2004-12-12 Advent III
Isaiah 35: 1 – 10; James 5: 7 – 10; Matthew 11: 2 – 11
You may not be regular readers of Private Eye, the most recent edition borders on the distasteful, but not before the Rector had a long chortle to himself. The beautiful Nativity Scene is subverted as one of the Magi whispers to the other: “we think it’s David Blunkett’s”.
I am not sure that it is sacrilege, just in case you were wondering. This is satire, a potent and dangerous form of humour, which risks offending to make a serious point. There is a long history of it, Greek comedy was full of it Latin drama had an even stronger dose. The Court Jester was the only one licensed the medieval court to utter the unmentionable. Private Eye serves an important function today, following in the great tradition of English cartoon comedy from the time of Hogarth, via Punch and the great radio humour we still appreciate today.
John the Baptist was a remarkable character. His father saw it at the outset, his hymn – the Benedictus, which we sang this morning, foresees that John will be called the “prophet of the highest.....to give knowledge of salvation unto....Israel”. But this morning Matthew pictures him, languishing hopelessly in gaol, seemingly dubious that the One whom he saw anointed is indeed the rightful Messiah. It is a despairing image; the fiery baptizer, crestfallen and at the edge of belief.
John the Baptist was the satirist of his own day, but there was nothing oblique or remotely funny about what he was saying. He was self consciously in the tradition of the OT prophets who felt passionately they had something to say about the corruption and degradation around them. In last week’s Gospel reading we caught a glimpse of it as Matthew had John taking a swipe at the religious authorities, but later on he denounces pretty well everyone for failing to live up to the precepts of the law.
What got JBap into prison? And is Jesus rebuking John? And what should prophets be saying be saying in our own day?
JBap knew how to grab the limelight. For long after his death, his was a name to conjure with. Contemporary historians underline that John had quite a following all of his own, parallel to that of Jesus, long after their respective deaths. There is still a community in Iraq which honours him as their prophet.
John knew how to beguile and frustrate. Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great and Tetrarch of Galilee had divorced his first wife and to the consternation of his subjects taken his neice, Herodias as his wife. The scandal was not just that they were related once but that she was his bother Philip’s wife. Adultery on a grand scale worthy of full page spreads in Hello or its first century equivalent caused quite a stir. Jesus does not get drawn on the subject but JBap wades in with the vehemence of his predecessors amongst the prophets. He denounces the scandal to all who are prepared to listen, which is most of Judea and Jerusalem it appears. John is a marked man and Herod and his wife seek his downfall at the earliest opportunity.
He said more than was comfortable for Antipas, and so he was incarcerated to limit the damage he was doing to the royal prestige.
What got him into prison, was saying it how it was, naming adultery and exposing autocratic means of government which threatened the poor and the godfearing. JBap also understood that marriage was a sacred bond, which his predecessor Hosea had used to compare the relationship between Israel and God. There are passages in Hosea’s prophecy in which the forty years in the wilderness are compared with a honeymoon. There is an intimacy between God and his people which is lived out in all marriage and particularly between a King and his Queen. They of all people should know and embody the sacredness of this state, particularly in view of the failures of previous dynasties of kings, which had such a cataclysmic result for ancient Israel.
John the Baptist the prophet was imprisoned for exposing not just autocracy but denial of revealed truth about the nature of God and his people lived out in marriage.
Is Jesus rebuking John, when he sends his followers to as it were double check? Not really. He seems to say well look and see the signs of the Messianic presence around you, the deaf hear, the blind receive their sight – and blessed is he who takes no offence at me. But then as the Baptist’s followers depart, he does not weigh into John, saying that he was a shirker or weak under pressure, he reminds the crowd and us that John’s mission was to prepare the way of the Lord. John knew that a new Age was about to dawn, but how could he know more than that? John is a figure of the time of anticipation. He cannot know in full all that is to come. Our reading from James highlights the need for patience, the age which was dawning with the preaching of John has been fully revealed in Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension, but is yet to be known except by foretastes and hints. John’s impatience does not just belong to the age of anticipation but to our own season of Advent also. John was a prophet and as James says, “as an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” John is the hinge between old and new, as you know Antipas was tricked into beheading him through the combined wiles of his wife and step-daughter. JBap did not live to see the culmination of all that was foreshown in Christ’s earthly ministry. His question though is a natural one, on the part of a generation longing to see an end and the decisive work of God. Like JBap we all make God in our image and assume we know how he will act,. When he does act it is invariably in an unexpected way – responsibilities we had not intended, a partner who is so different from all we had imagined, a career that we could never have plotted – a man on a cross rather than a cloud with thunder and lightening.
Finally, what should prophets be saying in our own day? I can’t help thinking that a little leg pulling can have prophetic overtones. I am not sure that anyone has said the obvious publicly about the Blunket affair – that he was committing adultery and whether he likes it or not it has had a deeply detrimental effect both on his office and the life of those caught up in the sorry tale. I find it objectionable that a senior minister of the crown should be suing to have access to a son, who as I understand the law must be the son of his legal father.
I think I risk looking prudish, in the current media climate, everyone is insisting the Home Secretary has done nothing wrong! So be it – occasionally the Church may need to appear crusty in order to stand up for eternal values.
Last week the Chancellor made a very important series of commitments to review issues of third world debt during our presidency of the G8. He needs to be held to account on these pledges, as a prophetic body the Church has a responsibility to be attentive to what is being done to protect the poor.
This morning’s OT lesson has a wonderful picture of an end to waiting and the alieviating of the burdens of the weighed down. Isaiah foresees a corridor in the desert which will take the captives out of Babylon back to the promised land, even the “fools” won’t be able to get lost – there does not seem to be a Hebrew expression of for those with no sense of direction!
“And an highway shall be there and a way, and it shall be called the way of holiness; the unclean shall not go over it, but it shall be for those: the wayfaring men, though fools shall not err therein..... And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with songs of everlasting joy upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness and sorrowing and sighing shall flee away.”
The Revd. William Gulliford