Last week I was looking at an American web site that offers guidance to preachers – “The Text this Week” it’s called. On a side bar was an advert for a baseball cap –it was after all an American web site. The cap bears a slogan: “Make Advent Great Again”!
Hallelujah! I thought. I’d like one of those. Trouble is by the time it comes it’ll probably be Lent. Still I like the challenge. How can we make Advent great again?
Advent is said to be the waiting time. But waiting for what exactly? There are those who say: that Advent is when we look forward. True but to what. For most people that simply means Christmas and as soon as that word crops up I feel we are losing the plot.
Let me suggest another approach. This is based on a famous quotation from the rule of St Benedict. Always, he said, we begin again. Benedict’s rule prescribes a mode of living together praying together and working together that will enable those who subscribe to it to grow in grace, and acquire the Godly virtues of faith, hope and love. It is, he said, a little rule for beginners—early Methodism was much the same. Now this is not magic. We fall short, we become bored, we are, let’s face it sinners. We must begin again. Advent is when the Church stirs itself up and begins again. Advent is when we recall God’s gracious promises and seek the strength to live in the light of those promises. Just like that computer we need to be re-booted. Always we begin again.
Our Old Testament reading challenges us to receive again in faith the good news about God’s gracious interventions in history: past and present. Isaiah speaks of comfort and restoration. A new time is coming. God is coming again-Zion will be restored. Those who have been exiled in a far country are to return-and the Lord will make the way straight before them. Those who have grown old in their doubts can be renewed in their faith. See the signs, be the signs and walk the way.
We apply these texts to the coming of Christ. The fact that whoever wrote this passage didn’t know about Jesus shouldn’t bother us. There is, I feel, a very real sense in which poets and prophets don’t own their own words. The words are greater than the person who first uttered them. Poets can speak more truly than they know.
The New Testament readings both this week and last week pose challenges to Christ’s disciples and those who might become Christ’s disciples. Last week the challenge was clear-be watchful, take note of the signs including and especially the signs of the times.
This week is different- a new character bursts on to the scene. This is John the Baptist. Who is he? I see him as a bridge between the before and Christ’s new order going forward.
He comes out of the wilderness, just as in the Old Testament passage a voice cried out in the wilderness. Anyway John is a bridge, not only between then and now but also between places. He comes from the wilderness. This is more than a geographical expression – the wilderness is a place on the margins. Think of all the places that are on the margins of our world-the refugee camps-the belts of slums surrounding third world cities-the sites where the world’s increasing numbers of poor live and suffer the consequences of ecological degradation, inequality, racism and injustice.
John is a voice and he calls for repentance. Repent-what a boo word! –not long before Christmas too. The words a from a favourite Leonard Cohen song come back to me: Repent, repent I wonder what they meant.
To me it’s fairly clearly what they meant. Pause, take stock, and think differently. Things are sliding in all directions but we can start again. We must begin again. We need to renew our confidence in God’s loving and gracious promises. We all need to begin again.
Now some points about John the Baptist:
Firstly John the Baptist is the forerunner. He is the herald of the Messiah. He says; “Prepare ye the way of the Lord”. He calls the people to repent.
John the Baptist is like a bell in a tower. He rings out a message and a warning. He calls people to church but he remains outside the Church himself.
Or to use another metaphor he’s not the star. He’s simply the warm up item. Or again he is a voice whereas the Christ who comes is the living word of God.
This is a reminder to us that we too are not the stars in God’s show. We too are called to be heralds of God, forerunners of something and someone much greater than we are. We don’t ask people to join us for our sakes but rather for their sakes and Jesus’ sake. We don’t say follow me; we say follow Jesus. We are just voices like John but Jesus is the message. As John says: I am not the Christ but rather the one who says make straight the way of the Lord!
Secondly John the Baptist is a prophet. He points to the future but he has some very sharp things to say about the present. He calls upon people to repent. He blows the whistle. He says “no” when everyone wants to hear the word yes. He doesn’t go with the flow.
A prophet’s job is to be right with the will of God even at the cost of being wrong with public opinion. The church is called to exercise a prophetic role at the cost of its own popularity and short term influence-just like John the Baptist. Remember John the Baptist paid with his head for saying things that the powers that be didn’t want to hear.
Thirdly John the Baptist is a reminder to us that everything we do in the church is provisional. We are a waiting people, we wait upon the Lord and as we wait, we proclaim by word and sign the one who is coming.
We are proud of our buildings, our heritage of song and story, our devotional practices, our signs and sacraments. In large measure they are our religion. We treasure them and we are not wrong to do so. Yet they are only provisional-practices suitable for the interim between the time that is now and the time when he comes. We are living in the mean-time between the times.
In the time to come there will be no temples, no sacraments, no orders of ministry and dare I say it no choirs or other forms of music either. God will be all in all. This is what the Book of Revelation told us at the readings for Morning Prayer on Friday last.
We would do well to remember the provisional character of our religious life when we work ourselves up into a tizzy about some issue or other. Some issue to do with the use of the building or the practice of worship or the right use of Sunday or some matter to do with Christian behaviour. All these things matter but if any of them comes to matter too much then something has gone wrong.
We can come to believe too much about little things and too little about big things. Immersed as we are in running the Church which in many ways has a bureaucratic life of its own we become obsessed by trivia and detail. It’s important we keep our eyes on the big picture-that God loves us and that he will intervene at the close of the age to draw all things to himself.
To be a forerunner is hard but that is the calling of the church. We point not to ourselves but to Jesus-just like John the Baptist.
This Christmas yes even this Christmas many strangers will be coming into our churches. Perhaps seeking for something. Perhaps asking the same question that John the Baptist asked from his prison cell. Is this Jesus who you talk about the one or have we got to wait for someone else or asking a more general question about life itself. Is this it? Or could there be something better. It’s important that we give them an answer and a good answer. No this isn’t it. Things could be better. You could be better-the world could be changed. We`ve seen a vision of how. We’ve seen it in Jesus. Don’t look at us-look at him. Anticipate his coming again. Remember they that wait upon the Lord will renew their strength