John was baptising in the desert of Judea, not in a town centre park, but it was a public event. Crowds of people had come along, some to repent, and to mark their change of direction by approaching the Baptist for immersion in the river, others to enjoy the spectacle of serious fellow citizens emerging from the water out of breath, dripping wet and undignified.
Having attended a few baptisms in my lifetime, I’d say that some things have changed, but the curious observers are still around, often wielding the cameras on their phones. I can’t help feeling that had those devices been around 2000 years ago, many people would have been too busy peering into them to notice the voice from Heaven – or was it a rumble of thunder? My son just showed me a picture of football spectators so busy looking through their phones that they missed the ball going into the corner of the net. Just one teenager is jumping up, arms outstretched, sheer joy on his face.
Last time we were at an event in our local park was the Lady Mayoress’s Carol Service, on the terrace just above the river. Smiles on many faces as far as we could see in the dark. There was even a terrier who tried to join in the singing; he certainly put a smile on Santa’s face! People soon stopped snapping on their phones and joined in the singing.
In the following days, Santa’s two year old grandson kept asking, Grandad, Santa Claus AGAIN! He kept a couple of appointments with the Saint before Christmas, then told the family on Boxing Day, Grandad Santa Claus no more. Santa was not a lasting name for Grandad, but Grandad was a new and lasting name for Will Turnstone.
John the Baptist announced a new name for Jesus, one we still use day by day in the liturgy: the Lamb of God. It is a powerful name: ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.’
Well, what was Judas thinking when he went to the authorities for his pieces of silver? He will not have told himself that betraying Jesus was the worst thing he could do, so that’s just what he would do; no, he must have convinced himself that it was the best possible course of action in the circumstances.
Was he trying to force his Master’s hand, engineering a scene such as had happened in Nazareth at the start of his ministry, when Jesus passed through the crowd that was trying to stone him? (Luke 4:16-30) That seems unlikely as Luke says he was looking for a time when the crowd was not present in order to hand Jesus over. (22.6) Was he hoping that Jesus would then and there abandon his peaceful mission, instead establishing the Kingdom of Israel in a brilliant coup d’etat? Or did he see himself as clear-sighted, holding out no hope for Project Jesus, so he would cut his losses and take the money and run.
His suicide suggests that he was not that clear-sighted and cynical. I do not think he expected events to work out as they did; his self image may have been of a Mr Fix-it, forcing change on Jesus. Perhaps he expected the 11 and other disciples to rally round, overpowering or recruiting the posse sent to arrest Jesus and rampaging triumphant into the city. If he thought Jesus would enter into his Kingdom by military or mob force he was profoundly mistaken about him; but so were the other disciples, every one in their own way. But they clung together and did not hang themselves.
And then what? Clearly Jesus meant more to him than the money, the blood money that could not go into the treasury. (Matthew 27:3-8) His suicide speaks of hope abandoned – as we read yesterday, those who have something to hope for survive. Judas surely felt unable to return to the community of the disciples after what he’d done. Peter wept bitterly, but still stuck around. The reality of his prophetic words – you have the message of eternal life – did not sink in until Sunday morning. Too late to save Judas.
But never too late for his Lord and Friend to save Judas. That’s clearly what the artist of Strasbourg Cathedral felt, when he carved the Lamb of God rescuing Judas from his noose at the very gate of Hell.