There is often criticism of Social Media these days, and while I do agree there are aspects of it that aren’t helpful for our society; there are also benefits that it does provide. One of those benefits is communication; making you aware of something that you might not otherwise get to hear about.
A case in point involves my favourite musical artist at present, which is an American rock band called The War on Drugs. They’re not that well known here in Australia, and they don’t receive much media coverage, so I stay abreast of any news about them by following them on Facebook. And it was via a feed on Facebook at the end of last year, that I found out they were going to be playing a concert in Melbourne earlier this year. As a result I was able to buy some tickets and convince one of my son’s to go with me to see them perform. And it was a fantastic show!
Back in first-century Palestine though, in the time of Jesus, they obviously didn’t have social media, so they relied on messengers to physically bring news of what was happening in the world around them, to their own cities or villages. One such messenger was John the Baptist, who was bringing news that the long awaited Messiah was coming, and that people had better prepare for his coming by repenting of their sins. Now John the Baptist is a key figure in each of the four gospels, because he delivers the message that the Messiah is coming, and that the Messiah is Jesus.
But before we discuss John, let’s return for a moment to the topic of social media. You’re probably all aware that Donald Trump, the President of the USA, is a huge user of Twitter, and often uses it to communicate some fairly outlandish, and quite often inflammatory, comments, in relation to a whole range of political and social issues. As well as using social media, one other thing that Trump has done throughout his presidency, is to secure the support of leading celebrities to endorse his views and his presidency.
He’s not the only the one to do that by the way, Hilary Clinton certainly did the same during the election campaign, and at the recent midterm elections in the US, you had the likes of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Madonna and Beyoncé, all speaking out against the presidency of Donald Trump. But then you had people like Kanye West, the American rap singer, who is married to Kim Kardashian, supporting Trump. He made headlines back in October when, while having lunch at the White House with Trump, he went on a wild 10 minute rant in front of the media, about a whole range of issues, none of which really made much sense. It’s probably the first, and only time, since he became president, that Trump didn’t seem like the craziest person in the room!
Clearly politicians in the US have a strategy of associating their own political message with big-name celebrities, which is designed to give their message relevance and credibility among the public they are trying to influence. The writers of the Gospels, Luke in particular, have done the same thing with the figure of John the Baptist, to give relevance and credibility to their message, that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, the one who was spoken about by the former prophets of Israel.
These prophets, such as Malachi, who our first reading is from today, foretold that the Messiah would be descended from King David, and that he would come to return the people of Israel from exile, and restore Israel to its former glory, as in the time when King David ruled. They also prophesied of a messenger who would come before the Messiah to announce his coming. A number of people believed that this messenger would in fact be the prophet Elijah. That is certainly who Malachi has in mind when he attributes the following quote to God, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me”. Because in 4:5 Malachi writes, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes”. (Mal. 4:5 NRSV)
And there is no doubt the writers of the Synoptic Gospels also had Elijah in mind when they wrote about John the Baptist. The gospels of Mark and Matthew, both tell us that, “John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” (Mark 1:6 NRSV) This matches the description of Elijah in the Second Book of Kings when he is said to be, “A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” (2 Kings 1:8 NRSV) The gospel writers use John the Baptist to represent the figure of Elijah, who is the one to come before the Messiah. They are telling us that if John represents Elijah, then Jesus must be the Messiah.
And when Malachi wrote, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me”, he was almost certainly also thinking of the words of the prophet Isaiah who wrote, ‘A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”’ (Is. 40:3–5 NRSV)
The writer of Luke’s Gospel is also obviously thinking of the prophet Isaiah, because he quotes these same verses from Isaiah, almost word for word in today’s gospel passage. The reason he does this, is to provide further confirmation that John the Baptist truly is the prophetic figure who is to appear before the coming of the Messiah. Therefore the message he brings should be believed. And of course that message, is that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who is coming to enact God’s plan of salvation.
That plan involves God taking human form and revealing himself and his nature to humankind in the person of Jesus Christ. It also involves Jesus dying on the cross and being raised to new life, and it involves his coming again at the end of time, as we know it, to usher in the ‘new age’ where creation will be as God originally intended it.
This is essentially the message of the Christian Faith. A message which may seem strange to many in our world today. A message that the Apostle Paul himself describes in his First Letter to the Corinthians as, “Foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God”. (1 Cor. 1:18, 22–24)
Paul acknowledged that the Christian message made little or no sense to Greeks or Jews based on their own beliefs, but as he said, “What look’s like God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom; and what looks like God’s weakness is stronger than human strength”.