Why is it that some people say “Guess what’s happened?” and when faced with a blank look continue with, “I’ll give you three guesses?” Do you find it mildly irritating when people do that to you? Often people will say “I’ll give you three guesses” when they are bursting to share a piece of good news, but sometimes it is used when someone wants to pass on a ‘juicy bit of gossip.’
When John the Baptist was approached by a delegation from the Sanhedrin demanding that he identify himself he didn’t say “I’ll give you three guesses”, but the delegation seem to behave as though he did.
In John 1: 19 we read that: “the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was.” The New International Version is circumspect and inconsistent in its translation of the original Greek. The words they translate as ‘Jewish Leaders’ is ‘Iουδαῖοι’ (Ioudaioi) which elsewhere in the same versions of the Bible is translated as ‘the Jews.’ This phrase is used 34 times in John’s Gospel often in a critical sense. In the following chapter, John 2:18 ‘Iουδαῖοι’ is translated by the NIV as ‘the Jews’ and in v 20 as simply ‘They.’ The use of ‘Iουδαῖοι’ becomes particularly stark when Jesus comes into situations of conflict: “At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” (John 6:41).
I have always been slightly disturbed by the seemingly Anti-semitic character of John’s Gospel, but from my reading in preparation for this message I have learned that when the author uses ‘Iουδαῖοι’ it refers to those who were in opposition to Him, mainly the religious leaders and ruling council, the Sanhedrin and not all those who practice Judaism.
The Sanhedrin consisted of a council of 71 elders, empowered to enact the civil, criminal and ritual law of the community. Amongst their duties was the trial of false prophets and so it was entirely reasonable that they should send a delegation to question John the Baptist.
John had stirred up quite a public fuss and they demanded to know what all the fuss was about.
John gives them a head-start by saying “I know what you’re thinking (my words). I’m not the Messiah.” (I have embellished the original text as we study the interaction between John and this delegation to add effect.)
The religious delegation are probably quite relieved to hear that he was not the messiah. John’s dress and appearance was probably not suitable for a candidate claiming such an office so they had another stab.
“Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” (v 21)
We read in 2 Kgs 2:11 that Elijah was taken bodily into heaven without apparently dying. There was great Jewish expectation that he would return to usher in the new age. We saw this last week in Malachi 4:5: “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” A special place setting and empty chair is often left at the table of a Jewish celebration of the seder at Passover reserved for Elijah.
“So.” They say. “Okay if you’re not the Messiah, how about Elijah?”
“Nope” replied John, dipping another penitent seeker into the river. (Again more artistic licence!)
The religious delegation scratch their heads and at last come up with their third and final guess.
“Are you the Prophet?” (v 21)
From Deut 18:15 there was a Jewish expectation for the coming of a ‘prophet’ like Moses: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him.”
“Wrong again” said John drying himself off on his camel hair cloak.
“We give up. Who are you?”
John looked into their eyes and said “I am a voice”
Quoting Isaiah 40:3 he said:
“I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” (John 1:23)
John’s response was masterful. Not only was he truthful for we believe him to have been the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy, but he could not be criticised. Had the Sanhedrin spent less time quibbling over the minutiae of the Law and more time preparing the Way of the Lord, they too would have been ‘A voice.’ Instead the ‘The voice’ was this scruffy looking amateur with a fire in his heart whose words appealed to all who would listen.
John’s ‘voice’ paralleled his ‘actions’ completely which is why he had a right to say what he was saying and why he was so popular. He was ‘the voice’ foretold by Isaiah, who was the forerunner of the One who was to come. Some twenty chapters later Isaiah in chapter 61, gives centre stage to the anointed One, the Messiah as He reveals His mission to the world:
“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
The ‘year of the Lord’s favour’ was the ‘Sabbatical year’ which according to Lev 25 was celebrated every 7 years. And after every 49 years the repetition of 7 consecutive Sabbatical year cycles, the High Priest was to sound the Shofar Ram’s horn trumpet on the Day of Atonement to announce the Jubilee year. The Sabbatical year and more so the Jubilee year, so called because of the joyful trumpet blast ‘Yobel’, was marked by the cancellation of debts, the return of hereditary property seized by wealthy landowners and the freedom of slaves. Isaiah 61 foretells that the messianic age would be more than that. It would include recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for captives and prisoners and the release of emotional burdens. In Luke 6:20, having read this very passage from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus addressed the congregation and said: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
In a recent survey conducted in America: “one-in-four adults have had trouble paying their bills since the coronavirus outbreak started, a third have dipped into savings or retirement accounts to make ends meet, and about one-in-six have borrowed money from friends or family or got food from a food bank.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if in our post-COVID world there was a Jubilee when all debts were cancelled?
Our Advent message is that the Anointed One is coming back and will proclaim that Jubilee. The Sandhedrin and its successors have found lots of reasons why such a Jubilee should no longer be kept, but Jesus is coming and so is His true Jubilee.
John was ‘the voice’, but we in the Church are also called to be ‘Voices.’ The fact that so many people were flocking out into the desert to hear John is an indication of the openness and spiritual hunger of the ordinary people. We speak into a different kind of ‘desert.’ Our increasingly secular culture has become arid through dis-belief and conflicting worldviews, but there are still many people genuinely seeking after the truth.
The effectiveness of our ‘voice’ is affected by how others match it with ‘our actions’ and our ‘voice’ is only as effective as our willingness to speak out.
The Church must not leave people guessing, but be the good news, live the good news and share the good news.
For Jesus’ first coming John did not keep the news to himself and for Jesus’ second coming neither must we.
Let’s not keep people second guessing because the Good News of Jesus is much too Good to keep to ourselves.