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3rd Sunday of Advent, Yr C, 16.12.2012
Zeph 3.14-20:
Canticle: Isa. 12.2-6:
Phil 4.4-7:
Luke 3.7-18: (1117)

God for whom we watch and wait, you sent John the Baptist to prepare the way of your Son: give us courage to speak the truth, to hunger for justice, and to suffer for the cause of right, with Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Prophets bolster and clarify our understanding of Jesus

          We are in Year C of the RCL, so today, when we think of John the Baptist on this Third Sunday in Advent, our gospel continues to be drawn from Luke.  Luke has more to say about the Baptist than any other gospel.  John Wilkinson preached a fine sermon last Sunday.  But he preached it on today’s theme, John the Baptist.  So after making a few more observations on Luke’s portrayal of John, I am going to touch on last Sunday’s theme, the Prophets.

          Both Luke and Matthew present John as preaching with strong threshing imagery in which people will be sorted out in a way akin to throwing the crop up in the air with a winnowing fork so that the wind catches the chaff and blows it away with the good wheat falling back to the ground to be gathered into the barn while the chaff is burned up.  In other words, to use a more modern idiom, he is preaching hellfire and damnation, and that’s what awaits you if you don’t repent!  This threatening imagery reminds me of men wearing sandwich boards on front and back declaring ‘Repent, for the end is nigh’.  In fact, the way Luke writes his account, he transfers elements of John’s threshing imagery to the day of Pentecost, with the wind of the Spirit, and the tongues of fire on the heads of the disciples as marks not of judgement but as signs of the in-breaking of the gift of the loving Spirit.

          I trust that all of you have heard of the ‘good cop – bad cop’ routine.  In case you haven’t, it’s the device in cop shows where one partner of a pair of policemen gives a very threatening approach to a suspect and then the other partner sweet-talks the suspect.  Both Luke and Matthew see a similar type of contrast between John the Baptist and Jesus.  We see it in the statement on Jesus’ lips that John came playing funerals and the Son of man, i.e., Jesus, came playing weddings and you refused to join in either way, saying that John was mad and Jesus was a drunkard.

          Historically speaking, it is likely that after his baptism at John’s hands Jesus was initially a follower of John, but he then struck out on his own with a very different approach.  What is clear, as indicated at the beginning of the 4th chapter of the Gospel of John is that during Jesus’ ministry the group following Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John’s group (4.1-2).

          In Luke’s account as we have it this morning, John gives very middle-of-the-road advice to the crowds, tax-collectors and soldiers.  One of Luke’s aims in the gospel and Acts is to avoid arousing any justifiable suspicion on the part of the Roman authorities.  John’s hellfire preaching, almost verging on the apocalyptic, might have aroused questions with the authorities.  The advice given by John according to Luke, especially that given to the tax-collectors and the soldiers, would certainly have allayed any such qualms by its obvious support for a quiet, settled atmosphere.

          Now let us have a look at last Sunday’s theme, namely, the Prophets.

          Biblically speaking, a prophet is not someone who foretells the future, but rather someone who is believed to have seen the situation from God’s point of view and who has set forth what the consequences are likely to be.  In short, the prophet is not so much a foreteller as a forth-teller, and his or her forth-telling is anchored in a particular time, place and setting.   The words of the prophet may be of judgement, consolation, promise, etc.  , but they are meant to be of immediate application.  It may well be that they do not result in the stated outcome and therefore hang loose, so to speak.  But this does not negate their initial purpose.

          Now, when Jesus of Nazareth comes along those who follow him are convinced that he is the one sent by God, the anointed one, the Messiah.  He shows forth the very character of God, so he is acclaimed as Son of God, which is Israel ’s calling in the covenant.  How do we sell this to our fellow Jews, and, equally important and ultimately more important, how do we anchor our understanding of Jesus in such a way as to fend off the wilder elements of Hellenistic syncretism as we move out to the Gentiles?  The obvious answer was to search the scriptures and select those passages, images, etc., which would explain and buttress our witness to Jesus.  In short, because of our need, we have inverted the process because we have looked back to the prophets to mine them for nuggets that we can apply to Jesus.  Let us be clear about one thing: it is basically our understanding of Jesus that controls how we recognize OT passages and images as matching and reinforcing that understanding, and on the whole this has been a healthy and helpful thing to do.  Therefore we can be quite confident that we really do encounter the historical character of Jesus, the impression he made on the first disciples, and his importance for them and for us.

          But just occasionally the process may well have been reversed so that a scriptural passage may have seemed so appropriate to the story being related that it was used to generate a part of the story.  Let me tell you about one such aspect.  I learned about this in a book by Frank Kermode who was  Professor of English Literature at Cambridge .  The book was The Genesis of Secrecy published in 1979.  In it Kermode pointed out that in Mark’s account of the Last Supper the betrayer is identified by Jesus as being ‘one of the twelve who is dipping bread in the same dish with me’ (14.20).  This is drawing on Ps 41.9, which says. ‘my bosom friend, whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, [he] has lifted his heel against me’.  In Jewish understanding this psalm was applied to Ahithophel, David’s counsellor, who betrayed David and went to Absalom’s side.  So Judas, as the betrayer of the Son of David is being portrayed as akin to Ahithophel, and this passage lays on Judas all the opprobrium and hatred that was heaped on Ahithophel for his treachery.   But this was no more that a minor byway.

          On the whole we can be confident that the witness of the prophets and the rest of the scriptures has been so effectively sought out that we shall be able to sing with confidence the Christmas words that ‘the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight’.