Have you ever listened to a radio station when everything suddenly goes silent; where the record ends and the presenter forgets to play the next tune and the microphone goes quiet? In the field of communications this loss of transmission is called radio silence, however, because those few seconds of silence from your speakers feels like an eternity, there is a more absolute term used in the media for when this happens — it’s called dead air.
A community called by God
Travel back with me, 2000 years and 9000 kilometers, to first century Palestine; to a wonderful and bizarre world, so very different from our own; to a remarkable story with a cast of unforgettable characters — detestable villains, corrupt politicians, ruthless overlords, wise sages, hard-fighting rebels, innocent civilians, and unlikely heroes. There is a community of people, brought together under the banner of a belief they have been called by the one, true God to be God’s ambassadors and representatives to the rest of the world — to let the world know that God is God.
Prophets – the litmus test of holiness
This community, over centuries, have had the most incredible journey together, and as they have tried to be obedient (often failing) they have had continuous feedback on how well they have been doing and how well things will go should they take certain paths or make certain decisions. This running commentary was provided by individuals with a special gift or connection to God and they were called Prophets. Yet, at the point of time we encounter this community, in about 30 AD, there had not been a single prophet or prophecy for over four hundred years. There was complete radio silence; their hotline to God was seemingly severed; and they were experiencing dead air.
What happens in a radio station when there is dead air?
Nature abhors a vacuum, and when dead air occurs in a radio station, behind the scenes, everyone starts panicking and scrabbling to find a solution. Some may find it an opportunity to step up with their own agenda — perhaps finally able to push their own musical taste, others are looking for the problem — bogged down in a tangle of wires and circuit bords, others are looking for someone to blame — looking either upwards at incompetent managers or downwards at lowly technicians, others walk away — evidence of the fact that the station is poorly run, and others are perhaps simply hiding in the restroom hoping it will all resolve itself. In the same way, first century Palestine was in political and religious turmoil.
What happened in first century Palestine when there was dead air?
Despite the general belief that somehow God was going to deliver his people and save them, there was the Roman overlord, Tiberius Caesar, along with his regional governors such as Pontious Pilate; there were puppet Jewish dictators such as Herod Antipas and his step-brother Philip; and there were religious leaders such as the high priests Ciaphas and his predecessor, Annas. Then there were factions too. There were those that had given up hope that God would vindicate his people and so they colluded with Herod and their Roman overlords. There were rebels, called Zealots, that thought that God would vindicate them if only they would stand up and fight, overthrow their oppressors and install their own God-backed government. There were those, like the Pharisees, that were convinced that the blame for God’s lack of intervention was due to the community being impure and sinful, and they exhorted and berated the people on their lack of holiness. And there were people, like the Essenes, that took themselves out of general society to try and keep themselves separate and pure.
The arrival of John (the Baptiser)
Edmund Burke, the 18th century philosopher said this, to be paraphrased later by both Roosevelt and Einstein, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Action needed to be taken, and it was against this backdrop of political, social, and religious unrest, that an itinerant and outspoken preacher called John began his mission with a simple campaign slogan; his message, preached not in the thriving cities and plush temples, but out in the isolated wilderness and remote desert – “Get ready because God is coming in person!” The people needed to make a change of heart, and as a sign of identifying with this new mission and purpose, to take the symbolic action of being plunged and washed in water; then they could begin to live out their new-found status through continued acts of kindness. The name for this process? Repentance.
Why did Jesus need John the Baptist?
One of the questions I asked myself was why did Jesus need John the Baptist? Why not just come into the world and do what needs to be done? And I’m not sure there’s one single answer to that question.
- Prophet 1: I think it is something to do with how the great moves of God in the history of God’s people were accompanied by the Prophets – and here is Jesus, the greatest move of God in all history, and so it is right and appropriate that Jesus is accompanied by a Prophet, and not just any prophet, but the greatest prophet the world has ever witnessed.
- Prophet 2: The coming of the salvation of God was claimed by the great prophets such as Isaiah and so it is right and fitting that after 400 years of silence, that the imminent arrival is heralded by a prophet too. It was prophesied!!!
- Herald: I think there’s something about preparation here too; rolling out the red carpet. When there is the imminent arrival of royalty or a dignitary you get ready. If the president of the United States was to arrive at St.Mark’s one Sunday, we would probably vacuum the carpet. So, in the same way, the greatest King was coming and that needed to be heralded in some way.
- Validator: Then, I think, on some level, it was good for Jesus’ mission and ministry not to be in isolation; that he had an advocate; an authority; someone famous to validate who he was and what he had come to do.
- Friend: Finally, on a practical and human level, we all need support. I do not know if John and Jesus were friends, but Elizabeth was certainly a support and encouragement to Mary, and I think it is important, in all the talk of Kings and Prophets, to remember that God knows we all need simple love and friendship – even the Saviour of the world, and his mum.
John’s Message – Get Ready!
I do not know how and why John’s message sent shock-waves through the nation — even rocking and challenging the lives of the dictator Herod and the religious elite — but it did. John was recognised and revered as a prophet. The four hundred years of radio silence had been broken and God was broadcasting loud and clear. God is coming, how will you get ready? You see, a certain kind of heart is needed to respond to the coming of God in the world. It cannot be a heart that seeks to dominate or push its own agenda — a proud heart that trusts in its own skills and ability. It cannot be a heart that does not take responsibility for its own actions but blames others. And it cannot be a heart that gives up and walks away, apathetic and indifferent to the news of God’s arrival. No, it needs to be a heart that recognises its own brokenness and need for God. As the Psalmist writes, “You, Lord, will never reject a broken and contrite heart.”
I was born in a predominantly Christian country; I grew up in a predominantly Christian home; I go to Christian worship; I have been baptised into a Christian church; and, for the most part, I have lived a moral Christian life; yet all that means nothing if I have not personally responded to God’s offer of acceptance with a right heart. For some of us, it is just too difficult. We cannot humble ourselves and surrender our lives to God. We do not want to feel vulnerable or weak, yet, the greatest prize of all is on offer. This season of Advent, we await the arrival of God in that stable in Bethlehem, but the good news is that we can meet God anywhere and at any time, whenever we are ready. All we need is the right heart.
Making the decision
Having a right heart is a decision. It does not ‘just happen’. And it is not easy having a right heart. There are many blocks and inhibitors preventing you from choosing to fall on your knees and come to God. I also wonder, for those of us that have, in the past, given our lives to God, whether these things can build up, like unwanted kidney stones that grow so large they eventually become stumbling blocks which we struggle to overcome:
- Apathy: You may not be bothered with Christianity because it appears irrelevant and no real concern.
- Indifference: You May consider Christianity like any other club to which you belong. It matters not if you are members or not, or if your membership lapses.
- Pride: You May refuse to submit to a higher authority, preferring to put yourself first, before God.
- Prejudice: You may have been poisoned against Christianity by your experiences, by a so-called ‘Christian’ who hurt you, or forced to engage as a child.
- Tradition: Your faith may be permanently tied to ways of living out your life – to structures, objects, organizations, and processes.
- Worldview: You May have an inflexible worldview and refuses to recognize you see the world through a specific cultural lens – it could be scientific, religious, political, or social.
- Inconvenience: You
Fall on your knees
I wonder if Jesus knew this when he said we must have a childlike faith, because a child has not yet been corrupted or influenced by the world? Or when he said coming to faith is like entering the narrow door, for it is narrow indeed!
But remember, the choice is yours. Will you repent, and turn to God, or won’t you? What’s your excuse?
O holy night, the stars are brightly shining
It’s the night of our dear Saviour’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn
Fall on your knees and hear the angel voices
O night divine, O night when Christ was born