Our Bible study this week was led by Corby Varness, and I give her credit for providing us interesting information about John the Baptist, and the ministry of Jesus in comparison to John’s.
John the Baptist is highly revered in the Eastern Orthodox Church, much more than in the Western Christian Church. The Orthodox Church believe that John was the last of the Old Testament prophets, a bridge between the prophets and the New Covenant. They also teach that, following his death, John descended into Hades and again preached that Jesus the Messiah was coming, making him the Forerunner of Christ in death as he had been in life. Orthodox churches will often have an icon of St. John the Baptist, and he is frequently mentioned during their daily Divine Services. Every Tuesday throughout the year is dedicated to his memory. And, the Eastern Orthodox Church remembers Saint John the Forerunner on six separate feast days.
John was a really big deal with a very large following in a very short time. (I read that when Paul traveled around the eastern Mediterranean to spread the Gospel, 20-25 years after both John and Jesus had both been killed, he still found lots of people who were followers of John the Baptist.)
John and many of his followers questioned whether Jesus was THE one! The writer of Matthew’s Gospel seems clear enough about who Jesus was, calling him Messiah. Looking at the Gospel of Luke, we might be convinced that John would have known a lot about Jesus, being a cousin of his through his mother Elizabeth and Jesus’ mother Mary. And the Gospel of John says that John the Baptist saw and heard the response from Heaven when he baptized Jesus in the Jordan. But, it is little wonder that John, now sitting in prison with time to think, questions whether Jesus is the Messiah or not. So, it is reasonable to ask Jesus to publicly declare who he is.
John had the prevalent Jewish view of what the Messiah would do when he came—he would be a powerful earthly ruler! Matthew 3:11-12: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
The Rev. Terry Kyllo, a Lutheran minister who is leading the Episcopal Church in Marysville, WA, reflects in his message about the Gospel today that from the Jews’ perspective the Messiah’s basic job description in the first century was to: Heal the sick (Isaiah 8:2-3), Make the blind to see and the deaf to hear (Isaiah 29:18-19), The lame to walk (Isaiah 35:5-6), Raise the dead for life in the Reign of God (Isaiah 26:19), Preach good news to the poor (Isaiah 61:1), Release to prisoners (Isaiah 61:1-2), The cancelling of debt and restoration of land to people (Isaiah 61:2), and Lead the people as a military general (Isaiah 63: 6).
Terry points out that, “Nowhere does it say that the messiah is to get people into heaven when we die. Nowhere does it say that God needed to beat up and kill the messiah so that God could forgive human beings. Instead, the messiah was to lead the people to a new way to live on this earth – he would accomplish this by dramatically re-ordering how people live with each other. The poor and those with disabilities would not be on the bottom of the pile any more. There would be no more pile. The dead who had never experienced life as it could be would be raised to enjoy life as God intends it.”
Jesus the Christ
Jesus did not come as a Messiah in the way that John the Baptist and Jews of that time expected. Matthew 11:4-5: Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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.” Jesus’ ministry fit the Jews’ concept of the Messiah, but Jesus rejected their concept of making an earthly empire; his was a ministry of blessing, healing, and liberation.
Jesus also clearly proclaimed who John the Baptist was. Matthew 11:8-10: “What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. (John was in no way confused with anyone in soft robes, or in a palace!) What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’” John 5:35 says that Jesus regarded John as "a burning and shining lamp.
Corby pointed out that our own Rev. Sarah Monroe, while in seminary in Boston a couple of years ago, starting in her internship with street ministry to the homeless, preached about John the Baptist to a group one Sunday. She described John in all his “glory”--the shabby clothes, and the unshaven and hungry man who screamed the message of repentance and a Messiah to anyone who would listen. Sarah said those homeless people totally related to John, and that message is being preached by others as that ministry continues.
How do we see John the Baptist and Jesus today? John Dominic Crossan, a well known theologian of the historic Jesus, and a person with some controversial views about Jesus, nonetheless gives us something to think about. Those Jewish people waited then, and they still today wait for a Messiah to come to make the world a different place. (Corby told us that in Jewish gatherings they always have an empty chair for the Messiah they hope will come.) Crossan points out that, “modern Christianity seems also to be waiting for God, he said, while God has been waiting for us. No wonder nothing is happening.” “We want God’s intervention”, Crossan says, “while God wants our collaboration. God’s kingdom is here, but only insofar as we accept it, enter it, live it, and thereby establish it.
Our own Diocesan Bishop Stephen Bayne once reminded people of the now present Jesus—“Some church members will have to cease thinking of the Church as a kind of memorial association for a deceased clergyman called Christ.”
One way we can help represent God’s kingdom here and now is by continuing with our support to the Chaplains on the Harbor ministry. Rev. Sarah this past weekend called on the folks of St. Andrew’s, Aberdeen, where she is serving as a Deacon, to open the church doors overnight last Sunday for the homeless to rest inside from the cold and snow, and to get some food and sleep. The faithful responded with Sarah’s leading and did just that—about 15 people were served plenty of food, and a warm place to rest. The Wednesday and Saturday morning gatherings under the bridge in Aberdeen to get food, clothes, and other help continue with your support, as this ministry gets going toward some unknown but hopeful destination. Rev. Bonnie Campbell and Kevin Varness shared with us at our last Bishop’s Committee meeting about what funds and programs to minister to the poor and homeless are being worked on in Aberdeen, and this helped us to see where we might focus our help as things proceed. And, our outreach funds each year focus more and more directly on the poor and homeless—the local Montesano Food Bank and United Gospel Mission, as well as supporting the helpless—Children’s Advocacy Center, Domestic Violence Center, and Camp Victory for Boys and Girls.
So, as we finish the Advent season and come to celebrate the baby Jesus at Christmas, let’s remember who God and his Son Jesus really are, as told in Psalm 146 from today:
--Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God,
--Who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever;
--Who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free;
--The Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous.
--The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
--The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!