THE SILENT YEARS
Readings: Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-end, John 1: 6-8,19-28
Last week we lit the Advent candle that represents the Old Testament prophets. This week we are focusing on the third candle on our advent wreath, which symbolises John the Baptist.
We heard a bit about John the Baptist last week, but I’d would like to spend a little more time today reflecting on this New Testament prophet.
I think it’s fair to say that when John the Baptist burst on the scene in first century Palestine he caused quite a stir. He was after all the first prophet that the Israelites had seen, or heard from, for centuries .
There are various views on who the first prophet of God was, with suggestions ranging from Adam to Enoch, but what we do know is that the last of the old Testament prophets was Malachi, who prophesied around 420 B.C and raised expectations saying ‘See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts,’ (Mal. 3:1)
Not surprisingly the recipients of the prophecy believed that the time had finally come for the Messiah to make his entrance, but then there was then a deafening silence for 400 years (what is known as the intertestamental period – or between the testaments).
These centuries were real wilderness times for the Jewish people, as the world fell apart around them – politically, religiously and economically.
Their Persian overlord Darius III was overthrown by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C. who died not long afterwards. His generals then split up his massive kingdom and the land of Israel was ruled by a series of brutal oppressors including Antiochus Epiphanies, who invaded Jerusalem, desecrated the Temple by sacrificing a pig on the altar, and declared that anyone who followed the Law of Moses or failed to assimilate into Greek culture would be put to death.
It was this that led to the Macabee revolt that temporarily returned Jerusalem to the Israelites, before the Romans moved in in 63 BC, ushering in a period of oppression, poverty for the heavily taxed inhabitants and religious oppression (while nominally the Jewish people were allowed to continue worshipping, the Romans interfered with the religious authorities, doing humiliating things like taking custody of the ritual robes of the office of the high priest giving them back only for annual rituals). Meanwhile the Jewish religious authorities themselves split into factions; including the Pharisees and the Sadducees, with whom Jesus has so little patience, and the Essenes who, fed up with it all, retreated to caves and deserts. It was a real mess.
The Bible doesn’t include writings from this period but what is clear from the gospels is that while chaos reigned, and there was radio silence from on high, the Jewish people clung on even more tightly to their hope in the God’s promise of an anointed one or Messiah who would bring good news to oppressed, bind up the broken hearted, proclaim liberty to the captives and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. A saviour who would provide for all who mourned in Zion, giving them a garland instead of ashes, the old of gladness instead of mourning; who would repair their ruined cities the devastation wrought over many generations.
The Hebrew word used for waiting in much of the Old Testament is qavah which means to wait in anticipation of what God will do, or what will be revealed in a situation. It is not a passive state but an active one, in which one is constantly alert to the potential for God to act at any given time. So during this period of silence, the Jewish people learnt to qavah, to wait in hope and anticipation.
The final word from God they were given before the years of silence began – the last words of the Old Testament – are ‘Behold I will send you Elijah, the prophet, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction,’ (Mal. 4:5-6)
So when after four centuries of silence John the Baptist appeared, the perfect image of an old Testament prophet; a wild man, dressed in camel hair, living in the wilderness, where his only food was locusts and honey; a fiery prophet proclaiming the apocalyptic message of God; a prophet who like others before him put his life on the line to confront the powers that be with the truth – it isn’t surprising that some of his contemporaries came to the conclusion that he was the resurrected Elijah.
Indeed Luke says that John came in ‘in the spirit and power of Elijah’. (Luke 17) And later in after the transfiguration, Jesus tells Peter, James and John that that Elijah had already come, and the religious leaders did not recognise him; ‘Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist,’ (Matt:17:13) John however, flatly denied that he was Elijah reincarnated.
We heard this in today’s New Testament passage, when the priests and Levites asked John the Baptist who he was. He first told them that he was not the messiah. So they asked him ‘Who then? Are you Elijah? Are you THE prophet? To which he replied, ‘I am not’. Obviously exasperated they then said to him, ‘So who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ To which he replied, in the words of Isaiah, ‘I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord,’ (John 1: 1-23)
John did fulfil the prophecy of Elijah’s return but spiritually not literally. He was the long-awaited messenger and herald and, while many confused about his identity, his arrival on the scene was enough of sign to stir up people to believe that God had not deserted them and that his promises were still valid. That after 400 years of silence, God had finally sent his messenger, which mean that the Messiah was knocking on the door. That God was about to do something spectacular.
John the Baptist was truly a transitional figure, forming the link between the Old and New Testaments. He spanned the ages with one foot firmly planted in the Old Testament and the other squarely placed in the New Testament, and he played a central role in God’s plan for salvation. As Jesus said, he was the greatest born among women because he had the privilege of pointing to the lamb (John 1:29-34) .
His message and ministry marked the culmination of the law and the prophets, and heralded the inbreaking of the Kingdom. While the Old Testament prophets had prepared the people for a Messiah who would come in the long distant future, John was prophesying about a messiah who was finally there waiting in the wings. And when Jesus did appear, he had the amazing exclusive privilege of being the prophet to announce his arrival; confirming that the long-awaited Messiah had come.
John fully accepted the subordinate role he played to his cousin Jesus. As we heard in today’s gospel reading, John the Baptist was sent from God to testify to and be a witness to the light that shines in the darkness for all mankind, the light that will not be overcome, so that all might believe through him. But he himself was not the light.
John’s gospel goes on to record how, while John was baptising in the river Jordan under the watchful gaze of the priests and Levites, he spotted Jesus coming towards him, and he pointed to him saying ‘Look, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,’ (John 1:29)
John’s role was to make straight the way for Jesus; to prepare the way for his ministry by removing the obstacles, which might prevent us from recognising him for who he is – the Messiah. Which is why John’s ministry was one of repentance and the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4).
The gospel of Matthew records that the Baptist, came preaching in the desert of Judea, saying’ Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at near,’ (Matt. 3:2) John was not only telling God’s people that the Messiah was coming, but also warning them that they must return to a right relationship with God, so they can be among those ushered into his kingdom.
So what does all this mean for us?
Well it has now been over 2,000 years since John, the last prophet, spoke and for many of the population today, God seems silent; in fact for many he has been forgotten. As we approach Christmas, it is noticeable how secular the celebrations have become for most. There is more focus on the figure of Santa Claus than on the Christ whose mass this is.
And even for Christians, it is all too easy for the glitter of Christmas to get in the way of its real meaning. The fulfilment of the promise of the Messiah, the birth of the saviour of all mankind. Once again, mankind is living in a time of turbulence with wars, and rumours or wars. Too many are oppressed, displaced, or struggling with the cost of living, and are without hope.
But unlike the Jewish people in the intertestamental period, we have seen the fulfilment of God’s prophecy. Through the gospels we have seen the coming of the Messiah, and have witnessed God’s great plan for our salvation play out in the death and resurrection of this son, Jesus. Through his sacrifice we have been forgiven our sins and restored to a right relationship with God, and we have His great promise that he will come again, ushering in a new heaven and a new earth.
This period now in the run up to Christmas is called the Advent, from the Latin word adventus or ‘coming’. It’s a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the nativity of Christ. A time of remembrance of how God finally fulfilled his prophecy and sent his messiah, who proclaimed the gospel or the good news of God’s salvation for mankind.
But it is also a time of waiting, for the return of Jesus; the second coming. And in this respect, for the last 2,000 years , we have been living through, and continue to live, in a time of Advent, and we too must learn to qavah, to wait like the Israelites in anticipation and expectation. But whereas the Jewish people were given the promise of a Messiah through the prophets, we are in the blessed position of having seen that promise fulfilled in the most amazing way.
We know not only that Jesus was born, and became Emmanuel, God with us, but that through his self-sacrifice we have been granted salvation and that he will come again and takes to be where he is. And while the Israelites waited on the promise of a messiah made through the Old Testament prophets, we have received the promise of his return directly from that Messiah, God incarnate, no longer speaking through his servants on earth but directly to mankind.
At this time of year, it is easy to lose hope when we see the true meaning of Christmas pushed to margins, of a frenzy of commercialism. When we see references to the Holiday Season rather than Christ-mass it is easy to feel as if God has been silenced in society,
But we have his promise. So as we qavah, and wait in anticipation for his return, let our gifts on Christmas morning, be a reminder that God has already given us the gift above all gifts:
born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth,
born to give them second birth
And let the Christmas lights that twinkle in shopping centres, be a reminder of the true light, that enlightens everyone, and which will never be overcome.