John 1:6-8, 19-28
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
9 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’* 21And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ 22Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ 23He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.
24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah,* nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ 26John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ 28This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
The New Revised Standard Version
Inside church last Sunday this gospel is read whilst outside race riots rage.
Reflecting on John last week I said that “this Advent our story tells us to “Prepare the way of the Lord!” To get on out and get marching!” On Sydney’s Cronulla Peninsula crowds flock from the centre to the margins, responding to the call (txt messages actually) for Anglo Aussies to “reclaim” the beach from “Lebs” and “Wogs”. This wasn’t the ‘interruptions to business as usual’ I had envisioned. (Gaining much more media attention than things like the “Make Poverty History” marches and meeting of the WTO.)
This week of Advent has seen reaction and counter reaction, rioting, ‘blame game’ finger pointing, the predictable sound byte diagnosis of left and right and the now common place rush to strengthen legislation.
The striking image for me was of a bare chested white anglo “Aussie” youth, draped in the flag (ala Superman), with the words “I grew here, you flew here.” scrawled across his chest.
Sydney radio “shock jock” Alan Jones was quick to claim the prophet’s mantle of “a voice crying in the wilderness”. Almost revelling in the apocalypse he said “I’m the person that’s led this charge here. Nobody wanted to know about North Cronulla, now it’s gathered to this.” The usual questions have been asked about the role of the media. “Is it the reflector or the director?” asked Michael Franti.
Certainly John the Baptist is presented in the gospels as a wild man with a penchant for the apocalyptic. He was pretty effective at drawing large crowds to water with a message of fire.(Luke 3:7-9) I wonder how John the Baptist might have reacted had he been baptising on Cronulla beach last Sunday? Particularly given last weeks portrayal of John the Baptist as an indigenous Australian elder…..(perhaps a different perspective on who “grew” here!….. Let’s also not forget the recent Redfern riots). Either way John was threatening enough to draw media attention from the Jerusalem inquisition which travel’s out to demand some answers about his credentials (or lack thereof).
John’s message was controversial because he boldly said it’s about more than where you “grew” or from where you “flew.” For the dominant culture of his day you were in God’s in-crowd based on blood. To be ‘in’ you needed to be born of Jewish blood or assimilate into Jewish culture (by practicing blood sacrifice of animals and/or circumcision). John however confronts any sense of racial superiority or privilege by saying “God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham” (Matthew 3:9; Luke 3:7). John the Baptizer was perhaps the world’s first evangelical. He believed people needed to experience conversion, to make a choice to be ‘in’ and act in light of it. In this way anyone, (indeed only those!), regardless of bloodline, who were literally willing to “take the plunge” would be welcomed by God. (See Sarahlaughed for more)
Much commentary of this weeks events has tried to paint and bigger picture. John the Baptist was also into the big picture, but refused to be boxed into any of the prevailing orthodoxies of his day. He defuses the media grilling by pointing to a higher power, a prediction of something and someone coming who would leave the impact of his own waterfront actions for dead.
Apocalyptic events such as the riots that took place this week are great at unveiling the ugly realities of our world that we often prefer to keep hidden. Dealing with racism however is a complex beast for which quick fix messianic solutions will always be inadequate. The way of Jesus is no easy path. There is a core message to this story about holding to high hopes whilst maintaining low expectations. Mark Pierson recalled a sermon title this week that he has never forgotten, “The expected Messiah is not the Messiah we expected!” Even for John, his confidence in an apocalyptic resolution of his ministry, of “someone greater” was surely shaken. He dies in prison with an ambiguous answer to the question he’d sent messengers to Jesus to ask: “Are you the Coming One, or are we to wait for another?” (Luke 7:22)
Reflection Part 2
At Urban Seed: church on Sunday we reflected upon the nativity image (See Pic #2 above) as part of our Advent in Art series. In this non traditional nativity the artist has placed contemporary 15th century martyrs/ hero’s of faith at the foot of the Christ child. Also included is John the Baptist who appears holding a lamb and again pointing to the big picture (the Lamb of God).
The tradition of incorporating prominent people into the nativity made me think of the controversial Celebrity Nativity at Madame Tussaud’s last year. (See Pic #2 above) Who are the “Saints” of our own day and age. Whilst the 15th Century celebrates martyrs and the enclosed garden is a symbol of virginity our own culture replaces the Holy Family with The Beckams. Prince Philip, Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W Bush as wise men, Kylie Minogue is an angel, and Hugh Grant and Samuel L Jackson are shepherds.The Vatican said the tableau was “if not blasphemous then certainly in very poor taste”.
We considered hero’s of faith whom we would place in our own contemporary nativity. Our thoughts were not far from Norman Kember and colleagues from Christian Peacemaker Teams http://www.cpt.org/ , kidnapped in Iraq on November 26th and who’s deadline for execution passed this Sunday with no new announcements (Aljazeera report). Norman had always preached that we should be willing to take the same risks for peace as those young men who fight for our armed forces. Our prayers for the prophet in the wilderness this Advent.
Last Weeks Seeds/mail reflection Mark 1, Advent 2