Here’s my reflection for Sunday 13 June.
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Sunday 13 June 2021 – A Reflection
Call to worship – Isaiah 40:3-5
A voice cries out,
“Prepare in the wilderness a road for the Lord!
Clear the way in the desert for our God!
Fill every valley;
level every mountain.
The hills will become a plain,
and the rough country will be made smooth.
Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it.
The Lord himself has promised this.”
be to us as a bulldozer of the spirit.
Clear your road in us;
clear a path through the detritus of possessions and obsessions.
Thrust aside our divided aims and devious games.
Topple the ramparts of pride and the doubts that deride.
Make a highway on which Christ may come
and take possession of the whole territory of our being.
To the glory of your name we pray.
The Lord’s Prayer
Those of you who are paying attention or who have read the church magazine will know that we have decided for the summer to go back to the Gospels for our inspiration – in particular the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. The intention is to look at the different ways that the gospel writers deal with their subjects and have a look at the significance of any of the differences.
It’s worth thinking a bit about what type of books the Gospels are. Because they aren’t really biographies of Jesus. The Gospels were written at different times by people with different agendas – with different stories to tell. I think it’s fair to say that the Gospel writers were all convinced of the overwhelming importance for the world of the life of this first century man Jesus. And their main aim wasn’t just to record a series of facts about that life like you would in a biography, but to convince the people that read their accounts of the importance of Jesus.
Now it’s commonly thought that Mark’s gospel was the first to be written, and that Matthew and Luke used Mark’s Gospel as a source for their writings. It’s also thought that Matthew and Luke used a second source document called Q. I don’t want to make too much of this but I thought it might help if we took a short look at the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel, which is about John the Baptist and then at the same story in Matthew and Luke.
We’ll hear it read shortly – but first here’s our first song – ‘Prepare Ye The Way of the Lord’ from the musical Godspell, which is sung by the John the Baptist character.
The only lyric is… Prepare ye the way of the Lord!
If any of you want to get more in the mood of the period by putting on your Afghan coats out of the loft and spraying yourselves with patchouli oil then now’s your chance.
Just out of interest this clip was filmed in New York’s Central Park in the Bethesda fountain. Does anyone recall Bethesda from the Bible?
It was the site of Jesus healing a paralysed man in John chapter 5.
Let’s have our reading now:
Reading – Mark 1:1-11
The Preaching of John the Baptist
1 This is the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.[a] 2 It began as the prophet Isaiah had written:
“God said, ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you
to open the way for you.’
3 Someone is shouting in the desert,
‘Get the road ready for the Lord;
make a straight path for him to travel!’”
4 So John appeared in the desert, baptizing and preaching.[b] “Turn away from your sins and be baptized,” he told the people, “and God will forgive your sins.” 5 Many people from the province of Judea and the city of Jerusalem went out to hear John. They confessed their sins, and he baptized them in the Jordan River.
6 John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 7 He announced to the people, “The man who will come after me is much greater than I am. I am not good enough even to bend down and untie his sandals. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
The Baptism and Temptation of Jesus
9 Not long afterward Jesus came from Nazareth in the province of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 As soon as Jesus came up out of the water, he saw heaven opening and the Spirit coming down on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my own dear Son. I am pleased with you.”
So let’s spend a short time looking at the differences between the versions in Mark Matthew and Luke.
Have a look at this table:
What do you notice first – without reading any of the words?
Anything else? Just looking at the top row of the table?
What did you notice without reading any of the words?
Mark’s version is very much shorter than the other two. I’ve fitted Mark’s version onto one page. Matthew takes up two pages, and Luke goes onto a third page.
What did you notice by just looking at the top row of the table?
In Mark it’s the very first story he tells. In Matthew and Luke it doesn’t appear until chapter 3. Why is that?
Well both Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ birth in the first part of their Gospels. In Luke’s version of the birth story he identifies that John the Baptist is Jesus’ cousin. Mark doesn’t write about Jesus’ birth at all.
Then we get onto the actual words used. I’ve highlighted Mark’s words using 5 colours. You can see almost exactly the same words in Matthew and Luke – but in a different order.
Luke doesn’t use the bit in green though, about Judea and Jerusalem. Why do you think that might be?
It could be that those geographical details wouldn’t mean much to Luke’s audience. Luke is thought to have been writing to the Gentiles – not primarily the Jews – so why bother them with details about a country they know nothing about?
Nor does Luke use the bit in yellow about what John wore and what he ate? It does seem a bit strange including those details anyway doesn’t it? What difference does it make to what John had to say to know that he a camel hair coat and a leather belt?
The answer might be found back in the Old Testament. The prophet Elijah was described as wearing similar clothing. And the Jews believed that Elijah would return before the promised Messiah. Are Mark and Matthew saying – well maybe John was Elijah returning? Again Luke probably didn’t think it relevant to his non-Jewish audience – they wouldn’t have know about Elijah anyway.
So it seems fairly clear that Matthew and Luke used Mark’s words – but there are two other passages where Matthew and Luke use the same words. I’ve shown them in red text – the sections starting with ‘You Brood of Vipers’ and ‘His winnowing fork.’ These 2 sections are thought to have been derived from the Q document I mentioned earlier.
But did you notice that Matthew reserves his insults about the Brood of Vipers for a particular set of people – the Pharisees and Sadducees; some of the existing Jewish groups. The Pharisees in particular always get dealt with particularly harshly in Matthews Gospel and he’s setting the scene very early on.
I think that’s probably enough of that for today. I do hope that you found it moderately interesting.
Let’s take a break now to watch a film clip. This is from the Coen Brothers’ ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’ and it’s about mass baptism. It’s also got George Clooney in it which might increase its appeal to some of you. For some reason I don’t understand.
I’m going to talk for a little longer. Because interesting as comparing the texts is – more interesting is, as always, what does it mean to us today? Because if it hasn’t any significance for us then there’s little point reading it or thinking about it is there?
Here are some brief thoughts.
The first one is that clearly baptism isn’t just a Christian ritual. John wasn’t a Christian he was a Jew. The people he was baptising weren’t being baptised into the Christian church, they were undergoing a Jewish spiritual cleansing ritual. It most likely wasn’t a one-off thing like Christian baptism is – more likely it was a regular purification ritual to allow you to take part in worship and sacrifice. I wonder if this was why Jesus came to John to be baptised. Could it be that at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry he undertook one last Jewish purification ritual to comply with the Jewish practice and custom he was born into and raised in? He certainly didn’t need his sins forgiving or to repent. As usual – I don’t know, but it’s a thought.
Secondly though let’s look at baptism in a Christian context. We aren’t Jews and we aren’t bound by their ritual cleanliness and purification laws. For Christians baptism is seen as a way of welcoming people into the church. There are two things that strike me as interesting in the way John was baptising that we might learn from:
- The first one is that John doesn’t seem to have had any particular qualifications to perform his baptisms. I think I’m on firm ground in speculating that he didn’t have a theology degree and that he hadn’t undertaken years of training for this task of ritually forgiving people’s sins by baptism. He just got on with it. Whatever he was saying clearly convinced many people that what he was offering was worthwhile.
- The second one is that John didn’t seem to be imposing any requirements on his clientele. He wasn’t making them subscribe to any doctrines or beliefs – they just came along, acknowledged they hadn’t lived perfect lives and allowed him to undertake this ritual cleansing ceremony.
These are things that do have meaning for us in our churches today. We can all do the job of welcoming people into our fellowship – like John we don’t need qualifications, we don’t need training we just need to be willing to prepare the way for Jesus to enter people’s lives. And we shouldn’t put obstacles in their way by asking people to sign up to a long list of beliefs before we let them in.
The final thing I want us to think about is the location. John is baptising people in the River Jordan. Is there any significance in that? Well the River Jordan isn’t the only river in Israel. It’s the only one I’ve ever heard of but there are quite a lot of others. Here’s a map showing some of them.
Why have we all heard of the River Jordan but very few of us have heard of the other rivers on this map?
Well the River Jordan plays a very important part in the story of the Exodus and the people of Israel coming to their promised land. Do you remember that right at the end of the book of Deuteronomy the story of Moses comes to an end when the Israelites are on the very brink of entering the promised land? Moses has led his people for many years, he’s all but completed the journey that started in Egypt, and then…he dies. Moses never makes it to the promised land, and it falls to Joshua to lead the people across the Jordan into the land God has promised them. Joshua is the successor to Moses. It’s Joshua who is fulfilling God’s promise to his people and he does this by crossing the Jordan. That river has huge symbolic meaning.
And now it’s that same river that is where we first meet Jesus – at least in Mark’s gospel. And of course it’s this Jesus who is now going to fulfil God’s even bigger promise to his people. I’m fairly sure that this setting isn’t a coincidence.
(Just out of interest the names Jesus and Joshua are both the same. In Hebrew Jesus is Yeshua – and that name is normally translated into English as Joshua.)
Let us all come to God recognising we aren’t perfect but knowing we are welcome anyway.
Let us all play our part in bringing other people to knowledge of God without putting obstacles in their way.
Let us all wade into our own River Jordan and cross over into the land you have promised us through Jesus.
Let’s have our closing hymn – Father God I Wonder.
Father God, I wonder how I managed to exist
Without the knowledge of Your parenthood and Your loving
But now I am Your son, I am adopted in Your family
And I can never be alone
‘Cause Father God, You’re there beside me
I will sing Your praises
I will sing Your praises
I will sing Your praises
I will sing Your praises
I will sing Your praises
I will sing Your praises
Our closing prayer was written as a blessing following a baptism – but I think it works well to close today’s worship:
May the blessing of the three-in-one God be yours.
May the Spirit bless you with hope
poured out like water and flowing as the river.
May Jesus bless you with discomfort
at injustice and oppression.
May the Creator who holds the Earth
as an artist holds brush and palette
fill your imagination
so that you always find the world inspiring and wonderful.
May God in whose being beauty shines on you
journey with you.
God says to you, “you are my beloved,
Be blessed this day and always.”
Finally we will close by saying the grace:
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ
and the love of God
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit
be with us all