Joyfully hoping and waiting (Isa 35, Ps 146, and Matt 11; Advent 3C)

The readings for this coming Sunday really do go hand-in-hand. It is not always this way; for more than half the year, the First Reading, Epistle, and Gospel each go their own way, following their own independent sequential pathway of readings with little or no explicit acknowledgement of each other. Sometimes, hopefully, the Psalm will resonate with one or more of these readings. Not so, however, this Sunday—as, indeed, on each Sunday in Advent (and in Lent)—for the four readings for today were deliberately yoked together by the creators of the lectionary for this third Sunday in Advent.

The lines of connection are clear. “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing”, declares the prophet (Isa 35:1–2). “The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient”, advises the letter-writer (James 5:7–8). And Jesus hears the question of the disciples sent by John, “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matt 11:1–2). Waiting, with patience, for the long-desired coming.

The revolutionary impact of what is being waited for is also evident. “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy”, the prophet sings exultantly (Isa 35:5–6). The Psalmist sounds, too, this song of sheer joy, praising “the God of Jacob … who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry … [who] sets the prisoners free, [who] opens the eyes of the blind, [who] lifts up those who are bowed down [and] loves the righteous, [who] watches over the strangers [and] upholds the orphan and the widow” (Ps 146:5, 7–9).

And Jesus himself informs the messengers sent by John that, yes, indeed, in what he is doing “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matt 11:5). In the alternate psalm offered by the lectionary, the young, pregnant, trusting Mary sings out loud that “the Mighty One … has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts [and] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:49, 51–53).

Indeed, this recitation of how God acts for the good in the lives of God’s people forms the foundational claim and then a recurring leitmotif in the Lukan account of the activities of Jesus throughout Galilee (Luke 4:18–19; 6:20–26; 7:22; 9:1–2; 10:8–9; 13:30; 14:11, 13–14, 21–24; 18:14, 22–25). An exact parallel to the declaration made by Jesus at Luke 7:22 forms the central claim in the passage from Matthew (11:2–11) that the lectionary offers us this coming Sunday. This upside-down kingdom, to be brought about by the righteous-justice of God (Matt 6:33), is at the heart of what we wait for, what we hope for, what we work towards.

So the prophetic word this Sunday looks to a time when “waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes” (Isa 35:6–7). This is possible because it is the Lord “who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever” (Ps 146:6).

The prophet envisages a highway, to be called “the Holy Way”, on which God’s people shall travel and not go astray, for all the familiar elements of danger will be absent. Safety is assured, for “no lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there” (Isa 35:8–9). Joy and gladness will replace sorrow and sighing (Isa 35:10). An attitude of confident hope is called for as such a time is awaited, for “as an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord” (James 5:10).

There is a parallel to this eruption of joy during Lent, when in traditional practice the fourth Sunday in Lent was known as Laetere Sunday—from another Latin word meaning “rejoice”, which forms the opening of the introit for that day in the Latin Mass: Laetare Jerusalem et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam (“Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, all you that delight in her”, Isa 66:10).

These readings are intentionally clustered together for this coming Sunday, since it is, by tradition, known as Gaudate Sunday—from the Latin word meaning “rejoice”, the opening word of the introit to the Latin Mass for this day: Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete (“rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice”, Phil 4:4). It is also known as Rose Sunday, and a rose colour can replace the purple of Advent for this day.

The note of rejoicing is clear in the Psalm, as “those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God” celebrate that “the Lord will reign forever” (Ps 146:5, 10). There is rejoicing envisaged by the prophet, as “the ransomed of the Lord return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads” (Isa 35:10).

It is rejoicing which permeates every phrase of the young Mary’s insightful song, as her “soul magnifies the Lord” and her “spirit rejoices in God [her] Saviour” (Luke 1:46–47). And there was joy, surely, amongst the disciples of Jesus, as they heard the powerful words that he speaks in response to the request of John’s disciples, “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matt 11:3). They had been privileged to be there, alongside him, as these events transpired.

In Advent, our waiting with patient hope for the coming of Jesus transforms into proleptic joy—that is, joy which is expressed in advance of the actual event, in firm confidence that what is anticipated will, indeed, come to pass. In that sense, then, this coming Sunday is already a celebration-in-advance of the joy that overcame the wise ones (Matt 2:10) and, in another account, the shepherds (Luke 2:10, 20). It is a prefiguring of the joyous celebrations of the season Christmas. Enjoy!

On reading scripture during Advent: drawing from the ancient prophecies (Isaiah 2; Advent 1A)

“Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths’” (Isa 2:3). These are words in the section from Hebrew Scripture that are offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday, the first day of Advent (Isa 2:1–5). How do we deal with the words of a prophet, speaking eight centuries before Jesus, when they are set for the season in which we look forward, with expectation and hope, to the coming (again) of Jesus, at Christmas?

Perhaps these words sit here, at the start of Advent, because they express a vision of the universal relevance and impact of faith in God, grown amongst the people of Israel, and brought to a fuller expression in the person of Jesus? The claim that “many peoples” will come to Jesus points to his universal impact. The notion that these “many people” will seek to learn the ways of the Lord and walk in his paths is a comforting and inspiring statement by the prophet.

This passage, too, is well-known for the prophet’s vision that divine judgement will take place “between the nations … for many peoples” (2:4a); as a result, those people “shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (2:4b). This oracle, shared with the contemporary prophet Micah (Mic 4:1–4), foresees that these nations “shall not learn war any more” (2:4c). It’s a wonderful vision—sadly, one that is still awaiting fulfilment, even 28 centuries later.

Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares,
a sculpture by Evgeniy Vuchetich
in the United Nations Art Collection

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In the coming weeks, we will be hearing and considering other words from this prophet who lived eight hundred years before Jesus; words that the church has heard, and taken, and restated, and declared that they speak about Jesus—predictive prophecy, enabled by the Spirit, spoken well in advance of the time of their fulfilment. After the vision of universal peace this coming Sunday (Isa 2:1–5, Advent 1A), the following Sunday we will hear a similar oracle from Isaiah (Isa 11:1–10, Advent 2A), in which another vision of universal harmony is expressed.

The two passages sit curiously alongside the Gospel passages of the prediction of apocalyptic turmoil by Jesus (Matt 24:36–44, Advent 1A) and the fierce apocalyptic preaching of John (Matt 3:1–12, Advent 2A). Whilst the Gospel passages foresee disastrous events, the Hebrew Scripture passages look to universal peace.

The other two Sundays in Advent contain further oracles spoken eight centuries before Jesus by the prophet Isaiah. One comes from the later part of the long opening section of Isaiah (chapters 1–39), and once again offers a vision of restitution and harmony; a period of time with abundant blossoming (35:1–2), divine salvation (35:3–4), restoration of full health (35:5–6), an a highway, “the Holy Way”, where “no lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come upon it” (35:9). The whole vision is framed with joy and singing (35:2, 10; see Isa 35:1–10, Advent 3A).

This passage sits, more easily, alongside the Gospel reading for that Sunday, recounting an incident in which Jesus was asked about John the baptiser (Matt 11:2–11; Advent 3C), in which he talks about events taking place even in their midst: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (11:5).

Finally, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, the lectionary takes us to the very familiar prophetic words, “the Lord himself will give you a sign; look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (Isa 7:14), a part of a longer prophecy that Isaiah speaks directly to King Ahaz (Isa 7:10–16), Advent 4A).

Alongside this, of course, is the Gospel passage where this famous prophetic utterance is cited (Matt 1:18–28, Advent 4A)—albeit, in a version that clearly mistranslates the Hebrew ‘almah (young woman) as the Greek parthenos (virgin)—a rendering that has become firmly fixed into the Christian traditions about the birth of Jesus.

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A brief footnote: two of these passages (Isa 7 and Isa 11) come from the famous three passages early in Isaiah that are regularly connected, in Christian tradition, with the birth of Jesus. The third passage (Isa 9) is designated by the lectionary as the first reading for “the Nativity of the Lord” on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day (Isa 9:2–7). Together, the “young woman shall conceive” (Isa 7), “a child has been born for us, a son is given” (Isa 9), and “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse” (Isa 11) provide a natural collection of ancient words pointing to the good news of the Christmas story.

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That said: we need to be very careful in how we speak about these passages. Whilst they seem, to us Christians, to fit naturally within the context of our Advent expectation about the coming of Jesus, we need to remember that we are taking passages from scriptures that are sacred to people of another faith, which existed long before the Christian faith came into being as a system of belief; indeed, long before Jesus himself was born.

We know “in our heads” that Christianity emerged from the Jewish faith—but often we act as if this newly-formed religious system now stands in the place of Judaism, as the body of belief to which the Lord God, the ancient of days, now relates and responds; and that Judaism itself is now obsolete, no longer relevant, superseded. Presenting readings from Hebrew Scripture as if they speak directly and clearly about Jesus, continues such an attitude.

Judaism is not, of course obsolete; there are still millions of people holding the beliefs of Judaism and keeping the practices of Judaism around the world—in Israel, in the United States, in Australia, and in any other countries. The Jewish faith has not ended; Christian believers have not superceded Jews as God’s chosen people. God’s covenant with Jewish people continues; as Paul declared so clearly, “God has not rejected God’s people” (Rom 11:1), “the gifts and the calling of God [to Israel] are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29). “Salvation has come to the Gentiles” (Rom 11:11), but even so, “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26), for “as regards election, they are beloved” (Rom 11:28).

See more at https://johntsquires.com/2020/08/10/god-has-not-rejected-his-people-all-israel-will-be-saved-rom-11/

Indeed, there is much in common amongst these two faith. Jews and Christians each orient our belief towards the same God, the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebekah, the God of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. Christians believe that this God is the same as the God of Mary and Jesus, of Peter and Paul, of Priscilla and Phoebe, and the God in whom we believe. We need to give due acknowledgement of that reality in our worship and preaching.

Supersessionism is a term used to describe the way that the Church, through the centuries, has simply taken over Jewish elements (such as scripture, the covenant, the Ten Commandments, Pentecost, the Passover Seder—and these “Advent texts” from Isaiah). We have “baptised” them so that believers have the view that these are Christian elements, without any sense of their Jewish origins—and their continuing place in contemporary Jewish life.

The Assembly of the Uniting Church issued a statement in 2009 regarding our relationship with Jews and Judaism. It affirmed the integrity of Judaism as a living faith, and made a commitment to engage in constructive relationships with Jews. It encouraged members of the Uniting Church to value Judaism as a living faith, and not to engage in acts or demonstrate actions that indicate a belief that Judaism has been superceded. See https://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/resources/learn-more/item/download/1109_09f709cccf49d83607c92e31d650d581

We should not therefore speak, sing, pray, or act in ways that are disrespectful to Jewish practice and beliefs, and in contravention of our strong commitment as a church to work constructively with our Jewish sisters and brothers. That should be an important guideline in the way we approach these “Advent texts”, even as we have our eyes firmly fixed on “the coming of Jesus”, which we celebrate at Christmas.

See also

Advent Greetings from Canberra Region Presbytery

The Canberra Region Presbytery Co-Chairpersons and Presbytery Ministers offer these greetings as Advent draws to a close and we enter the Christmas season.

HOPE (John Squires)

During December, we have been in the season of Advent. It is a season of four weeks; a season marked by HOPE. The word “Advent” literally means “towards the coming”. It is what pregnant women do; they look with hope “towards the coming” of the expected child. It is what young children do, as dinner time approaches; they look with hope “towards the coming” of their working parents, returning home to share in the evening meal and associated rituals. It is what we have been doing during these four weeks; to look with hope “towards the coming” of Jesus, the one whose birth we celebrate on Christmas Day.

It was just over a year ago that the Presbytery elected Judy McKinlay to the position of Co-Chairperson. It was just ten months ago that Andrew Smith and I stood at the front of Canberra City Church, in a service where we were each inducted into our ministry placements as Presbytery Ministers. And it has only been four months since Ross Kingham was elected to fill the other position of Co-Chairperson. We all serve with a desire to encourage, support, equip, and sustain the mission of all the Congregations in this Presbytery.

What a year it has been, to maintain hope! A year ago, many communities were already coping with the immediate impacts of the bushfires; as the fires grew, our anxieties rose, and grief spread wide. Early this year, countries overseas were beginning to experience the devastating impact of a new viral pandemic; the effects of COVID-19 became all to apparent for us as the year proceeded. Fear flew in on top of grief and anxiety. Four months ago, we were just beginning to hope that life might move out of heavy restrictions, and some manner of COVID-normality might be achieved. Hope was knocking on the door, peeking through the curtains.

Hope invites us to stand firm in the midst of these challenges: hope based in who we are, as people of faith. Hope grounded in the resilience of humanity. Hope based on our relationship with a loving God, who extends to us divine Grace so that we might work for compassion and justice in society. Hope made manifest in the story of Jesus, God-with-us, whose coming we remember and celebrate at Christmas.

PEACE (Ross Kingham)

May the PEACE of Christ be yours this Christmas Season!

The following words of James McAuley have enriched the lives of many over the years:

Incarnate Word, in whom all nature lives

Cast flame upon the earth: raise up contemplatives

Among us, those who walk within the fire

Of ceaseless prayer, impetuous desire.

Set pools of silence in this thirsty land:

Distracted folk that sow their hopes in sand

Will sometimes feel an evanescent sense

Of questioning they do not know from whence.

  ……………………………………………………………….                                         

Scan (Mercator’s map) who will, with faithless eyes,

It will not yield…. its mysteries….

He shall not see Leviathan hunt the deep,

Nor Jacob’s ladder rise from stony sleep;

For him the serpent is not lifted up,

Nor Mystery poured red into the cup…

Open, eyes of the heart, begin to see

The tranquil, vast, created mystery,

In all its courts of being laid awake,

Flooded with uncreated light for mercy’s sake.

(James McAuley, Selected Poems, 1963

JOY (Andrew Smith)

JOY springs to my mind and heart when I read the Isaiah 40:1-11 passage that was part of the lectionary for the second Sunday in Advent. In verse 6: “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’” Part of the answer comes in verse 9. It overflows with joy. The one who cries out is the herald of good tidings. Another who cries out is again the herald of good tidings. They joyfully cry out, “Here is your God!”

There is great joy for the exiles in this passage as their expectancy is raised for the longed-for return of God. They cry out these good tidings to one another, “Here is your God”. When we apply this passage in Advent it raises our expectancy about the coming of Jesus Christ – “Here is your God”. These are good tidings of great joy. Here is forgiveness, restoration, and justice. Here is the coming of the Kingdom of God.

We cry this out to each other as we gather for worship through Advent and Christmas. And joyfully we will get to sing it as well! We also cry it out to the world as we gather with our local communities for Christmas Carol outdoors or indoors. We also experiment in finding ways to cry it out in the course of the whole year in connection with our loving service. In these notices see the article “On the Journey, Know Christ is Here” that touches on some of how Eurobodalla “cried out” in its card that accompanied gifts to fire affected people.

“What shall I cry?” We need help to be heralds of these good tidings. The Gospel Project of our church (running through Uniting Mission and Education) identifies that we need help with developing a clear understanding of the gospel that we can confidently share and speak into the public square. The project aims to develop a Uniting Church perspective on both the good news Jesus proclaimed and the good news about Jesus.

These are good tidings of great joy. Lift up your voice with strength, O herald of good tidings. Lift it up, do not fear. Lift it up in Advent and Christmas. Lift it up all year.

LOVE (Judy McKinlay)

For most in our community, Christmas is primarily about love and family. It seems that’s one reason TV channels air Love Actually every Christmas season. Against the background of Christmas merriment and ritual, it touches on the complications of love and family relationships, and issues of commitment, faithfulness and trust. At the end, Great Britain’s bachelor Prime Minister and his young, sweet staffer publically declare their love. The viewer accepts their declared love as real. How it is actualized from that point on is left to our imagination.

For many of our contemporaries, Love Actually seems more about believable love than the story of a baby born millennia ago to a devout Jewish girl in a Palestinian village. They are wrong. The wonder once evoked by heraldic angels, quaking shepherds and wise men may have faded for 20th Century society, but the plot remains fully explained in 1 John 4, and summarized in John 3: 16. Take a moment to read them again. God leaves nothing to our imagination. He declares and actualizes his love synchronically, because Love is who he is. From the beginning, he has unceasingly, steadfastfully, faithfully, loved the world for which his Son died.

So I was taught that love was our Lord’s meaning. And I saw most certainly in this and in everything, that before God made us he loved us, and this love has never abated nor ever shall. And in this love he has done all his works; and in this love he has made everything for our benefit; and in this love our life is everlasting. In our making we had our beginning, but the love in which he made us was in him from without beginning, and in this love we have our beginning. And all this shall be seen in God without end, which may Jesus grant us. Amen. (Julian of Norwhich).

“Beloved, we love because He first loved us.” In this Christmas time when God’s beloved world is so hurting, and so many are grieving, suffering and needing to be loved, may we make Love real in all our words and actions. And may the blessings of hope, peace, joy and love be with you all.

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Christmas Greetings

The Moderator of our Synod, the Rev. Simon Hansford, has issued a 2020 Christmas message on video. It is available to watch and upload at https://vimeo.com/485752056

The President of Assembly, Dr Deidre Palmer, has also issued a 2020 Christmas message on video. It is available to watch and upload at https://vimeo.com/489203297 The President of Assembly has also issued a Pastoral Letter. The letter can be read at https://uniting.church/pastoral-letter-end-of-2020/

The more powerful one who is coming (Mark 1; Advent 2B)

This coming Sunday, the Revised Common Lectionary takes us to the very start of the earliest written account telling the story of Jesus of Nazareth: to the beginning of the good news of Jesus, chosen one, Son of God (Mark 1:1).

But there’s much about Jesus that we “know” that isn’t evident from this earliest and shortest story. We can deduce that Jesus was born to a Jewish family in a small town in Galilee (northern Israel). The precise date of his birth is not known, although it is now thought to be somewhere around the year 4 BCE. The town was most likely Nazareth. Indeed, in this work (the Gospel according to Mark), he is clearly identified as Jesus of Nazareth (Mark 1:24, 10:47, 14:67, 16:6).

There is no story in this Gospel which places the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, as we find in two later works (Matt 2:1-8; Luke 2:4,15; see also John 7:42). Elsewhere, he is known as “Jesus, the son of Joseph” (Luke 2:23; John 1:45, 6:42) and “the carpenter’s son” (Matt 13:55); but this particular Gospel contains no reference to the father of Jesus, only to his (unnamed) mother (Mark 3:31).

The region of Galilee was governed by Herod (Luke 1:5), and the whole of the land of Israel was part of the Roman Empire (Luke 3:1). Few people were extremely well off in the Roman Empire. A flourishing merchant class plied its trade on land and sea, but, like the vast majority of people in his country, Jesus did not enjoy a lavish lifestyle.

Jesus’ father, Joseph, worked in the building trade, probably as a carpenter. His mother (who was probably only 14 or 15 when he was born) had a number of other children after Jesus was born (see Mark 3:31-35). The family would have lived in a basic house made of mud or wood, and divided into two: one half for the family, the other half for their animals.

Jesus was raised as a good Jew. We can hypothesise much about his upbringing and faith. He knew the daily prayer of the Jews, the Shema (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One”). He also knew the major annual festivals of his people: Passover, Harvest (later called Pentecost) and Tabernacles.

Jesus attended the synagogue each Sabbath, where he watched the scrolls containing the Hebrew scriptures unrolled, before they were read (in Hebrew, the sacred language) and explained (in Aramaic, the language of the common Jewish folk). Jesus, like all his fellow–Jews, believed that his God, Yahweh, was the one true God. He followed the traditional practices of worship and studied the scriptures under the guidance of the scribes in his synagogue.

Since Israel had been occupied by foreign forces for many centuries before Jesus was born, first by Greeks, and then by Romans, he would have grown up in an environment where Greek (the common international language of the time) was spoken. Jesus would probably have understood Greek; but it would have been unlikely that he used Greek often; Aramaic was his native tongue.

Jesus would certainly have encountered the soldiers of the Roman Empire, and knew the kind of deference that they expected. Some of his contemporaries, in zealous obedience to the Torah, attempted to use force to overcome the Roman colonisers. Unlike them, Jesus did not take up arms in an attempt to rid the land of the Romans. He understood the constraints of living in an occupied land.

At a mature age (by tradition, in his early 30’s), Jesus made his way south towards Jerusalem, into the desert regions, along with other Jews of the day. Beside the Jordan River he listened to the preaching of a strange figure—a desert-dwelling apocalyptic prophet named John (Mark 1:4-8).

This man, named John, had a number of striking features (1:6). His dress, a tunic made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt, is reminiscent of Elijah the Tishbite, who dressed in a similar manner (2 Kings 1:8). His diet, comprising locusts and honey, evokes the ascetic life of a desert dweller ( …). The impression is clear: John intends to evoke the prophet Elijah.

Elijah exercised his role of prophet under the corrupt rule of Ahab and Jezebel. The most famous stories about Elijah take place in the desert, as the prophet speaks of a coming drought (1 Kings 17:1-7), and then challenges the dominant authorities, berating them for worshipping Baal rather than the Lord (1 Kings 18:20-29), and calling for their repentance (1 Kings 18:30-40). He is remembered as a fearsome figure with an apocalyptic message (Mal 4:4-6).

In Mark’s Gospel, the later desert-dwelling prophet, John, evokes the memory of the earlier desert-dwelling prophet, Elijah. He comes on the scene right at the start of the story, dressed in the manner of Elijah, and in a fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy (1:2-3), announces that he is preparing the way for the coming of a “more powerful one”, who will baptise God’s people with the Holy Spirit (1:7-8).

This is real “fire-and-brimstone” preaching! The fire in the message of “the more powerful one who is coming” is implicit in Mark’s story; it is made explicit in the accounts of Matthew and Luke, who each report John as saying, “he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3:11, Luke 3:16).

John’s message was the traditional prophetic call to repent (1:4). Prophets occasionally call directly for repentance (Isa 1:27; Jer 8:4-7, 9:4-5, 34:15; Ezek 14:6, 18:30; Zech 1:1-6), but so many of the oracles included in both major and minor prophets provide extended diatribes against the sinfulness of Israel and call for a return to the ways of righteousness that are set out in the convening with the Lord. When prophets called for repentance, they were seeking a striking and thoroughgoing change of mind, a reversal of thinking and acting, a 180 degree turnaround, amongst the people.

Accompanying this, however, was a very distinctive action that John the desert dweller performed, of immersing people into the river (Mark 1:5). Our Bibles translate this as “baptising”, but it was actually a wholesale dunking right down deep into the waters of the river.

Our refined ecclesial terminology of “baptism” is often associated, in the popular mind, with cute babies in beautiful christening gowns surrounded by adoring grandparents, aunties and uncles. This leads us far away from the stark realities of the act: being pushed down deep into the river, being completely surrounded by the waters, before emerging saturated and maybe gasping for air.

Such a dramatic dunking was designed to signify the cleansing of the repentant person. Repentance and baptism were necessary for the ushering in of the reign of God, according to John. Jesus appears to have accepted this point of view; it is most likely that his baptism was an intense religious experience for him. He underwent a whole scale change of mind, a reorientation towards the mission that was thrust upon him.

From the moment of this intense experience, Jesus was fervently committed to the renewal and restoration of Israel. His first words, as reported in this shortest and earliest account of his ministry, were clear and focussed (1:14-15). There are four key elements: fulfilment of the time, nearness of the kingdom, the need to repent, and belief in the good news. Repentance is pivotal in this succinct summary of his message. It was the heart of the message that Jesus instructed his followers to proclaim (6:12).

After this dramatic dunking by the desert dweller, Jesus left his family and began travelling around Galilee, announcing that the time was near for dramatic changes to take place. He gathered a group of men and women who accepted his teachings, journeying with him as he spread the news throughout Galilee. The intense religious experience of his dunking meant that the fierce apocalyptic message spoken by the desert dweller was lived out in a radical way in daily life by this group of deeply committed associates of Jesus. The intense religious experience associated with his dramatic dunking by the desert dweller had a deep and abiding impact.

Messengers like John have always been an important part of God’s “strategy” for working in human affairs. There are always those who are called to prepare others for God’s coming and to announce what God is doing.

The challenge for us in this Advent season, then, is to create an environment in which we can listen to the sharpness of the words spoken by God’s messengers, and recognise the ways that we ourselves are called to bring this challenging message to our world in our time. Aligning ourselves with the message of John is quite a challenge!