A Hope Fulfilled, Then and Now audio (6MB)
It's now just over 15 years since Mulder and Scully first appeared in the series 'The X-Files', asking "Could there be something out there?" Mulder believed that the 'Truth is out there' but Scully wasn't quite sure. Of course, although the questions they were raising echoed those of lots of people, they weren't new questions. People have always wondered about life beyond this material existence. There's too much in our experience that we can't explain without having some sort of supernatural or spiritual explanation. That's why 'The X-Files' seemed to strike a chord with so many people.
The people of John the Baptist's day were asking similar questions, wondering whether God was still with them, or whether he'd ever speak to them again. Today we're going to think about the similarities between Then and Now.
First the Longing, Then and Now then
A Message of Hope, Then and Now and finally
Its Promise, Then and Now
The Longing, Then and Now
For the people of Israel, there was always an expectation that God would speak to them. The Living God, the creator of the universe had revealed himself to them long ago. He'd called Abraham to form a nation that was meant to demonstrate to the surrounding peoples how great God was, how good he was, how much he blesses those who are faithful to him. But even they must have had lots of questions by the time John came on the scene. It'd been 400 years since God had sent a prophet to speak to them. In those 400 years their fortunes as a nation had looked a bit like the last year on the stock market. The Temple had been desecrated by the Greeks, the Maccabees had organised a rebellion and won back the city of Jerusalem, but then the Romans had come along and defeated them once again. And now they were a subject nation, waiting to see if God was still interested in them.
The man who created 'The X-Files', Chris Carter, was asked about the quasi-religious aspects of the show. He said: "I think of myself as a non-religious person looking for religious experience." His longing was for something beyond his immediate experience. I guess he wanted to know that we're not alone in the universe, that there's something beyond us that we can call upon for help if we need it. I guess you know this is a common theme in popular culture. We long for a Superman, a Batman, a Greatest American Hero, if you remember him, to come and save us from ourselves. Except of course that those are all just fictional characters.
But the Jews were people of the Book. They knew and trusted their Scriptures. So when they read God's promise to send a saviour, a Messiah, to save them from their enemies they believed it. As we saw a couple of weeks ago, there were those like Anna and Simeon who were faithfully waiting for the salvation that God had promised.
So you can imagine the excitement when this strange man John appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It didn't take long for the word to get around. You didn't need CNN or the channel 9 helicopter to bring live footage of John preaching by the Jordan. Word of mouth was sufficient. Here was the one they'd been waiting for.
In fact Malachi's final prophecy had promised just such a messenger: "Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. 6He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse." (Mal 4:5-6 NRSV) Notice how Mark describes John here: "6Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey." This is exactly how Elijah is described in 2 Kings 1. Here John appears in the guise of a second Elijah, a messenger bringing God's call to repent, to turn back to God so the curse might be removed from the land.
A Message of Hope, Then and Now
This was a message of hope not just for then, but for now as well; in fact it was a message for all time. Mark begins his account of Jesus' life with these words: "The beginning of the good news [or gospel] of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." This gospel is the eternal gospel, proclaimed from Genesis to Revelation. In fact in Revelation 14 we see an angel flying in mid-heaven, proclaiming the eternal gospel: "7Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come; and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water."
John's message is the same. He's "3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'" He's the one promised in Isaiah 40 who would prepare the way for God's salvation, for the Messiah who'd come to bring his people back from exile so they could worship him once more.
This is a message of hope because it promises that the obstacles to knowing God will be removed.
The picture of Isaiah 40 is of a winding road, strewn with boulders, or pitted with potholes, passing over mountains and through deep valleys. It's a path that most people find impossible to navigate. Most people have no idea how to come to God, let alone how to live up to his standards. Yes, there's a longing for spiritual connections, even among those non-religious people like Chris Carter, but they have no idea how to get there. All they have is a vague idea that there must be something out there.
But then along comes John to begin the process of clearing the way; of straightening out the road; of filling in the valleys and cutting a path through the mountains.
He comes, first, proclaiming a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The first step in approaching the unapproachable God, the first step in removing the obstacles to knowing God, is to admit our failures, to confess our sins, our rebellion against God's rule and to ask his forgiveness. This is the first pit that needs to be filled in: the yawning gap between us and God caused by our disobedient hearts. And this is the great hope of the gospel isn't it? John offers a baptism, a washing away of that sin, dependent only on our willingness to confess, to repent, to turn back to God.
But then his message develops. Not only is this a message of hope, it also contains a promise of renewal.
Its Promise, Then and Now
In John's gospel, when Jesus comes to be baptised, John sees him coming and says: "Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." John has been offering a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins but without the means to actually remove people's sins, to cleanse them from their unrighteousness. Now his message expands to include the means by which our sins can be removed. Jesus has come to remove them. He's to be the sacrificial lamb on whose head the sins of the people are laid so they can be considered clean.
You see, the only way that Chris Carter will be able to connect with God will be if he can have his sinfulness removed so he can connect with God without fear, without God's righteous judgement falling on him. The only way you or I can connect with God will be if Jesus first removes our sin from us. So this is a message, a promise, that's as relevant, as important, for people today as it was for those waiting Jews of the first century.
But wait, there's more.
Not only is Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away our sin, look at what John says about him here in v8: "I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." Here is the second great promise of the gospel. Not only will Jesus remove our sin from us; not only will he take on himself the punishment we deserve; he'll also give us his Holy Spirit to renew us.
John's baptism signified the washing away of sin. Jesus' baptism does far more than that. Jesus baptises with the Holy Spirit. He pours out his Holy Spirit upon us in a life changing filling that begins the process of transforming us into God's image once again. He gives us his Holy Spirit to make the spiritual connection between us and God that so many people long for.
This is a message that people today are dying to hear. The spiritual hunger that shows like the X-Files touch, that the Body, Mind and Spirit festivals tap into, that keeps people reading their horoscopes, or seeking out psychics, is available as a free gift to anyone who asks.
When we turn back to God in repentance he not only forgives our sins but he puts his own Spirit within us to start the process of making us new people, a new creation. This is something that everyone we know is in desperate need of. But here's the sting in the tail, the challenge for us who've already received that gift of the holy Spirit. The only way those people will get to receive this gift of God's Spirit within them is if someone like us speaks the gospel to them, tells them about Jesus Christ.
So our task as a Church is to continue the work of John the Baptist, to proclaim the coming of the Messiah, the Christ, the one who's brought salvation to all people and the gift of God's Holy Spirit to renew us and transform us.
Let's pray that we, both personally and as a Church, might be instrumental in bringing that spiritual connection to people in our area who are longing for something beyond themselves.