“Hark, a thrilling voice is sounding;
“Christ is nigh,” it seems to say.”
This week we hear the thrilling voice of John the Baptist calling people to turn away from their sins and to be baptized in preparation for the arrival of God’s anointed one, the long expected Messiah.
John the Baptist appears in all four Gospels as the forerunner to Jesus, preparing his way. His story is told in what we call the New Testament.
This is the New Testament (holding up small volume) – it’s made up of the four Gospels, the story of the early church in the Acts of the Apostles and letters from and to various people including St Paul, St Peter and St John.
This, on the other hand, (holding up large volume of Bible) is a copy of our bible with both New and Old Testaments. In this version the Old Testament is described as:
“The Hebrew Scriptures Commonly called The Old Testament”
There are those who don’t see the relevance of the Old Testament. They suggest that we only need to use what we might call the Christian Scriptures, the New Testament. The Old has given way to the New and so the Old can be discarded.
But I believe that to understand the Jesus story and his message we need some understanding of the scriptures he would have known and the story of his people, the people of Israel, up to his time. We need the writings of the Old Testament which I’d prefer to call the Hebrew Scriptures just as much as we need the Christian Scriptures.
Today is perhaps a good day to spend some time having a look at how our readings from both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures relate to each other.
So let’s start by having a look at our first reading – the one from the book of the prophet Isaiah – found in the Hebrew Scriptures. It would have been a very familiar passage to Jesus and all his people. It holds a prophesy about God’s chosen one, Messiah, the one who would free the people of Israel and establish a new world order where righteousness and justice bring safety and peace; where lambs and wolves live in close proximity; where there’s an end to destruction and fear and the Lord rules over all nations.
The reading begins with the prophesy that this chosen one, this Messiah, will come from the family line of Jesse. So the people of Israel in the time of Jesus were expecting, hoping for, looking for a saviour sent from God, someone whose family tree could be traced back to Jesse. And Jesse was the father of the great King David. He lived in Bethlehem, in the land of Judah. Suddenly we are taken from the Hebrew into Christian Scriptures: “In Bethlehem, in the land of Judah”; “Royal David’s city”.
Bethlehem is important because Jesus was born there and that was important because that was where the Messiah was expected to be born.
Right at the very beginning of his life on earth Jesus is fulfilling the promises and prophecies about the Christ, the Lord’s anointed.
Like the Jewish people then, we too are now waiting for the Christ – for his return. We too wait for a day of judgment when peace, love and righteousness will fill the world as the waters cover the sea.
And like the Jewish people then we too hear the voice of John the Baptist, the voice crying out in the wilderness.
John the Baptist stands like a human bridge between the Hebrew and the Christian scriptures. He reaches back to the prophet Isaiah with the words “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” and forward to an event about to happen “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near”. Words which Jesus himself will use when he begins his public ministry.
People from far and wide respond to John’s voice. They heed his words and are baptized, confessing their sins.
To realize how revolutionary this baptism was we need to understand what baptism meant to the Jewish people at this time.
It wasn’t customary for any Jew to be baptized. They might perform a ritual cleansing in order to get rid of any uncleanness but this would be self-administered. A Gentile, a non-Jew, who converted to the Jewish faith needed to be immersed in water. This signified his identification with the people of Israel in their flight from slavery in Egypt and their path through the Red Sea.
John is breaking with tradition. He baptizes those Jews who respond to his call for repentance; a turning away from sinful ways, a turning back to the God of Israel who alone could forgive their sins.
We are told that John wore clothing of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist. This is how Elijah is described in the Hebrew Scriptures and tradition had it that Elijah would return ahead of the Messiah.
We can be in no doubt that the people of Israel at this time were waiting with renewed excitement for the coming of God’s chosen one.
In Advent we too are encouraged to focus with renewed excitement and expectation on the return of Jesus, his way once again being prepared by John.
This week I’ve been asking myself “Do I live as if I really do expect Jesus to return any day?” “In our worship do we mean it when we say ‘Even so, come Lord Jesus’?” Aren’t we also thinking in our minds “ .. but not just yet” or “it won’t happen in my day”.
I wonder how many of us could perhaps do with a greater sense of urgency about being ready and waiting when Christ returns. I’m pretty sure I could.
We’ve seen now a bit about how the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are brought together in John the Baptist.
We see also that Paul uses the Hebrew Scriptures to show his fellow Jews that actually God sent his Messiah for all people , both Jew and Gentile, and all nations.
From the psalms:
“Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
and sing praises to your name.” and
“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the people praise him;
From today’s reading from Isaiah:
“The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope”
And from Deuteronomy:
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.”
We are caught up in the words of prophets and the psalms in the Hebrew Scriptures, we are part of the story of God’s people. And today we hear the words they heard on Jordan’s bank – the baptist’s cry:
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
And so, as the hymn says,
“let us haste, with tears of sorrow, one and all to be forgiven”.