Summary: The significance of John’s call to repentance today

Swanton Novers 9-12-01

Fact or Fiction Mt. 3:1-12

On a cold Christmas Eve in 1818 Father Joseph Mohr (1792-1848) walked the three kilometres from his home -in the Austrian village of Oberndorf bei Salzburg - to visit his friend Franz Gruber (1787-1863) in the neighbouring town of Arnsdorf bei Laufen.

Mohr brought with him a poem he had written some two years earlier. He desperately needed a carol for the midnight mass that was only a few hours away.

He hoped his friend, Gruber, a schoolteacher - who also served as the church’s choirmaster and organist - could set his poem to music.

And so Franz Gruber composed a melody for Mohr’s poem in just a few hours on 24th December 1818.

Recent flooding of the nearby Salzach river had put the church organ out of commission, so Gruber composed the music for guitar accompaniment.

A few hours after Gruber finished his composition,he and Mohr stood before the altar of the St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf to perform their own work.

A local choir group backed them up as the sounds of the brand new carol broke the silence of that “Silent Night” in the mountain village of Oberndorf.

It is true that Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber did write the famous carol “Silent Night” in 1818, but sadly, the story of the broken church organ, is fiction.

Distinguishing fact or fiction is what this morning’s Gospel reading is all about.

John The Baptist came to herald the "advent" of the True Messiah - Jesus who birth we celebrate at Christmas.

But first he had to come and dispel some of the myths about the ROLE of the Messiah and the "worthiness" of the "people of GHod - the Jews.

Let me explain what I mean.

The Jews in the first century AD were expecting an ALL CONQUERING Messiah to come. One who would boot the hated Romans out.

Their reasoning was that God – whose sons they were after all - wouldn’t allow this unjust state of affairs to continue. And he had done it before

hadn’t he? Let me explain a bit of the background.

The last of the Old Testament prophets Malachi had spoken almost 400 years earlier. From that time onwards, the Jews had had no direct word from God. In that period between the last words of Malachi and the coming of John the Baptist, the Jews had been conquered first by the Seleucids and then by the Romans.

However they had successfully risen up against the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus IV, when he defiled the Temple in Jerusalem by sacrificing a pig on the altar in 167BC.Under the banner of the Maccabees, the Jews retook Jerusalem in 165BC and rededicated the Temple.

And the Jews- to this day - remember this event

in the Feast of Hanukkah. They once again become an independent kingdom, with the house of Maccabees as kings. It was a period of history of which they were – rightly - very proud.

However, in BC 63 the Roman general Pompey was invited to settle a dispute between two Jewish claimants to the throne of Israel. Instead of settling the dispute, Pompey took it as an opportunity to conquer Israel. So in 63 BC he took Jerusalem and from then on, the Romans imposed their rule.

So by the time of Jesus’ birth, the Jews – with nationalistic fervour - were expecting a Messiah much like the Maccabees had been 150 years earlier - an all-conquering hero .

In the same way as the story of “Silent Night” was a mixture of fact and fiction, so the Jews expectation of the Messiah was a mixture of fact and fiction. The fact was that the Messiah was coming. The fiction was that he was going to kick the Romans out.

Instead John the Baptist came with a shocking message. REPENT.

Surely it is not us Jews who need to repent – but the Romans. “Not so” said John.

His message of repentance had three effects.


The first effect of John’s call to repentance was that people were filled with alarm.

They came “from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptised in the Jordan River.” (Mt. 3:5)

The reason I think they were filled with alarm is that they made the long journey out to hear him. And then responded to his message by being baptised.

If they hadn’t been alarmed they wouldn’t have come that long way – and remember they didn’t have cars and motorways to come like we do today to church. Some might have travelled days to come to listen to John.

They wanted to get straight with God so they confessed their sinfulness and pledged to

change their way of life.

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