(from the New Revised Standard Version)
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
In a few words, Luke the Gospel writer sets the scene for the appearance of John the Baptist. A few words which describe a nation in crisis. The ultimate political power is held by the Emperor Tiberius in far-off Rome. John appears when the known world is dominated by a seemingly immovable superpower. The Emperor is represented by Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea. For ordinary folks- farmers, fishermen, carpenters- Roman domination meant high taxes which went off to Rome or to pay for the palaces of Rome’s puppet rulers: Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee; his brother Philip, ruler of Ituraea and Trachonitis; and Lysanias ruler of Abilene. Each of these held power solely with the permission of Rome- in fact, Pilate ruled Judea directly, because the king who’d been installed there was such a bad ruler, Rome had got rid of him.
And then Luke tells us about the religious situation: it was ‘the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas’. The high priesthood of the Temple of Jerusalem was supposed to be a post held for life. But by this time it had become the subject of political intrigue. Technically, Annas was out of power, but he was succeeded by four of his sons, and Caiaphas was his son-in-law. The religious leadership of the Jews had been reduced to a family firm.
So we have here a nation with no very effective leadership. The civil power is answerable to a superpower. The religious establishment is corrupt and has lost its moral leadership. At a local level, there were various religious parties, like the Pharisees and the Saduccees. Like today’s factions in the Church, I don’t suppose people found the religious parties, with their strange theological arguments, much of an inspiration either.
The time had come for something completely new. A voice from the wilderness, called for an about turn. John preaches ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. To repent means to turn around- and not just your soul, but your life. Many will try a religion or- to use the contemporary buzzword, ‘spirituality’- because they hope it will help them in their lives. But they don’t plan in changing very much in their lives. For John, a ‘religious experience’ is not enough. If he baptises you, he expects you to change the way you live. ‘Bear fruits worthy of repentance’, he says: show by how your live your life that you truly have turned to God.
In John’s message there’s a note which is often missing from our gentle, new age spiritualities (and often from a lot of modern Christianity). In John, there’s a note of judgement. ‘Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ You can’t get clearer than that- unless you listen- and not only listen, but also act- then judgement come upon you. This is serious stuff.
So the crowds ask him: what does it mean to bear fruits worthy of repentance? What should we do? How should we live? John answers them with practical advice, which has its roots in the ethics of the Jewish scriptures (what we call the Old Testament). The Old Testament laws for living in community showed how as we love God, we also have to love our neighbours. ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise,’ says John. For is not God always concerned with the poor, and does not the Old Testament teach that helping the poor is the greatest of the virtues?
Today, the politicians tell us that in these difficult economic times, we all must make sacrifices- we are all in it together. Yet for some reason that means cutting taxes for the richest, and cutting help for the disabled. All in it together, when overpaid entertainers and footballers, and multinational business, refuse to pay their share of tax? John the Baptist would have much to say to us today.
Here’s another group of people with a specific question. Tax officials in ancient Palestine were notoriously corrupt, because the Romans paid them by results. The more tax they could squeeze out of their follow-countrymen, they more commission they got. So the tax collectors were not popular (sometimes in the Gospels, we hear of ‘tax collectors and other outcasts’). Yet Luke tells us that ‘even tax-collectors came to be baptized’. Even these quislings, even these parasites on society, even the tax collectors came. Were they perhaps attracted by John’s very radicalism? The response of the tax collectors reminds us that God’s grace is, indeed, open to everyone- which was also Jesus’ message. Even those who seem furthest from the Kingdom are invited to turn around and know God’s grace.
So the tax collectors ask, ”Teacher, what should we do?’ And John gives them a very specific answer, for their situation: ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you’. And here’s another hated group: the Roman troops of occupation, asking him ‘And we, what should we do?’ John said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’ For soldiers back the, like the tax collectors, were in position of power which it was all too easy to abuse others for their own gain. If the tax collector overcharged, if the soldiers beat you up, there was no-one you could complain to. To them, John says, ‘Do your work honestly. Take only what you are entitled to. Don’t take advantage of your position to harm others and enrich yourself’. John the Baptist’s approach is not much different to that of Jesus, who said that we should treat other people as we ourselves would want to be treated.
We seem to have been hearing a lot, recently about people who abused their power. Jimmy Saville used the power of his celebrity to satisfy himself, and to damage other people. So many of our banks and financial institutions failed their customers, because bonuses were more important than customers. People who have failed in powerful jobs too often walk away with huge payoffs. The press has abused its power, buying political favours and destroying people who just happened to be in the news. Too many of our leading politicians have used their position to profit themselves. Today, virtues like honesty, sharing, putting others first, caring for your clients and customers, seem to have been forgotten by the most powerful.
If you have a teenager in the house, and they think you are being stupid, they might call you a ‘muppet’. Earlier this year a former banker claimed that he and his colleagues called their customers ‘muppets’- not exactly a respectful term. It rings true, because we have a feeling that very often, customers are treated like muppets, that those who are supposed to serve us are running rings around us. We don’t understand our pensions, our bills, our mortgage payments, for it’s all been made complicated by people whose lust for profit outweighs any sense of responsibility for the people they are supposed to be serving. We wonder if there is any ethics in business or in the professions. Even some nurses, it seems, have to have it explained to them that they are supposed to care for their patients. John the Baptist’s answer is to treat people fairly; Jesus described it as doing to others as you would have them do unto you’: treat other people as you’d want to be treated yourself.
It seems obvious, doesn’t it? But morality has an annoying habit of getting in the way of ‘real’ life. I like my two coats- why should I give one away? I can use fancy accounting to disguise the fact I’m ripping off the taxpayer- why shouldn’t I? I’ve got armour and a sword, and the power of the Roman Empire behind me- why shouldn’t I beat up and steal from these Jewish peasants?
Recently, the ‘Occupy’ movement saw mostly young people setting up tented encampments in New York and other financial centres around the world. Perhaps their message got a bit confused, but at heart, I think they were seeking fairness, and an end to the abuse of financial power. Yet they seemed to threatening to some, for they were faced with court actions, and police, and ridicule, until eventually they went away. Those who come out of the wilderness and preach repentance, the need for virtue, and call for an about turn are very often treated as a threat.
In the Lectionary, the table of readings for each Sunday, today’s Gospel passage stops at verse 18 with the words, ‘So, with many other exhortations, [John] proclaimed the good news to the people’. Which is a nice place to stop. But today, we read on a few verses more. For after the good news there are political consequences:
So, with many other exhortations, [John] proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
Herod Antipas was a much- married man, but the marriage to Herodias was particularly insulting to good religious Jews. Herodias was the wife of one of his half-brothers. Not only that, but she was also the daughter of another of his half-brothers. So when Herod seduced Herodias, he ended up married to a woman who was both his niece and sister-in-law.
But it was not just Herod’s personal morality John objected to. He also rebuked Herod for being bad ruler: ‘because of all the evil things that Herod had done’. The Jewish historian Josephus later claimed that Herod ‘feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it in his power and inclination to raise a rebellion; for [the people] seemed ready to do anything [John] should advise’ (William Barclay, Daily Study Bible Luke, p35). And so Herod Antipas added to his evils by arresting John.
Those who speak the truth to power will often get into trouble. In a democracy, the powerful might find ways to make them unpopular, or hold them up to ridicule. In a more dangerous society, they can end up in jail or dead. That happens to many protesters around the world today; and it happened to John, who was beheaded; and it happened to Jesus, who was crucified. But the life, death and resurrection of Christ are our guarantee that justice will prevail in the end.
In his letter to the Christians of Philippi, Paul asks that they live in the sort of way John the Baptist preached, what Jesus called it doing to others as you would have it done to you. Paul says:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
Which is more than our weasely modern ethics which of ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect’. Christian ethics is about love: putting others first, regardless of the personal or political consequences. And then Paul points to Jesus as the model for Christian life. Paul says that originally, Jesus was equal to God. But he chose to come down among us:
[he] emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death-
even death on a cross.
… the fate of those who preached and threaten the powerful. But the story does not end there:
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth.
The one who preached righteousness, doing to others as you would have done to yourself, loving your neighbour… his is now the name above all names.
Christians have to believe that, in a cosmic scale, justice and love will always triumph. We believe that because we believe that Jesus rose from the grave. He triumphed over death and deceit. Therefore we stand on the side of the Kingdom which will come someday. Yes, there is a cost to standing up for righteousness. But if we don’t do so, we bring judgement upon ourselves; we could lose our souls. Ask yourself: when one day you stand before God, would you rather be Herod Antipas, or John the Baptist?
Ascription of Praise
To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.
1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)
Biblical references from the New Revised Standard Version
© 2012 Peter W Nimmo