ImageToday is Rose Sunday, in the mediaeval church known by the Latin name Gaudete Sunday, ‘Rejoice’ Sunday; the third Sunday in Advent. The mood of watchful expectation which in the church’s tradition in the first two weeks in Advent is supposed to be rather sober, rather monochrome, is now relieved by a hint of colour – we lit the pink candle today as a symbol of this lightened mood.

We are getting closer to our celebrations, closer to the time when we remember Jesus’ coming as the baby in the manger. In some ways it might seem odd to introduce the story of John the Baptist at this point. Certainly John the Baptist had a prophetic mission which introduced the beginning of Jesus’ work. But as S. Luke puts it very precisely, in historic terms which can mean only that John the Baptist was working around 29 or 30 AD, ‘in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar’, we have moved thirty years beyond Jesus’ birth.

In the Orthodox churches, the story of John the Baptist is celebrated after Christmas for that reason, so as to keep the chronology more logical. Jesus is first a baby, and then grown up. After he has grown up, and before he starts teaching, along comes John the Baptist.

All through the Old Testament, the history of the Jewish people, the history of God’s chosen people, is expressed in a way which relates their successes and failures not to economic factors, not to whether they were rich in natural resources which they exploited successfully; not to whether they were successful in wars, conquests or alliances with other powerful nations, building up empires: but rather the story of the Jews is a story of their relationship with God.

If you think of the story of the Jews in the Old Testament – Moses leading them out of Egypt through the Red Sea; the exile in Babylon – the only thing that matters, the only historical driver, is whether the Israelites listened to their God, followed his commandments, kept their covenant with God. If they did that, they were blessed and they were in the promised land. If they turned aside and worshipped other gods, forgot about their covenant with the one true God, then they were invaded, they were taken into captivity, they became slaves.

The Jews believed that God loved them much in the way that a father loves rather unruly teenage children; that sometimes God needed to punish them because they hadn’t obeyed him, but on other occasions they felt the full warmth of God’s love and blessing. The way in which they learned about their relationship with God was through the prophets – Moses and Elijah and the lesser prophets were the ones who brought before the people of Israel the word of God.

Jesus was born when the Jews were going through a hard time. The promised land was under occupation by a foreign power, the Romans. The relative prosperity of the the time of Herod the Great had given way to a break-up of the kingdom into four parts. There had been rebellion against the Romans by the Zealots, which had been brutally suppressed. This was not a high point in Jewish history.

As before in Jewish history, along came a prophet, a prophet who interpreted how the Jews found themselves, their difficulties and their lack of success, in terms of a breakdown in their relationship with God. That prophet was John the Baptist. John’s message of repentance – ‘O generation of vipers …’ was very much in the prophetic tradition. John is saying that the Israelites’ troubles are directly attributable to a breakdown in their relationship with God, that they have forgotten God’s commandments. So his message, the various things that he tells them to do, in order to restore the covenant, are from the heart of the moral teaching in the Jewish Law. After the basic Ten Commandments had been given to Moses on the tablets of stone, then in Deuteronomy, which means Second Law, the law of Moses is developed and refined. Indeed, for the first time in Deuteronomy you have the golden rule, ‘love your brother as yourself’ (Deut. 19:19).

So here, John teaches, ‘He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.’ And the ‘publicans’ who are told not to exact ‘more than that which is appointed you’, are not innkeepers, but tax-gatherers. Privatising government services is not a new idea. At the time of Jesus, the Romans had private contractors, τελωναι in Greek, who were authorised to collect tax. They were paid by charging a percentage on top of what they were due to hand over to the Romans. So if the Romans needed 100, your friendly local tax man might actually charge you 110. What John is saying is that the price, what the private contractor, the ancient equivalent of Accenture or KPMG, is charging, has to be reasonable.

The point about this is that these are not just good moral precepts, which they certainly are, but also marks of the Jews being faithful to their covenant with God. It’s not enough, John says, to say, We have Abraham for our father, we are Jews. Instead, John says you have to bring forth ‘fruits worthy of repentance’, you have to show in tangible form evidence that you have repented, you have come back to the fold.

The Jews recognised that this message that John was giving was indeed a prophetic message, and they began to think that perhaps he himself was the Messiah, the chosen one whom they expected to lead them again, like Moses, out of slavery. What John was doing, in baptising, was certainly a new thing. There was no precedent in other religions for baptism in the way that John was practising it.

It was a single ritual washing. Of course are plenty of religious observances where ritual washing is involved. The symbolism is very clear. You wash away everything bad and you become clean, pure, before God. But in other religions that’s a sacramental practice, something that you do as part of a religious service regularly, purification.

But with John it was an altogether bigger thing. The idea of a total immersion in the River Jordan was that it marked a complete reversal in the person’s life. ‘Repent’, said John – μετανοειτε, Greek which means ‘turn over your minds’, ‘turn back your minds’. It’s not so much turning back as turning over, turning over a new leaf, a clean page in the book. That you can only do once. When you have been baptised, you are a new person, a clean person. It is very powerful symbolism indeed.

But despite the power of this, John says that he is making way for Jesus, who will come and not baptise with water, but with ‘the Holy Ghost and with fire’, that he will bring God to his people in an all-consuming way. You can come up out of the water and dry off; but once you have been touched by the Holy Ghost and by the divine fire – ‘set our hearts on fire with love for you’ we pray – then really you are changed. It’s a glimpse of what that baby is going to be able to do.

He will not just be a prophet like John. He will not just be a man, a man grown from the baby in the manger. He will be God, God among us, Emmanuel. That is truly something to look forward to; something to add colour to our expectation. Today, the colour of the rose.
So enjoy Rose Sunday. But also, remember the message of John the Baptist. ‘He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.’ … ‘Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.’ Finally, a message to the tax men, ‘Exact no more than that which is appointed you’. The obverse of that teaching is something which some of our multi-national companies should reflect on too. If HMRC should not take too much, Starbucks and Co should not pay too little.

It’s the same message which S. Paul gives to his friends in Philippi. ‘Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand.’ This ‘moderation’ that he talks about is a word which really means ‘even-handedness’, ‘sense of balance’. It’s really a word that S. Paul took from the Stoics. Nothing to excess, moderation. When Paul wrote to the Philippians, perhaps around 60AD, the baby had come; he had grown up. He had been baptised by John, and those wonderful three years of teaching, his life, his death and his resurrection, had taken place. As John had predicted, Jesus had brought the Holy Spirit and fire, first of all at Pentecost, on the disciples. The Lord is at hand. The Lord is here. His spirit is with us.