John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem. (Mark 1:4-5)
Why did they go out? Why did they go out to see this wild man, this frankly scary man in the wilderness who wore camel’s hair and a leather belt and ate only honey which he scooped up from a beehive and the pods which he gathered from a locust tree? To go to the wilderness was a journey and the wilderness itself was a scary place. And when they got there what did they hear, except a denunciation of them all, a proclamation of sin and a call to repentance? Why did they do it, these crowds from Judea and Jerusalem?
Certainly for some it was a sense of moral shortcoming and guilt, for John also proclaimed forgiveness and he baptized people into that forgiveness. For others, or rather for all, there was a larger reason which is not always apparent when we hear the story.
John was said to be a prophet and everyone knew that there had been no acknowledged prophet in Israel and Judea for nearly two hundred years. God spoke to his people through the prophets. That was one way he maintained his relationship with them. And so whether it was a message of comfort like that which we heard from Isaiah in the lesson this morning, or a message of condemnation which we heard from Amos in the lesson last week, it meant that God cared. They were his people and he wished them to turn away from disobedience. They were his people and he spoke to them words of comfort when there was disaster and despair.
What then would God’s silence mean? God’s silence? That they were no longer God’s people? That God had finally given up on them and abandoned them? It certainly looked that way. They had been conquered by the Seleucids, Greeks who defiled their holy city and seduced their young men to turn away from their customs. And when there was a revolt and the Seleucids were overthrown, they were replaced by a Jewish regime. But it was a corrupt regime which also ignored the ancient customs and created a false king and high priest who was a dictator. But then came the Romans who conquered and subjugated them as the Greeks had before, and the people became divided into factions who hated each other.
God had been silent through all this, and it certainly looked – how could it not? – that he had abandoned his people. But if a prophet arose, it was surely a sign that this was not the case. A prophet. God’s long silence was ended, and he spoke to them again. A prophet. God had not abandoned them. They were his people, and he cared for them.
And that is why they journeyed into the wilderness. To see John. A prophet, whose very presence and fiery message meant that God had not given up and abandoned them, and that God cared.
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But let’s go a bit deeper and backtrack, if you will. One of the things that the ancient Hebrews learned about God as they lived in Covenant with him is this: that God is Judge and judgment is his way with mankind. Perhaps that is the Jews’ greatest discovery: that there is a moral order built into creation and that that order was established by the Creator. They learned it at Sinai when God made the Covenant with them and revealed his Law. And throughout their history, prophets and seers and holy men and women proclaimed this startling revelation of the divine nature: that God is judge and God exercises judgment in the world. And, more than that, experience in that Covenant, experience of his judgment, taught the Jews an even deeper truth: that judgment is evidence of God’s love.
This is a strange idea to most people – even religious people – and sometimes it is difficult to comprehend. For several reasons. First of all, because there persists the misleading and malicious idea that there is a real break between the teaching of the Old Testament and the teaching of the New Testament; that the God of the Old Testament is a hateful God of fury, wrath, and anger, and the God of the New Testament is the God of love. That, my friends, is nonsense, bunk, and rubbish. It is also a very peculiar opinion, because the people who wrote the Old Testament did not believe that. Just read the Psalms. Often in a single psalm, one verse speaks of God’s anger, and the very next verse speaks of God’s love and trustworthiness. The people who wrote the New Testament did not believe that. There are quite a few scary passages in the New Testament – even from the lips of Jesus. It never occurred to them, even as they remembered and recorded what they understood to be the wrath and anger of God. Perhaps they didn’t enjoy the judgment of God, but at the same time they rejoiced that God was judge. The scope and the mode of his love may have a different emphasis, but it is the same God in both Testaments, judging and loving.
And there is another reason why people find it hard to understand the Hebrew conception of God, and of God’s judgment and his love. It is because the mind of the popular culture which we inhabit has become so shallow and sentimental that it opposes these actions, the one to the other. To love in reality, not an easy thing at all. I fear, though, that to love in the popular culture has come to mean little more than “to have good feeling about another.” It is to let another “do their own thing,” as we used to say, to be affirming, accepting, always non-judging. For, of course, to judge is to be narrow-minded, egotistical, coercive, tramping on another’s rights or space. So one – judgment – excludes the other – love.
But this is ridiculous, isn’t it? For love itself often constrains us, obliges us to make judgments all the time. When a friend is hurt or in danger, I am obliged to make a judgment on the cause and do something about it. I don’t sit around waiting for a good feeling or trying to give one. No. I make a judgment. Even so unsophisticated a thing as a negative judgment. When a friend is hurting himself or herself, I make a judgment on what that friend is doing, even if it is “his own thing.” Love obliges me not to be accepting and not to be affirming – and to stop my friend from “doing his own thing.” When I love and care, I am very judging, and so, I hope, are you. What the culture calls love – a kind of cheerful unconcern – is just indifference wearing a smile. And that’s not you in love; and that’s not me in love . . . and – thank God ! – that’s not God in love. To judge is part of love. It is part of being involved with, concerned about, caring for another person.
And that – put another way – is what the ancient Hebrews discovered about God’s nature: that there is nothing passive about God. God is not a kind of metaphysical mist. God is person, personal, and wills to be with his creature, and He loves and he judges, and God judges because he loves. And that is Good News. That is really Good News. And that is precisely why those crowds went out into the wilderness. To see John. A prophet. God was no longer silent ! He sent a prophet and had not abandoned his people ! John was also a sign that God was up to something, for the word of judgment was being spoken by John and hearts were being touched.
And that is the reason that there is always an air of excitement around John the Baptist when we encounter him in the Gospels, because he was a sign, a signal of God’s renewed activity. John’s presence and his preaching pointed to some new activity of God.
Consequently, there is also an air of something old, over, and passing away that accompanies the Baptist. He is a man of the Old Testament who stands in the New. There is something about him that seems almost out of place. For now the God of Israel is up to something new. Now the mission of God’s people, the Jews, is being focused in the mission of God’s Son.
And once again a word of judgment will be spoken. It will be judgment on all that hurts God’s creatures: on the forces of evil and death which cripple and destroy. It will be a judgment on all the ways God’s creatures hurt themselves: on the power of sin which maims and also destroys us. It will be a judgment which begins in a stable and a manger and is completed on a cross and in a grave. And the name of that judgment will be Emmanuel – “God-with-us.” The name of that judgement will be Jesus –“for he shall save his people from their sins.” And God will do this, and He does this, and He did this – because He judges and his judgement is his love.
And that, dear brothers and sisters, is the Gospel, and it is very Good News.