In Spring 1947 a shepherd stumbled into a hidden cave as he was tracking down a lost goat. It was just south of Jericho and very near to the River Jordan where John the Baptist was baptising 2000 years ealier. Once in the cave he made the most significant biblical discovery of the 20th century – he discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are ernormous. They contain almost all of the Old Testament sometimes in several copies, there are commentaries and bits of the apocrypha. There are hymns and sermons and rules about how to eat, how to pray, how to wake up and how to go to sleep. How to marry and how to bury the dead.
The rather weird Qumran sect who owned this amazing library – lived between about 200 BCE until about 70 AD when the Romans finally destroyed Jerusalem.
They seem to have taught compulsory celibacy for their full followers – but they allowed marriage for the weaker brothers and sisters. Some of them lived in communities – and some lived more normal lives in the cities – following the guidance of their leader – the so-called the ‘Teacher of Righteousness”.
The Qumran sect – like all Jews of the time – was waiting for the messiah to come. In fact they were waiting for three messiahs – a prophet to prepare the way, a King – to conquer the hated Romans, and a priest to purify the religion.
And this sect – and this whole world – was just around the corner from John the Baptist.
There is no evidence that John the Baptist was a member of the Qumran sect or that they thought that he was the prophet they were waiting for.
But I think that many people did. We are told that ‘all Judea’ came out to see him – whatever else John the Baptist had, he had appeal.
He belongs to the prophetic tradition as a “Man of God” – an independent and free-thinking prophet who gets under the skin of the priests and rulers. And he wears camel skin and a leather belt – not as weird as it sounds – it is the same prophet’s uniform that Elijah wore.
John the Baptist called the people to repent and believe the good news and to prepare the way of the Lord. and this is what the people did – in their hundreds. They came and they were baptised. They repented of their sins. And they went home ready for the Messiah – or Messiahs to come.
But what happened next? Well of course Jesus came and was himself baptised by John in the River Jordan. John makes it explicit that this is the one – the one who was to come, the one who is greater than he …. but I wonder what the people thought?
They had made the journey – they had confessed their sins and purified their souls, – they had believed the message – and they were preparing the way ….
but the way – the coming of the Lord was two men standing in a river together. Not very kingly, not very priestly.
Just look at our first reading today … that is what they were expecting. A king who ‘will judge the poor fairly and defend the rights of the helpless. At his command the people will be punished, and evil persons will die. He will rule his people with justice and integrity’
In fact they wanted all the things everyone wants from a king, or a government. Nothing much has changed.
What the people actually got was someone who looked and sounded like any another itinerant preacher – someone who would not do all the judging and defending, the punishing and ruling, the justice and integrity they wanted, but someone who expected the people to do these things for themselves. This Christian Messiah was a very different kind of Messiah – and many didn’t want him.
This new Messiah will not conquer by destroying the walls of Jericho as his name’s sake – Joshua – did a thousand years earlier, instead he will conquer Zaccheus in Jericho by calling him down from the tree and eating with him. He will not defeat thirty one kings in bloody battle, but will stand before Pilate with the claim that his Kingdom is not of this world…. He will not make the sun stand still in the sky so that more Amorites can be massacred in one day by the Israelite armies, instead the skies will darken for three hours when he dies upon a cross.
It is a very different end to the story.
And – of course – people today are not all that different from the good people of all Judea who went out to the River Jordan to hear John the Baptist.
It is still just as easy either to blame God for all the the bad things that happen to us, or perhaps even more to blame God for not stepping in and stopping all these things happening to us.
We still, if we’re honest, long for a Messiah to come who will come and make everything all right.
But that’s not how Christianity works:
The message of John the Baptist, crying in the wilderness, is still repent – start again, believe Good News, and above all prepare the way ….
And the message of Jesus is still, ultimately, that he wants disciples and want to call us friends, rather than merely having followers.