John: A Man of The Ordinary and The Symbolic…

Posted: December 11, 2017 in Uncategorized

Advent 3B, 2017
John 1: 6-8, 19-23

John: A Man of The Ordinary and The Symbolic…

Because Mark’s gospel is seen by several scholars as being the most confrontational and to contain a number of questions for the readers such as who they stand with, what they believe in and how they will act. This makes it worthy of much study but since it is such a short gospel, the church throughout Year B in the Lectionary (the church year we are now in) often borrows from John’s gospel – similarly aggressive and sure in its tone – however not about the Jesus of history, but rather about the Christ of faith. And that is a very big difference that we can’t take lightly.

Whereas Mark’s writing was the earliest gospel to be written, it tends to be sharp, to the point, in its talk about Jesus and his teachings… John’s writing on the other hand, comes after many years of deep theological reflection. The sentences are longer and the images more contrived. And the ‘cosmic’ post-Easter Christ rather than the ‘earthy’ pre-Easter Jesus, seems all important to him. That is a really different theology!

Why mention this? Well; because just when we were starting to get into the swing of Mark’s stuff in this new church year, we now leave all that behind. We won’t have another reading/story from Mark until early January. This adds a level of complexity to the theme for the year alongside what is already far from simple with the complex claims for advent as it is.

John the baptizer, comes out of the desert wilderness and starts to call people to take a long, hard look at themselves. Indeed, his voice is so dominate this young local bloke is regarded by many as a ‘prophet of doom’. Still, the people of his day seem to take hold of what he has to say. And as you will remember from last week’s story from Mark, they go out to listen to him. Even Jesus was there, and despite the fear filled approach John takes people and by people we mean, the poor, the powerless ones, those on the edges of society and they hear something in John’s message which we might call ‘hope’.

This reminds us that theirs was a situation that needed a word of ‘hope’. Rural land was being taken over by the big ‘out-of-town’ farmers. Mounting debt, payable to both Roman officials and priestly aristocracy, meant the crisis of debt and dispossession grew deeper. Farmer labourers were being forced onto the unemployment line. A new Roman taxation system was extracting nearly every last cent. And life could be pretty bleak.  Often without hope. That’s the historic setting as well we know it and on top of that we have the story teller John’s world where it seems there is some strife within the early Jesus movements
over the place and importance of John the baptizer.

Some were arguing that John the baptizer had a religious insight not unlike that of Jesus of Nazareth. So, for them he was as important as Jesus.  And they claimed that his thinking should be given more attention. John the storyteller despite this controversy gives him a major reference. And like most church debates we can imagine that they became a bit heated at times. Some scholars reflecting on these debates have suggested Jesus started out as a follower or disciple of John. But, they conclude, John was seen by Jesus as too much of an alarmist. So, he, Jesus, left when he chose to follow a different dream.

It is poet and theologian John Shea who, by the way, captures this feeling well in his poem about John: The Man who was a Lamp. “John expected an axe to the root of the tree and instead he found a gardener hoeing around it. He dreamt of a man with a winnowing fan and a fire and along came a singing seed scatterer. He welcomed wrathful verdicts, then found a bridegroom on the bench.”  (Shea 1993:177)

It seems John was a man of passionate devotion to the honour of God. He was a person of forceful words and not easily pigeonholed. He was a person who attempted to address people’s fear in living by using what we would suggest risks credibility in his use of language. This we think might contribute to the difference between him and Jesus. Fear as both environment and motivation for change as opposed to fear as environment that is transformed by love.

We might dwell a little on the use of language and its influence be it forceful or meek language. Our experience is that God-talk is often arrogant or seems to be and one thought is that it is often seen this way because it has set itself the task of trying to be the most comprehensive, mind-bending, language -stretching venture we can undertake. We are reminded of Gordon Kaufman’s observation that ‘God’ is the symbol we use as ‘the ultimate point of reference for understanding everything, every value, every experience, every desire, every act of imagination.’ Another way of saying’ the attempt to talk about the un-talk-about-able.’ God language is an attempt to encounter and engage the ultimate Mystery of Life, so it is bound to be inadequate, mind boggling, or paradoxical.

In our world today, theism based language stands out as out of touch, dated and sometimes irrelevant because it is bound up with a personified God as opposed to divinity as being expressed most fully in the lives of loving human persons. When there is a meeting of the ordinary and the symbolic there is a fully developed human consciousness of eternity and of love in all its dimensions that opens us up to face the realities of life and death, eating, drinking and being merry, both because tomorrow we die and because today we are alive.

In most ways the world of John and of Jesus is far from our 21st century world. And this needs to be acknowledged and taken into account every time we turn to the biblical stories, and especially during Advent.

Firstly, we do not live in a theocracy, despite the desires of the Religious Right. We do not have a country run by priests and bishops. In fact, things religious are symbolic only and this is why we can change the words of state prayers. This means that in the time of the storytellers, God was perceived as directly involved in the personal and especially the social affairs of the people. Today, in NZ at least, religion is not so pervasive. For most of us religion simply stands side by side with other factors of life… Sunday might still hold some sort of theocratic value as a worship day but that is slowly changing.

Secondly, the ordinary person’s concern today is about coping with life.  Making ends meet. Striving to create some small window of time out from just coping. The millions of dollars spent on lotto tickets and games of chance indicate this striving. God is not immediate to us unless there is some want or need, or tragedy interrupts. Even the symbolic struggles as indicated by the prolific use of the sign of amazement on people’s lips OMG! Is no longer an expression of the nearness of God as opposed to a meaningless expression of surprise. The constant consciousness of God is gone. And God is no longer in the language of our greetings and partings. To hear ‘God bless New Zealand is at best tied to the symbolic use of a National anthem but would be totally strange to our ears in common language.

Thirdly, there is a tendency in our times to relate to religion as magic or superstition. This is especially true when it comes to the unexplainable or uncomfortable… Sickness. Death. Family breakup. Natural disaster, all as a result of some sort of God that plays with reality as if it is subject to whim or design or plan.

Finally, for many, religion is looked upon for its practical ‘DIY’ value. If it can’t make me feel better or be more in control of my life then it has little use. Sure, religion is seen as useful for living an orderly and sometimes, peaceful life. But when it ceases to be practical, it can be discarded.

Today is the third Sunday in Advent and our Lectionary readings have been shaped in such a way as to confront us with a bloke called John. And he is no doubt a bit strange… John Shea in his poem goes on to say of him: “a map of a man…  Unexpected angels are pussycats next to this lion… (John Shea 1993:175)

A bloke called John.  An ordinary bloke. A bloke who relates best to other ordinary people. But while it appears his voice is loud and his manner rough, even though his message comes in frightening language it is still essentially heard as one of hope:

In John’s world God wants to do great things – with ordinary people. For it is in the ordinary that we can sense the present-ness of God. In the ordinary… like the love-making songs of the birds and insects, in the ordinary… In the daily red orange glaze of a setting sun or the rising glow of the morning moon. In the ordinary… like a rough diamond called John the ‘baptizer’.

Today, this third Sunday in Advent, let us remember that the creativity and wisdom we call ‘God’ still encourages and awakens and persuades, so great things can be achieved through ordinary people like us. Not because of a theistic God decides this but because we understand that our sacred eternity, our spirituality, our religion is a creative consummate art form that celebrates human values, especially those we know as myriad contingent relationships.

If you want to name this day with an advent word it would be a word of hope! The hope that motivates language and the hope that is found in the unity of the symbolic and the ordinary. In Ken Wilber’s the mystic’s words John and Jesus were riding the edge of a light beam racing toward the rendezvous with God. I like that as a theme for the hope of advent, a life filled with the risk of the possible, moving toward enlightenment and the union of the ordinary and the symbolic, or God if you need a word. Amen.

Shea, J. Starlight. Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long. New York. Crossroads Publishing, 1993

Carl L Jech, Religion as Art Form, Reclaiming Spirituality without Supernatural Beliefs EU Oregon; Resource Publications.

Website, R A. E. Hunt.


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