Vicar’s sermon 17.12.23 John 1.19-27

The other week my two girls took Kim off to see the musical Hamilton in Manchester: a delayed birthday present. Kathy drove. There were road works, detours, a confused sat nav and expensive city centre parking but eventually the three excited theatre goers got to the theatre having skipped the hoped for meal before the performance and settling for a McDonalds – there was no way they would be late!
Skip back a century or two and I suspect that the idea of being ‘on time’ for a performance meant something completely different. In fact, once you’d dressed up in your top hat and tails for the opera, wined and dined on the town and got into your carriage, being ‘fashionably late’ was possibly par for the course. So long as you slid into your seat as the orchestra struck up the overture you’d be OK. The overture provided the ‘last call’ for theatre goers to cause chaos arriving at the end of a row when their seat was in the middle: you’ve ignored the five minute bell, you have stood cooly finishing off your pre-performance drinks but once the music starts you know the lights are going down, it truly is time to be in your seat for curtain up.
But there’s a problem. Those pesky composers like to strut their stuff in the overture, free of the shackles placed on them by librettists and so, in the history of opera and musical theatre the overture grew from being a general call to ‘take your seat’ to an art form in itself: the whole opera in miniature, song themes interwoven into a mini masterpiece, a musical hors d’oeuvre or amuse bouche.
Which brings us to the questions that the priests and Levites asked of John the Baptist in our gospel reading this morning. These boil down to one basic question: in musical terms are you the overture or has the show begun? In master chef terms: are you the starter or the main course? And the people of God struggled to come up with an answer for some time; for who on earth was John the Baptist?
John, in our reading is pretty modest. He knows who he isn’t: I am not the messiah. I am not Elijah. It probably helps to realise that there was a belief that said that Elijah would come to herald God’s coming to His people. The origin of this tradition lies in the story of Elijah being swept up to heaven in the Book of Kings in ‘chariots of fire’. The fact that the scripture does not record him actually dying led to the belief that he still lived in God’s presence and would take the role of a herald of His kingdom. And so, with John dressed in the outfit of an ancient prophet and certainly sounding like one, it made sense to ask ‘Are you Elijah?’ He gives a firm ‘No’ only to be asked another question. ‘Are you the prophet?’
The way this reads could be as a follow up to the question about Elijah except there was yet another tradition that a prophet like Moses would return to God’s people as His kingdom came near, to teach His people.
‘Are you this prophet?’ ask the messengers. Again, John says ‘No’, but he adds some more. ‘I am not Elijah, I am not the prophet, but I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’
Which all becomes even more confusing once Jesus is on the scene because he gets asked the same questions. ‘Who do people say that I am?’ he asks the disciples, and yet again we get the same roll call of potential heralds of God’s coming. Some say Elijah, some say one of the prophets, some even say you might be John the Baptist raised from the dead. But in the gospels Jesus identifies John as being the Elijah figure (‘Elijah has already come’, he says in Matthew chapter 17, ‘but you did not recognise him’) although John himself did not see himself in this role.
The debate in the Christian community as to the identity of John took a long time to sort out. By the time Luke’s gospel was written we have the story of John’s birth and his father Zechariah singing the canticle we know as the Benedictus. This clearly tells us that John ‘will be called the prophet of the Most High’ he ‘will go before the Lord to prepare his ways’, ‘giving knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins’.
In Matthew’s gospel John is unsure as to Jesus’ identity: ‘Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?’ he asks. Even in the Book of Acts, recording events years after the resurrection, the disciples come across people who know of John’s teaching but have not heard of Jesus or the gift of the Spirit.
Perhaps then we are allowed to be a little confused following the gospel this morning: John chapter 1 has already made clear ‘there was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light but He himself was not the light’ (just so you know!) But eventually all gets sorted out – in restaurant terms, the starter, main course and pudding are lined up in the right order – and we are clear as to which is which.
What is it that marks the difference between John and Jesus, that enables us to know that with Jesus’ coming the show has truly started? The answer I think is ‘the gift of the Spirit’. ‘I baptise with water’ says John ‘but He will baptise with the Holy Spirit.’ John’s ministry enabled the people to be ready for the Christ’s coming but it only took them so far: repentance (yes) and a public baptism for the forgiveness of sins in the River Jordan: these things are both positive steps. But Jesus is described as being anointed by God’s Spirit, He is ‘full of the Spirit’….and He gifts this Spirit to His disciples. Christian people aren’t just preparing to meet with God (as John’s disciples were), no, we have welcomed God’s Spirit into our lives – God has already come to us through the ministry of Jesus.
So with John the overture is coming to an end. The long wait for the show to begin is over, we are all in our seats and Jesus steps onto the stage. The invitation of the gospel is to move on from John’s ministry, important as it was, and to engage with Jesus and with the Living God. The temptation is to get stuck with John, with signs and symbols, repentance and forgiveness and avoid God’s Spirit. But, to use the restaurant analogy again, it is not enough to make do with ‘just a starter ‘– because it is the main course (Jesus) who is the most important. We all have to come to terms with Him because it is only He who can bring us into relationship with God Himself.
John knew who he wasn’t. He knew that his role was to point to God’s coming and he recognised God’s presence in Jesus of Nazareth. The curtain is up, we’re in our places and the show has begun The Advent message is that all eyes should be on Jesus: what He does, what He says and what He wants of us. Prepare to be amazed at what he can do.

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