Read the instructions…

Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca (1416-1492)

This Sunday (January 10th) we kept the feast of the Baptism of Christ. Here’s what I said.

Mark 4.1-11

As anyone in the business of selling things to the public knows, if you don’t put adequate instructions and warnings on your products then sooner or later someone will take you to court. Take food for example – manufacturers ensure that not only are all the necessary ingredients or cooking instructions are on the packet, they often go further by putting on their packaging what might seem to some of us to be the glaringly obvious. 

Here are some of the most obvious instructions that I’ve collected over the years from food packaging and that I’ve found on the internet – so just in case I use the word ‘allegedly’:

  • A packet of Sainsbury’s peanuts that carried the warning: contains nuts.
  • A Marks and Spencer bread and butter pudding that carried the warning: Product will be hot after heating.
  • A Tesco tiramisu that had printed on the bottom of the packaging: Do not turn upside down.

It’s not just food, of course. What we might think of as obvious and unnecessary warnings appear on all kinds of products:

  • On a Swedish chainsaw: do not try to stop chain with hands. 
  • Or a Rowenta iron: do not iron on body.
  • On the washing label of a shirt: wash this when dirty.

Manufacturers know that on the whole people think they know what the instructions will say, and either don’t actually read the instructions or gloss over them. But they really don’t want people suing them – so they often go out of their way to ensure that no-one has the excuse they weren’t warned. So they make sure the instructions are all there and tell people what might seem obvious but what they need to be reminded of anyway.

My current favourite instruction I came across yesterday while browsing the internet: on a clothing label after all the usual washing and ironing instructions: can be washed by both men and women.

Sometimes obvious warnings are for our own good because we otherwise ignore them.

At least people won’t be able to sue God. They have no excuse. For hundreds or years God had been trying to get across to his people the importance of repentance. He knew they needed instructions, warnings even. He knew they needed to understand what he was about, and they needed to know how to live. 

They needed to be told of the importance of acknowledging their sinfulness, of making a conscious decision to amend their ways, and of trying to live according to his laws. And they still didn’t get the message. And he even promised to send someone special who would make everything clear and they still didn’t get it.

They had been waiting for, wanting, their Messiah – the Messiah that God had long promised. They had been wanting a Messiah for many centuries, particularly since their land began to be attacked and overrun by the armies of more powerful nations. They told the stories of the glory days of the great King David, and longed for a new David, even more gifted and powerful, to rule them wisely, to fight off their enemies, and to bring in God’s own reign of justice, righteousness and peace. Their king would once again rule from Jerusalem, their wicked oppressors would be punished, and they would live in prosperity.

And they had been warned. God made sure that they knew what the Messiah would be like. His prophets had consistently told the people how to live, and had foretold what the Messiah would actually be like. And that when he came to bring in God’s kingdom, that God’s judgement would not be partial, that the day of reckoning would be an unpleasant experience as much for God’s own people as for their enemies. The coming of God’s reign would involve a judgement on injustice wherever it could be found. But through long centuries of foreign oppression the people had kept their hopes alive by looking always for the coming of God’s anointed king who would sort out their enemies and make everything all right for God’s own people. 

And along comes John the Baptist, who seemed a likely candidate for Messiah. He preached repentance, and talked about judgement. He spoke of God’s coming to his people. Amid all the fervour and unrest of Judaea under Roman occupation, the rumours began to spread. Perhaps he was the one they had wanted to come for so long. 

John’s message, though, was uncompromising and even more severe than the prophets before him. And he was quite clear that he was the forerunner rather than the Messiah. He talks about someone else, someone who is coming, someone more powerful, who will baptise with the Holy Spirit. Is this person, then, the longed-for king, who will rescue his people and punish their enemies? They were so desperate for the Messiah to come and sort things out! Ah, but be careful what you wish for.

Well, as we hear in our gospel after John has told the people that the Messiah is coming, Jesus appears and is baptised by John – and then the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus with a voice declaring: You are my Son, the Beloved …

And then throughout the rest of his gospel Mark shows us what kind of Messiah this Jesus is. The problem was that as the people heard, and started to get to grips, with the instructions that Jesus was giving them about God and about life and about how to live it by following him, many decided that this wasn’t what they wanted. 

And many decided that this wasn’t the kind of Messiah that they wanted, even though Jesus was the kind of Messiah that the prophets had been promising for centuries. Neither is it the kind of Messiah that so many people today think that Jesus is or should be – people who think of “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” – a Jesus who is nice to everyone. This Messiah, promised by John the Baptist, is a Messiah who will rouse people from their complacency and judge those who have been found wanting – whoever they may be, however religious they may be, however important – or un-important – they may be.

And like the prophets before him, John reminded people that the coming of the kingdom of God is not an easy experience. The Messiah, he told the people. when he comes will challenge injustice wherever he finds it. He will judge everyone, God’s people included. 

The people had wanted a Messiah – but the Messiah they got wasn’t what they expected. And it’s one of the reasons why in the end the religious leaders wanted Jesus out of the way. He wasn’t on their side judging the Romans, he judged them along with everyone else. 

The people knew what they thought they wanted, but it certainly wasn’t what most of them actually got. It most definitely was what they – and we – needed. And what God had always promised – and warned – the Messiah would be, is exactly what Jesus turned out to be. Problem was people had been taking enough notice of the instructions that God had been giving them, so they weren’t ready when the Messiah didn’t turn out to be quite what they expected.

One problem is – and it’s just as true today as it was then – is that it is always easy for religious people to assume that God is on their side. That he will somehow look after us and give us what we want if we live a ‘good’ life. That’s not how it is – rather, we must be on God’s side. Today we hear how the forerunner promises and then makes way for the Messiah, the one sent from God to usher in God’s reign. 

And this story of Jesus should warn us that the reign of God is both much simpler and much more complicated than we think. Simpler, in that it straightforwardly demands justice. More complicated, in that we can never be sure on whom its judgement will fall. For the Messiah didn’t come then –  and doesn’t come now – to be nice to people, but to bring righteousness and peace and justice – and judgement for all who fail to live according to God’s will, and that means each of us as well. Is this what we truly wish for? 

He comes to save us, to rescue us from ourselves, to restore us and heal us, and then sends us out to continue his work. Do we fully understand what it means to welcome Jesus, the promised Messiah, into our lives? Because as he comes into our lives he gives us not necessarily what we want but what we need. And if we can then follow the instructions that Jesus gives us, we can become the people that Jesus intends us to be and we can make this world the place that Jesus intends it to be.