13 December 2015
How we get to know Jesus
Canon David Stranack
So 12 days to go to Christmas! Still a few cards to send and some presents to buy perhaps?
And while we have our minds very much on those preparations we are being reminded during Advent of a very different sort of preparation
In our Gospel reading this week we hear a little more about John the Baptist’s mission to prepare the way for Jesus.
In a way he was so unlike Jesus for when he spoke he harangued and cautioned the people and sometimes was extremely blunt with them – he even called them, as we heard, a “brood of vipers…” and he said, ‘Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’
He told them it was no good relying on the fact that they were the Chosen Race descended from Abraham – that was no guarantee of escape from the wrath to come. And also that merely saying “I repent” wasn’t enough either. They had to prove their repentance by their change of lifestyle.
That’s usually the point where you’d expect people to begin to quietly slip away. People usually prefer to maintain their present familiar lifestyle because it can be so difficult and so unsettling to change.
However John the Baptist, this wild man from the desert, had them eating out of his hand and they began to ask him exactly how they should behave.
John was telling them that the change they needed was because they had to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. He said (verse 16) ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
And then after such an alarming description of the coming Messiah the writer adds: 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the Good News to the people.
One could perhaps be forgiven for wondering whether such a description was actually good news but rather a somewhat terrifying warning!
Later on in chapter 7 of Luke’s Gospel when John was in prison he sent his own disciples to ask Jesus, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’
22And he answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. 23And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’
So in many ways Jesus was not behaving in the way that John had expected. He was not full of wrath and he was not wielding anything like a winnowing fork at the threshing floor.
However he was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah in healing the sick and proclaiming the Good News to the poor and needy.
We also know that while John had said that he was not worthy even to ‘untie the thong of Christ’s sandals’ Jesus was actually prepared at the Last Supper to wash his disciples feet.
Yes, Jesus was a very different Messiah to what John and many others expected. The three wise men expected to find the infant king of the Jews in the palace at Jerusalem but instead he was born in a stable.
The Jewish leaders expected a Messiah would come as one of them and as a leader against the Roman rulers and make the nation strong again as in the days of King David but as Jesus told Pilate, ‘my kingdom is not of this world. And Jesus was often criticized for mixing with outcasts, with tax collectors and with sinners.
Jesus was very different from the kind of Messiah that was expected and indeed from him we now know that God is a very different God from what so many writers in the Old Testament expected.
Often in the Old Testament God was seen as a terrifying and powerful judge and sometimes showing little mercy.
In some of the historical books in the Old Testament God is described as having very human characteristics. In places he is described as being angry, jealous and vindictive. He favours one nation over another and is sometimes described as commanding his nation to wipe out the original inhabitants of some of the towns in Canaan.
However Biblical scholars and archaeologists are widely agreed that the settling of the children of Israel in the Promised Land was much more a process of infiltration over a number of years.
The problem is that some of those descriptions of God in those writings do not correspond to the God of love we see in the person of Jesus Christ.
However we need to be aware that the Old Testament was compiled from several oral and written traditions over many centuries. And during that time the understanding of the nature of God and mankind’s relationship to him was growing and developing. And that development of understanding reached its fulfilment in the person of Jesus Christ.
It is also important that we do not dismiss the Old Testament as being irrelevant for us as Christians for it contains a great wealth of positive understanding about God, of his love of mankind and his desire to help and guide all who turn to him in faith.
There are wonderful descriptions of God as a loving shepherd, as a mother tenderly caring for children, as a parent teaching his children to walk. The writer of Psalm 139 describes the experience of God as being knowledge ‘too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it’.
The negative material is only one side of a complex, rich, mysterious collection of images of God. These multiple images of God in the Old Testament are facets of the truth which is too great for us to grasp all at once. Each one shows another side to a being who is too far beyond us as humans to ever fully understand.
And this is one reason that we needed God to enter this world in the person of Jesus in order to put the record straight, in order to show the true character and the true nature of God as far as we are able to understand.
We now today are able to know God through Jesus Christ who said in John 3, ‘16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’.
God has come into the world as Jesus to be for us the suffering servant as described by the prophet Isaiah. He came to proclaim the real Good News of forgiveness and eternal salvation, and above all to prove that God is all-loving and merciful and that he is God for all peoples everywhere.
And it is at Christmas that, not just the children but we of all ages will be celebrating this new hope and new beginning.
We celebrate that through the coming of Jesus we can now know the true character and nature of our loving God.
It is important to understand that it is not God that has changed through the course of the Old and New Testaments but rather mankind’s understanding of God has changed.
St James in his letter describes God as the, ‘Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.’ God is constant and unchanging in his love and mercy. What has changed is our understanding of God and that new understanding of God is due to God being truthfully revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.
At the Last Supper, ‘8 Philip said to Jesus, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ 9Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.
How can you say, “Show us the Father”? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? (John 14)
And again Jesus said, ‘The Father and I are one.’ (John 10.30)
The letter to the Hebrews says, ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever. (13.8)
So God himself as revealed in Jesus is and always has been the same. As it says in that lovely hymn:
‘Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father,
there is no shadow of turning with thee;
thou changest not, thy compassions, they fail not;
as thou hast been thou for ever wilt be.’
Last week Helen was reminding us of the vital importance of our need for regular prayer, scripture reading and meditation. It is by these means that we can come to know and understand our faithful, constant and loving God.
We need to know Jesus in the Gospels, to be so steeped in his teaching, his attitude towards people, his concern and compassion for mankind so that our own lives, our attitude, our thinking as well as our words and actions become not merely influenced by him but moulded and shaped by him.
And the important thing for us to remember is that we are able to meet Jesus in the scriptures. We meet Jesus in our prayers and meditation. We meet Jesus in one another as we gather in worship together. Indeed we meet Jesus in the love we have for one another.
In our worship we sometimes introduce our Eucharistic prayer by saying ‘the Lord is here’ ‘his presence is with us’. And I believe we can see Jesus Christ in one another when we witness that Christ-like love in our midst.
So our constant prayer needs to be, ‘Lord God make me more like Jesus Christ every day and in every way’. And for that to happen we need to know Jesus from the scriptures and to pray to God in the spirit of Jesus and to meditate on his love, compassion and goodness.