A Sermon preached by The Revd Ken Masters at Pen Selwood on Advent 2, 4 December 2022
Readings: Romans 154-13; Matt 31-22
On reading through the Gospel passage, I wondered how John the Baptist got his idea of Baptism. It’s something of a mystery – and the solution can vary according to which commentary you consult. The older ones say it was an innovation – more recent ones suggest a source.
The land of Israel being hot, dry and dusty, customs of cleanliness developed strongly. This was specially applied to the Levitical priesthood. In the book of Leviticus [164; cf Ex 3018f] Aaron was told that ‘He shall bathe his body in water, and then put [the holy vestments] on.’ There was also the widespread custom, attested by various verses in the Old Testament, of providing water to wash the hands and feet of travellers – as was normal in Middle Eastern hospitality. But we don’t know exactly what the religious customs were in the first century ad.
It is thought that ‘Jews practiced baptism as a traditional act of purification and the initiation of converts to Judaism’. [gotquestions.org.] This probably began in the first century, but it’s not known when. A more promising source for John’s idea of baptism comes from the Essene Community at Qumran on the western side of the Dead Sea – which was there before, and then during the period 4 to 68 ad. This monastic community or sect regarded itself as the ‘true Israel’ for the last days. Admission to the community was by purification – and members then regularly had to purify themselves. The Dead Sea Scrolls references to this are translated as ‘ablutions’ or ‘washings’. Alongside the ‘washings’ there was an insistence on ‘moral purification, the person had to have a proper interior disposition’. [L F Badia, The Qumran Baptism, biblicalstudies.org.uk.]
John would at least have known about the Qumran community. Scholars used to state that there was no evidence John was influenced by the Qumran purification rituals. But some more recent scholars state the opposite. The Anchor Bible Commentary on St Matthew [p. 25] argues strongly:
There seems no question that John took over the practice of baptism, including the emphasis on repentance, from the Essenes, but gave it a far more profound meaning.
The difference between scholars’ views seems to hinge on more recent studies in-depth of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
John the Baptist was a link to the Jewish Scriptures. He was an old-style prophet, resembling Elijah. Like the prophets of old, he told the people to ‘Repent!’ –as Jesus did after him. ‘Repent’ means ‘return’, ‘turn again’ – to behave righteously – to treat each other fairly and justly – to obey the Rule of God. And then as a ‘sign’ – as a dramatic symbol – to go down with John into the River Jordan. That was quite a small river, between the hot mountains of present-day Jordan – and the hot wilderness that goes up to Jericho and Jerusalem. In the River Jordan, John would submerge them under the water – and then bring them up as the new person they were going to be. It was an end to the old life and a fresh start to the new. They had turned from their old ways and towards God’s way.
John was more than just a link to the Jewish Scriptures. Like the great prophets he insisted on morally good conduct. And in the words of Isaiah [Mt 33], John was ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”’ And that was part of John’s purpose in baptising. However, as John said, according to St Matthew :
I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
John the Baptist’s great gift was that unflinchingly and courageously he pointed to some of the immorality of his time. He told the people to turn away from that and to live according to God’s moral laws. Mercy, justice and love are what God requires. And today’s world could learn from John. To live together in peace and fairness, in honesty and faithfulness, to look after the earth which God has given us, and to care for the poor and those in need. This prepares the way for God’s kingdom. This is the way to prepare for celebrating the birth of our Saviour.
May God help us all to Repent and to turn again to Christ Jesus as our Lord. Amen.