The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Parish Eucharist      15th January 2017
Sermon for Epiphany 2
Jan Rushton

Sermon for Epiphany 2 Parish Eucharist
Isaiah 49.1-7   I Corinthians 1.1-9   John 1.29-42

Herod the Great had ruled Judea and Galilee with an iron grip.  But the division of his kingdom on his death had opened the floodgates to pent up anger and rebellion.Though not mentioned in the gospels, the Galilean city of Sepphoris, a significant city approaching the size of Jerusalem, was flattened by the Romans in the year 4 BCE, punishment for the uprising led by one, Judas the Galilean. The destroyed city was now rebuilt by Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, rebuilt as his ambitious new capital. It was rich, cosmopolitan, deeply influenced by Greek culture. Evermore beautiful, Sepphoris acquired the sobriquet ‘The Jewel of Galilee’.
Only a few short miles from Nazareth it is likely that the carpenter Joseph and his sons would have been part of that workforce, toiling to rebuild its palatial mansions for the Jewish aristocracy up from Jerusalem, Roman officials and gentile merchants.
First century Palestine was a religious and political powder-keg, awash with apocalyptic fever and messianic energy, and nowhere more so than in Galilee!   The wealthy elite became ever more affluent - as the rural peasantry whose labour created their wealth, were ground into poverty. Loans were freely offered, and when they could not be repaid, confiscation of the family land followed.
Those without land had few options:  forced migration to the city, where the freelance peasant must now use his skills as poorly paid hired day-labour;  or, run to the hills, gather together to attack those wealthy travelling merchants. To the dispossessed Jews such bandits - zealots as they became known, were heroes, agents of God’s retribution - messiahs even. To the Romans, they were thieves and outlaws. And as every other seeming messiah, Judas the Galilean and his followers ended their lives on Roman crosses.
But for a hundred years a new movement had grown out of this desolate situation. There were among the priests in Jerusalem some who had come to the conclusion they should abandon the corruption of the Temple, and set up celibate monastic communities - most famously at Qumran, of Dead Sea Scrolls fame. The Essenes as they became known, studied and searched the Scriptures to understand God’s new plan for his people. They were deeply concerned to bring forward the Kingdom of God through strict adherence to the Law, particularly the purity codes, expressed in daily ritual bathing. Highly disciplined and self-supporting, they held all things in common. Rejecting Temple sacrifice, they did not eat meat. And while they personally eschewed violence, they were waiting for the day when God would raise up the Teacher of Righteousness, a Messiah who would fight and triumph over the Wicked Priest. A figure who would restore and renew the Temple and its priesthood, ushering in the New Age. An apocalyptic sect they believed only their members would be saved.
Without families of their own, they sought to adopt and train the sons of priests. So it would seem quite possible the son of the priest Zechariah and his wife was one such boy. The boy promised to Elizabeth in her old age who would become fearsome prophet out in the desert eating only locusts and wild honey.
Unlike the Essenes, rather than need for continuous repeated washing, John’s baptism was sign and seal of passing into a new life. And John baptised everyone - foreign unclean Roman soldiers included.
Then sent them home to live differently - sent them back to the worlds from which they had come!
Many were drawn to John’s fiery preaching. Some became his disciples.  His movement was growing. Increasing numbers believed, here could be the long-awaited Messiah.
Pulling the pieces of the jigsaw together, it seems more than likely that among John’s followers was the carpenter from Nazareth. He is obviously staying in the region - a three day journey from Nazareth, his baptism by John could never have been a brief afternoon engagement! And from where did Jesus acquire such deep knowledge of Scripture? As John had come to a different understanding of God’s purposes for his people from that of his teachers, a more integrated vision of society, so the man Jesus, also came to outgrow his teacher.
John baptised with water, Jesus will baptise with the Holy Spirit. This Son of God has come to offer a dramatic new Way. A Way for all people - regardless of who they are.
With John thrown into prison by Herod of Sepphoris fame, Jesus strides onto the public stage with an astonishing authority. An authority no one can miss. Returning to Galilee, Jesus’ home town of Nazareth cannot cope with their transfigured son. Even his own family are perturbed by the change in him. His life threatened, Jesus makes his home by the Sea of Galilee with the friends he made whilst with John in the desert.
Andrew with his brother Simon.  Their partners in the fishing trade, James and John. And Greek speaking Philip. All from Bethsaida. These men powerfully drawn to Jesus, will form the inner core of Jesus’ own disciples, travelling the towns and villages with him as he heals the sick, teaches the advent of the Kingdom of God. And far from objects of fear, as they were to the Essenes, women too, are warmly included as equals by Jesus.
Defeating Anthony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium, Octavian was declared Roman Emperor in the year 31 BC, and took the title Augustus. A title which proclaimed him, Octavian, nothing less than Son of God, Saviour of the world, Prince of Peace - the very titles applied to Jesus. All the words we traditionally associate with Jesus, gospel, grace, epiphany, justice, peace, salvation, atonement, all were already used of Octavian now Augustus.
Augustus could claim these accolades because of his military victories, bringing stability across the Empire through force of arms - the imposition of peace in the maintenance of social order - hierarchical social order.  Pax Romana.
Maybe this sounds a little like what the Essenes were looking for, waiting for. A messiah sent by God who would, through military means and divine intervention, physically defeat the forces of evil, overturn the oppressor and execute the just rule of God. John the Baptist was preparing the way for the Messiah, calling the people to repentance, that the dawning of this New Age could commence.
Reflecting on all this we can begin to see how astonishing and extraordinary John’s proclamation of Jesus as Son of God truly was, both personally, politically and spiritually. It was sedition - and Jesus is crucified on a Roman cross.  The punishment reserved for traitors - as to be hung, drawn and quartered was, in our Middle Ages.
This Son of God will baptise with the Holy Spirit. This Messiah is zealous - but not a military Zealot. Nor is he austere Essene prophet, both intent on changing the order of society from the outside. Jesus was indeed angry, very angry, at exploitation of the poor, and the rigid hierarchies of his society practising exclusion. We see him angry in the Temple at the extortion he finds there. Yet he is very different. He moved among all classes, poor and elite, ate at table with them, called them into friendship with him.
And for those who responded to his invitation, in the power of the Spirit, their lives were indeed, transformed.
In turn, that inner personal transformation, would transform their homes and communities, society and nations.
An encounter with Christ offered not to a chosen few, but to everyone: Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. Witness the transformation of the apostle Paul, and the power of his ministry to the Gentiles at Corinth.
The transformation of lives in the power of Christ Jesus has been, continues to be, astonishing and enormous.
As we hear the story of John and Jesus out in the desert, let us enter into the psychological depths of what it must have meant for the mighty Baptist, his popularity growing, to accept his own growing realisation that, despite all the acclaim, he himself is not the Messiah.  And point his disciples to follow another. What level of spiritual and personal maturity must this have called upon? What level of spiritual and personal maturity are we striving after?  Amen.

Footnote on Sepphoris:  it is strange that Jesus never mentions Sepphoris, though he may have in mind this city built on a hill when he makes the statement: “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden."
The inhabitants chose not to join the First Jewish Revolt against Rome in AD 66-73, and the city was spared the destruction suffered by Jerusalem, following which Sepphoris became a centre of Jewish learning and seat of the Sanhedrin.
The Mishnah, the first authoritative collection of Jewish oral law, was compiled here.
In 363 a massive earthquake devastated the city and it was only partly rebuilt.
A Christian community was present by the 4th century, sufficiently large by the 6th century to have its own bishop. Following the Muslim conquest of Palestine in the 7th century the area became an Arab settlement, until the 1948 Arab-Israeli War when it was reclaimed by the Israelis.
The Roman remains are now a significant archeological site and tourist centre.

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