In Honour of John the Baptiser

WaterIn our Gospel reading today, and in our Advent Wreath prayers, we are confronted by the rather other-worldly character of John, the forerunner of Jesus who appears in the desert at the River Jordan calling the people of God to repentance and cleansing, in preparation for the arrival of the Messiah.

John does not know exactly when the Messiah will appear, but he knows that the time is coming soon, and that people need to be ready.

Christians are often surprised when they read the Gospel of Luke to find that much of the first few chapters of that Gospel are concerned not with the life of Jesus, but with the birth and life of John his forerunner: because John is an essential part of the Christian story.  He is the last of the prophets who will warn that Jesus is near, in the style of the Old Testament Prophets before him, but much closer to the event.

Just as we heard, in our first reading, the Old Testament Prophet Zephaniah say longingly, “the Lord is in your midst, you shall fear disaster no more!”, in our Gospel reading today, John the Baptiser teaches the crowds (that have gathered around him to be baptized in the River Jordan), that he will baptize them with water; but one who is more powerful is coming very soon… and he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  The Old Testament prophet Zephaniah senses that the Lord is in the midst of his people, and much later, John baptizes the people in anticipation of Jesus’ imminent arrival.

As we heard, in the drama of John’s message the stakes are high, and it is time for people to make a decision.  How should they prepare?  Firstly by being cleansed through baptism, and secondly by beginning to act once again as the People of God, by simplifying the way that they live, and by living as a community rather than as individuals.  If you have two coats, says John, give one away to someone who needs it; do the same if you have more food than is necessary; and in all your actions live out God’s call to fairness and justice.

And we are nourished by these readings in this Season of Advent, as we prepare ourselves for the celebration of Christ’s coming at Christmas, and for the day when he will one day appear again, to bring all things to himself in the glory of God our Creator.

During this Season of Advent I have been suggesting that we might be helped in our preparing, by re-focusing some of our attention on our Christians origins;  on how things came to be ordered in the way that we experience them in the life of the Church today.  I have been doing that because I know, for myself, that the deep significance behind much of what we do together as the Church (in our worship and in the way that we order our lives) can be easily missed if we do not take time to stop and to ask how these things came to be.

On the first two weekends of Advent we have spent some time thinking about how Christians use time, in our yearly cycle and in our weeks and days.  I want to take those thoughts a little further at this Eucharist by saying something about how the Early Church, of which we are the inheritors, developed what they did in their communal life together: the symbols and rituals that they developed to express the meaning that they had found in Jesus.

Sometimes I have found myself taking on the idea that a particular translation of the Bible, or a particular service in one of our prayer books, or even a particular way of saying our prayers has somehow been dictated to us by God.  This is a special problem for those of us who are involved in the liturgical churches, such as our Anglican Church, which emphasises rituals and ceremonies which have been used by the Church for many centuries; because we can begin to create the idea that at some point in the early life of the Church, God dictated that our worship should be done in a certain way, that is infallible and unchanging.  The reality, of course, which we know from our own experience of life in the Church is that the way that we express our faith together is in a permanent state of change.

Many of us will have seen images in stained glass or paintings depicting heaven as if it was like a constant celebration of the Eucharist, with vestments and candles and altars… as if heaven is going to be somehow a close variation of what we do here at St Peter’s when we gather for worship.  If that is how we see things then I fear that some of us may be very surprised when we get there; because the reality is that all of our worship is a human creation of what we are trying to express and live out.

So it’s worth making clear that our worship, and the other things that Christians do when they gather as the Church, has always been in a state of development and change.  The Early Church (the first Christian communities) had no tradition of their own, so they consciously in some areas, and unconsciously in others borrowed from what they saw going on around them. That is obvious when we hear today’s Gospel reading.  John is busily baptizing people before Jesus has even arrived on the scene, and long before he has inaugurated the Church.

So we can say at the very least, that baptism does not find its original origin in Jesus.  Although we tend to think of baptism as distinctively Christian,  the roots of the baptism liturgy that we use today come from much earlier in the Jewish religion in which baptism was a ceremony which pointed to ritual cleansing for those who took part in it.

In the time of Jesus, Gentiles (like you and me) who wanted to become God-fearing Jews were both circumcised (if they were men or boys) and then baptised in water.  Circumcision was a sign of the Jewish covenant, and baptism was a sign of being made clean from the impurity which had come from not keeping the Jewish purity laws.  Men and women were baptised naked, they were fully immersed under the water whilst religious teachers read from the books of instruction from the shore.  That is the baptism that we hear about in our Gospel reading this morning.  John challenges people to change their ways and to go through ritual washing as a sign of that change.

Later the first Christians, who had experienced baptism when they were Jews, borrowed the ritual and made it their own.  They took baptism (which was not a Christian ritual) and they christianised it for their own purposes, and we have gone on doing this to this day.  Of course there were good reasons for them to do so.  The symbolism was easily adapted by the first Christians.  The first Christians continued the practice of baptising in streams and lakes and rivers.  They reinterpreted baptism to symbolise dying (when the person was plunged under the water) and rising with Christ (when they came back up out of the water).

As Anglicans we miss some of the symbolism of this because we don’t immerse people under water when they are baptised with us, because we instead put water on their foreheads.  The symbolism of going down under the water, and then coming back out of the water would have been enacted each time John baptized those who were seeking to be cleansed.

But the Church later continued this practice with the new meaning that this was connecting people with the life of Christ – going down under the water, as if they were dead, and then rising again back above the water, being raised to new life in Christ.  We cannot do that in our little fonts, but it is worth remembering as we celebrate the sacrament of baptism here during the year, that that is how the symbolism first worked.  Our present formula for how we do it, owes more to the growth of cities, and thus the lack of accessible streams and rivers than it does to anything more profoundly theological.

So the first Christians, who were also Jews, borrowed baptism from the Jewish religion and made it their own.  And Christians have continued to borrow from the culture around us as our way of worshipping has developed down through the centuries.  Just as baptism was borrowed from Judaism and made significant for us as Christians by the Early Church, we could say the same thing about the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, which was originally a Jewish Passover meal.  The ritual of the meal was taken and given new meaning (focusing us on Jesus rather than the Exodus) by the Early Church.

In the past Christians have borrowed bizarre fertility rites and brought them into our churches, like May Pole Dancing.  In England the practice of beating the bounds of the Parish at Rogationtide, and standing the youngest choir boy on his head at the four corners of the parish, still goes on to this day, having been borrowed centuries ago by the Church from rural customs.

On the first weekend in Advent we thought about how we mark out the cycle of the Christian year with events from the life of Jesus, to help us in our discipleship, as we seek to grow to be more like him.  Last weekend we thought about how we might follow in the great tradition of those who have gone before us, by claiming time as God’s and not our own, by being conscious of God at work in our lives.  This weekend, we are reminded by the figure of John the Baptist, that what we do in our worship has not somehow floated down from heaven, but has been borrowed and adapted by Christians from what they saw and experienced around them.  Which is an ongoing process that is limited only by our imagination and willingness to be creative.

As we reflect on the way that worship has developed in the life of the Church I want to leave you with a simple recent example of how churches continue to do that to this day.  A church in another diocese in Australia, following a number of deaths of young drivers in road accidents in their local community recently started holding a regular service to bless L-Plate drivers.  That church recognised that becoming an L-Plate driver was a major milestone in the life of young people, and it recognised as well the need for those young drivers to be responsible in their actions as drivers.  And they wanted as a Church to be part of it.

So they designed a liturgy through which Christian significance was given to what was going on.  The new drivers drive up to the church in their cars, and through a short service at which their families and friends are present, they are blessed for the driving years that they will have ahead of them.

Today, on this Third weekend in Advent, (as we focus on John the Baptist) we celebrate that in our baptism we have died in Christ and been raised with him.  Through our baptism each one of us is made a member of the body of Christ, an heir of the Kingdom, a witness to the love of God.  We remember too that we are called in the great tradition of the Church to continue to live out that baptized life  in our worshipping life (as Christians have done before us) in and for the community that lives around us.  As I have already said, we are limited only by our imagination and creativity.