbolic action. Accepting his baptism meant owning yourself to be a slave to someone else – to something else – an exile, someone who has turned their back on God; somebody who needs to be made completely new, and acknowledging all that, turning back to God.
It’s a tremendous gift that John has given to the church. Even though you may be facing into pitch blackness; even though you may be at absolute rock bottom; even though you may feel totally disconnected from God, John’s baptism shines a light in the darkness, and guides God’s people back to life. Our faith is a gift; the conversion of our hearts, which is at once, a call from God, and a gift from God which enables us to respond to that call; to accept the gift. The miracle is God’s.
Can you remember any time in your life when this has happened to you?
You’re here today; why?
Is it because you’ve always come? Or is it because at some point, there was a person sent from God; sent from God to call you; to show you the way to the light?
Has there ever been anybody who called you away from a state of spiritual drought – called you down to the river? Did they turn you around? Did they turn your life around?
In our collect prayer today, one of the things we prayed was that we might find time to rejoice and show the world what we believe. I figure it might help if we practice telling each other about something we believe.
So if you do remember a time when somebody called you to turn and you did, and it changed your life, I’d ask you to take a friend aside at morning tea and tell them a little bit about what happened.
Let’s sit and remember for a minute.