ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH DECEMBER 10, 2017
Rev. Sabrina Ingram ADVENT 2
CHRISTMAS LETTERS: JOHN THE BAPTIZER
Mark 1: 1 – 8; John 1: 6 – 8 & 19 – 28
I know that, as a son, I’ve been hard to understand. Cousin Ben’s a doctor, Sam’s in dental school and I’m not exactly boasting material. I know you’d imagined something different – someone more devoted, demonstrative, ambitious, elegant, more, I don’t know – conventional? And I’m not. The way I’m going I likely won’t be caring for you in your old age, which is a son’s duty. It breaks my heart to disappoint you. I’ve wondered if I should repent and be different – try harder to make you happy and bring you honour, but I’d be missing the mark if I didn’t follow my path. Perhaps it’s easier for Abba, may he rest in peace, since he heard the message from Gabriel directly: that I’d be a prophet who would go in the spirit and power of Elijah, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. And that I’d turn the hearts of the parents to their children. Ironic isn’t it? That what I’ll do for others has been so difficult for us. But I know you love me. You’re a wonderful mother. I couldn’t ask for a better one. It’s funny because you used to worry, when Abba told me his story. “Don’t tell him he’s going to be a prophet,” you’d say, “If he thinks he’s Elijah, I’ll never get him to eat his maror (bitter herbs eaten at Passover).” Now everything I eat is bitter; even the wild honey has a sour aftertaste! Ama, there’s something driving me which I can’t ignore. It beckons me into the wilderness and that worries you. The desert is a place of danger. But there’s something – someone else in the wilderness: The Lord God. I meet him there. I hear his voice and discern his will. I gain clarity. I’m strengthened by something far more nourishing than bagels and lox – not that yours aren’t the best – so I know the Spirit that sends me there is the Spirit of Holiness. Yes, there are times when I feel alone and even frightened. I’d much rather see your smile, and eat your chicken soup like when I was a kid, but I’m a man now and I must fulfill my destiny. So, I’m leaving my fine clothes here. Perhaps they’ll bring you some comfort. I promise I’ll write. Pray for me, Ama. Pray I’ll serve the Lord well as I prepare the way for the Messiah. And I pray, Ama, that in making God proud, I will make you proud also. Maybe you’ll brag about ‘my son, the ascetic preacher’. I love you, Ama. Your son always, John.
Dear Ama, my ministry is beginning! As we’ve always known, I’m not the light, but I’m being sent by God as a witness to testify to the light. What an honour! The word of God came to me so clearly calling me to prepare the way for the Messiah by baptizing people for the forgiveness of their sin. It may sound arrogant or crazy, but I believe, no, I know, that I’m the Lord’s messenger coming ahead of the Messiah to prepare his way; I’m “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” just as Isaiah described. It blows me away. I’ll start by calling people to repent and return to God. If they come, I’ll hear their confessions and baptize them. How amazing that their sin will be washed away, and they’ll be clean and new before God. You’ll be happy to know this means I won’t be in the wilderness as much. I’ll head out to the villages along the Jordan River across from Bethany. Come and visit if you are able. Love John
Dear Ama, perhaps you’ve heard – great throngs of people from all over Jordan, Judea and even Jerusalem have been baptized! It’s so exciting! Frist, I preach telling them to “bear fruit worthy of repentance. Whomever has two coats or extra food must share with those who have nothing.” Repentance is more than keeping the Law – it’s keeping the spirit of the law. It’s about loving God and loving people. Then I hear their confessions. Ama, even tax collectors come to be baptized! They’re a greedy lot and exploit people so I remind them to “collect no more than the amount prescribed for you”. Soldiers come too; they can be tough and cruel. I tell them to use their power for good, not to oppress or terrify people. Even religious leaders come – some are sincere, others just want to look good. They try to trap me by asking me if I’m the Messiah or Elijah. Not. When the Messiah comes, they’ll know! He’ll carry a winnowing fork to divide and save “the wheat”; then he’ll burn up “the chaff” in an endless fire. God help them. I wish you were here, Ama. So many are turning back to God I wonder if the Jordan has enough water! A few followers have given me a nickname: John the Baptizer. It’s fun but I stay focused on preparing people for the One who’s coming. He’s so much greater than I am, I’m not fit to be his servant. I’m not even worthy to untie the thong of his sandal. John.
Dear Ama, something strange happened. I had a revelation – an insight only the Holy Spirit could give. Mary’s son, Jesus, come by today and without a thought, I announced, “Look, here’s the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” The words sent a chill through me; an omen of death. It was so powerful two of my disciples left to follow him. I hated to lose them, they’ve been close companions, but it’s what needs to happen. “He must increase and I must decrease.” John.
Dear Ama, unexpected things continue to unfold. Jesus returned. I thought he wanted to check out my ministry and maybe grab lunch instead he came down to the water and insisted that I baptize him. I didn’t know what to do. I told him it wasn’t appropriate – if anyone should be baptized by another it should be me by him, but he insisted: “This is the right step now. God wills to save his people by turning things upside down. I need to obey him.” So I poured water over his head, to wash away the sin of the world that he will bear. Then a dove landed on his shoulder. It was the Holy Spirit. I heard a voice – the voice of God, saying, “This is my Son. I love him. I am pleased.” I remembered then God had told me the Messiah is the one on whom I see the Spirit descend and stay. Ama, the Messiah is here! Jesus is the Messiah! We played together as kids – who knew? Hallelujah! God’s salvation has finally come! I baptize with water, mere earthly liquid, but I’m sure Ama, Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. We live in amazing times! Praise God! With great love, John.
Dear Ama, I’ve been called to the palace of Herod Antipas. Apparently, he’s heard all about me and wants to meet me. It’s funny there was a time when meeting the King would have made me feel important. Not anymore. So much has changed. I guess there’s a new King on the block. Antipas is out of his league. I know you’d want me to be careful with what I write. I’m aware treason is serious, but more and more I have no patience for the illusions of the world. God has made me a sword in his hand, cutting through the crap. I must speak the truth. So, pray for me Ama, because Herod is not known to be a righteous man and he wields his authority like a hammer. I must call him to repentance. God offers salvation even to kings, but his knee and his heart must bow before God. This is shaky ground but as Mordecai told Esther, perhaps I have come for such a time as this. Love, John.
Dear Ama, please don’t be upset with my news. It will worry you, but we must trust in the Lord. I’m in Herod’s prison. Antipas is shacked up with his brother’s wife, Herodias, as everyone knows. God alone knows what’s going on between him and her daughter, Salome. Herodias is a real piece of work. I haven’t met many truly evil people, but wickedness drips from her festering heart. I can see it in her eyes. I told Herod to repent, that his lifestyle was evil. Needless to say, he didn’t take it well. In spite of it, I can tell he likes me. And public opinion’s on my side. Right now, I’m more popular than The Beatles. Never mind, Ama, they’re not important. I think I’ll be out of here soon. I love you, John.
Dear Jesus, I’ve sent my disciples to ask you if you’re the Messiah. I’ve been Herod’s prisoner for many months. I’m not a man who relishes creature comforts or cowers at the power of others, but I feel my Spirit being weighed down. The guards are cruel. God has left me. I’ve been forgotten. So I find myself questioning my whole life’s work, my whole life, in fact. I left my mother and gave up my own dreams – for what? Was I delusional? Please tell me, it was worth it. John.
Dear Ama, This is the hardest letter I’ve ever written because I’m sure it will be my last. Herodias has it out for me and her influence is great. Do not mourn for me, Ama. God wants us to live abundantly. I take heart because 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. Salvation is at hand and not even death can tear us from the love of God. Jesus told my disciples that among those born of women no one has arisen greater than I. Of course, I know that even the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than I am. But remember that, Ama. You are that woman. Thank you for being my mother. I’m not sorry for the path I’ve followed, it was God’s purpose for me. I love you, Ama. We will be together again in paradise because God’s kingdom is at hand. Shalom. Your son, always, John.