Introduction with the children before they go out:
Who like’s doing puzzles?
What sort of puzzles?
Jigsaw puzzles, 3D puzzles, I’m guessing we might have some Sudoku and crossword fans in the congregation.
Our readings this morning in this part of church give us a bit of a puzzle, a puzzle about who we are. Not our names, but what our purpose is, the sort of people we are called to be. God has put us in a place or a time of confusion, and we have to puzzle out what it is that we need to do in his name.
So I want you to give out some puzzle pieces in a moment when we’ve prayed for each other, and then at the end of the service, you’re going to collect them in again, and help me put the pieces together…
Puzzle pieces: (Holy) Spirit – Bind Up (Heal) – Renew – Good News – Freedom – Build Up – Justice Comfort – Beauty Praise/Joy – Baptise – Serve Jesus
The chances are, they knew who he was.
John, the son of Zechariah, the priest descended from Aaron, Moses’ brother and spokesperson (Luke 1:5); the priest who in his later years had been struck dumb because he didn’t believe the angel who visited him whilst on duty at the Temple (Luke 1:11-20).
John, the son of Elizabeth, who was well past child-bearing age, and that same elderly priest Zechariah whose lips, unsealed by John’s birth, then prophesied that he would be the prophet who would prepare the way for God’s mercy and love to be revealed to the world.
John, who could by line and lineage have been a priest himself and worn the fine linens of the Temple, offering the sacrifices of others, and who chose instead to wander around in the desert in rough clothing, eating locusts and honey, and saying that the Jewish people needed to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, by literally being converted back in to the Jewish faith in which they were rooted.
Oh yes, the Levites and priests who came from Jerusalem, would have known very well what his name was, whose son he was, and what the stories were that surrounded him. But that didn’t answer their question: “Who are you?”
They wanted to fit him into their ordered way of defining their history and way of life through the prophets of their past. By pigeon-holing John into what they thought they understood of Elijah and Moses, they thought they could understand him, make him fit into their traditions.
But asking the question from that blinkered point of view, was completely missing the significance of where John was, what he was saying, and what he was doing. John might have looked and sounded like an Old Testament prophet, but he was very much doing a new thing, heralding the new way that God was going to be active not just among the Jewish community, but in the whole world.
John was in the wilderness because God’s people had lost their way – a fact amply demonstrated by the Levites and priests needing to ask their question in the first place. They had all the tools, the jigsaw pieces if you like, with which to recognise and take part in this new thing that God was doing, but they’d got so lost, especially around the Temple worship of Jerusalem, that they couldn’t recognise it. They couldn’t even see that other prophets of the past had prepared them for this when Israel had previously found itself with the opportunity to start a new era, a new way of living, a new relationship with God.
The words of Isaiah 61 would have been familiar to the priests and their assistants the Levites, but perhaps they had forgotten its’ context, and failed to recognise as so often happens, that history was sort of repeating itself, but with an extra twist of significance. Isaiah 61 falls in the last part of the prophesies grouped together in that name, a series of visions that spoke into two periods of Israel’s history. The first was the point where the first Israelites returned from Exile in Babylon but had few resources to rebuild the Temple, and limited self-rule to make new beginnings as a nation in the ‘between-times’ before the rest of this scattered people returned. The second point to which Isaiah 61 prophesies is another ‘between-time’, this one standing at the cusp of the old covenant and a new one, a time again when Israel was under restricted self-rule, this time anticipating the arrival of the long-promised Messiah.
John, was doing something that was normally only offered to those outside the Jewish faith and who wished to accept that Israel’s God was the one true God of all people; he was baptising people. But he was baptising his fellow Jews, something that should not have been needed. Yet, as the priests and Levites were amply demonstrating, they had lost their purpose and the vision of Isaiah’s prophesies, and therefore their understanding of what was going on around them had become lost in a wilderness of their own creation. The sins from which John was demonstrating people needed to be washed clean, were the ones that obliterated their view of what God was doing in their immediate vicinity, stopped them from setting the right example not just to their communities, but to those gentiles among whom they lived. The people who would be among the first to recognise the Messiah who already stood among them, would be those who understood that God’s anointed Messiah would bring with him those things prophesied in Isaiah. It was the people who were already gathered around John, who saw the opportunities of a life more fully focused on what God wants to reveal in the world, rather than the wilderness that bewildered their leaders, that would become the first disciples of the Messiah.
There is a very strong sense in which we too live in a period which we might be forgiven for thinking is a wilderness, where our leaders are bewildered by what it is they see, and seem unable to recognise it as an opportunity for a new beginning, or understand what it is they should be doing with that opportunity. What we as Christians need to do, is to show them the tools at their disposal, the jig-saw pieces that mean that we can live as God intended us to. In the scriptures of the old covenant, as in Isaiah 61, and in the example and teaching of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, as well as John the Baptist, we hold those tools, those jigsaw pieces. Quite literally.
Please can all those who were given a jigsaw piece by the children hold them up please? That’s quite a lot of pieces, and there are plenty more! (Please put them down.) These few are all words or ideas within our scriptures this morning, and we can go through them briefly – please hold up the relevant jigsaw piece as I mention it:
(Holy) Spirit – The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me (Is 61:1). That’s the suffering servant, the Messiah himself speaking. That spirit would dwell in Jesus, and be offered to us through faith in him, as at Pentecost. It is the Holy Spirit of God that we must have dwelling within us if we are to find a way out from the wilderness that the nations find themselves in.
Good News – The Messiah came to bring good news to the poor (Is 61:1), the poor of spirit, the financially poor, those made homeless (physically or spiritually) by the systems of the world; as those who believe in him that we are called to do likewise.
With the ideas of Binding Up (Healing) and Freedom (Is 61:1) we remember the healings that Jesus undertook, those he freed from physically or spiritually dark places, and we remember that this world needs us to seek the hidden darknesses of people’s lives where the light of the Messiah needs to be shone.
Vengeance/Justice (Is 61:2,8) The Messiah for whom John prepared Israel was he who challenged the corruption and structures of the time, turned over the tables of the money-changers in the Temple, released people from debt through forgiveness not extortion; if we do or enable likewise, we offer new beginnings and new opportunities for those living in the wilderness of social injustice and exclusion, the hope of Christ.
We know we need to Comfort those who mourn not just the death of a loved one, but the loss of mobility and companionship, providing practical support as well as a hug or a kind word (Is 61:2-3).
We also seek Beauty (Is 61:3) not only in God’s creation but among the ashes of people’s broken lives when they’ve become the shell of the person they once were because of the wilderness of their lives and yet are loved, as they are, by God.
God calls us to find opportunities for Praise and Joy (Is 61:3) among the ashes of our lives as well as that of others; the things for which we are thankful, friends, family, our faith in Jesus.
These are jigsaw pieces of living out our faith with which we are called to Build Up and Renew (Is 61:4) not just our church and local community, but the nations of the world. If we do not speak for freedom, justice and healing in the name of Jesus, to those in authority, how can God’s love be seen and heard?
John came and Baptised with water (John 1:26), but now through faith in Jesus, the forgiveness he offered, and the power of the Holy Spirit which enabled both the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus the Messiah, we baptise people into the body of Christ, the church, the means by which we seek to Serve Jesus, in all these ways even though we are not worthy so much as untie even his laces (John 1:27). (Thank you).
After we have remembered, recognised and received Christ the Servant-Messiah who stands among us in our Holy Communion this morning, we will use our jigsaw pieces with the children to make a straight path. It will serve to remind us that though we may feel we live in a spiritual wilderness, we have the jigsaw pieces of our faith, ready at our disposal to create a clear path out. The key is to remember where those pieces come from, the God from whom they come, the Messiah toward whom they point, and to seek the opportunities for new beginnings, that will show the world who we are as Christians.
During the notices, before the final hymn: I got the children to collect in the jig-saw pieces and work out how to lay them, making a straight path, pointing to the Joseph and Mary journeying to Bethlehem (in the Lord’s Table).