Qumran - and preparing the way for the Lord

Reading: Matthew 3.1-11
There were a number of groups within Judaism. In the New Testament, only two of them stand out.

The Sadducees were mainly priests and not well liked by the people. They tended to have good relations with the Roman rulers of the land.

The Pharisees were a group that arose from the Jewish resistance movement under the Maccabees. Under the Greek rule of Antiochus Epiphanes, there was strong pressure to impose Greek religion and philosophy on all peoples. In 167BC Antiochus had a pagan altar erected in the Temple in Jerusalem for sacrifices to Zeus. Any books of the Law were destroyed. Possession of or adherence to the Law was punishable by death. The Pharisees were passionate keepers of the Law.

The Jewish historian Josephus and the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo both make reference to another group whom they call the Essenes. Very little was known about them. There are no references to them in the New Testament, nor in later Jewish literature.

Then in 1947 a young Bedouin goatherd sent a sling shot after a straying goat. It landed in a cave and he heard the sound of breaking pottery. On investigation he found a collection of clay jars each of which contained a leather scroll with ancient writing on it. So began the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The ruins at Khirbet Qumran near the northern end of the Dead Sea had been thought to be possibly from an unnamed Roman outpost. But now the discovery of Biblical books, commentaries and other writings made it clear the site had housed a religious community fairly confidently identified as the Essenes.

The discovery of the Scrolls led to some highly speculative books about the origins of Christianity. More serious Bible scholars, however, have found them an important resource – with the oldest copy, for example, of the book of Isaiah – and a source of information about the Essenes. Some have said that they throw light on "first-century non-conformist Judaism" and therefore give us a broader understanding of the communities which first received the ministry and teaching of Jesus.

One text is quoted often enough in the Scrolls to suggest it represents how the Qumran community saw themselves – "A voice of one calling: ‘In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God’." (Isaiah 40.3)

That is also John the Baptist’s text (John 1.23; Matthew 3.3). Did John the Baptist, it has been asked, spend time in the Essene community at Qumran? That’s not impossible. But the Qumran community stayed in isolation from the rest of society as a witness to the right way of living. Their community life included many ritual washings. By contrast, John came out of the wilderness to call people to repent of their sins and to be baptised as a sign of their repentance.

He was preparing the way for the Lord – announcing that someone far greater was coming soon. Jesus, of course, didn’t come as Judge (is that what John had been expecting – as in Luke 3.16-17; Matthew 11.3?) but as Saviour.

How are we to live in our modern-day society, in our community, positively preparing the way for the Lord?

It’s possible to be like the Sadducees – so full of compromise and accommodation to current ideas and ways. Or we might well gain the reputation of the Pharisees – noted for confrontation towards others and confidence in our own rightness (and everyone else’s wrongness!). There are also Christians who are like the Essenes – maintaining purity by withdrawal and minimum contact with society.

We live in days of uncertainty, it is so easy to slip into one of those unhelpful ways of relating to society about us – compromise, confrontation or withdrawal. But God calls us to bring positive faith, hope and love to others by our life and actions. We have come to know that the ultimate answer to life’s perplexities can only be found in the "one greater" to whom John the Baptist gave testimony.

PRAYER: Eternal Lord, this is your world and you love us and all people. But we haven’t got it right. Yet you loved the world so much that you gave your only Son Jesus to be our Saviour, Lord and Friend. Many people are confused and hurting. You call us to live out our lives positively in this world, bringing faith, hope and love to others by our life and actions. Lord, it’s another day. Here we are – send us! In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Out There

Some try to live
in a goldfish bowl,
and insulated
from the sins
and pains
of others,
a life of purity
apart from the life of the world.

But I am called
to live
where there are hurts
and disappointments
and unpredictable violence.

I cannot love
in a goldfish bowl,
and insulated
from life
out there.

The one who calls me
poured out his love
on a cross,
in the full force
of human violence,
in the full power
of divine love.

He calls
that his redeeming
and healing love
will reach through me
to others
out there.

© Peter J. Blackburn, Burdekin Blue Care Devotions, 23 October 2001
More photos of Israel are available here.
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, © International Bible Society, 1984.

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