John the Baptist takes the stage - A sermon for Advent 2 based on Luke 3: 1 - 6
It was a few weeks ago. My daughter Kaye and myself had driven to ASDA in order to get a few items. Entering the shop, we found Christmas decorations and an inane dancing Father Christmas. Kaye, who is probably even less tolerant of nonsense than I am, suggested she should slap the Father Christmas - he wasn't real- across the face. I confess that strangulation was more appealing to me.
So what caused this reaction? Well I think we both felt that this was yet another example of rushing mindlessly into Christmas. Typical of a present day obsession with instant self gratification!
Now I know that I am capable of boring on a grand scale regarding the importance of the observance of Advent. I just cannot see how we can just jump into Christmas without a time of preparation and reflection first. Anything else for me just demeans the whole significance of Christmas.
And so it is that today we turn to the somewhat uncomfortable figure of John the Baptist. Poor old John! He never makes it into our Christmas cards. Indeed he is often seen as being as welcome a Christmas figure as the Grinch. And yet all of the gospels tell us of him as the one who prepares the way for the Jesus event. So I guess it does us well to consider John in our Advent preparation.
Luke places John's mission in time. We can't be sure of the exact year but around 28CE seems a reasonable guess. Luke's method is to tell us what else was going on at the time of John's mission. this he does by telling us who were the powers at that time. We are reminded of Tiberius as emperor, Pontius Pilate as procurator of Judea and that horrible collection of sons and heirs to Herod the Great of massacre of innocence fame. what these people have in common is their misuse of power in the interests of those like themselves, the disproprtionately rich and powerful. And then we have the religious powers. By this time Annas was no longer High Priest. that position had been shifted by Rome to his son Caiaphas. But togrether they had abused their power to create an aristocracy which was to dominate Jewish religion, economics and politics.
See! What these people have in common is the ability to manipulate power. And don't they do just that! For these are the people who see power as a means to dominate others whilst exalting themselves. So when Luke sets these robber barons up against the movement of God through firstly John the Baptist and then the Jesus to whom John pointed, he is helping us to see a momenous clash beginning through irreconcilable world visions.
For on the one hand there are those who exalt power, status and the extremes of wealth whilst the God movement comes into being, challenging this culture of domination. Here is the tidings that because something has been the way in the past, it is not necessarily how God seeks to weave the future. Indeed God is working through the very nobodies whom the powers of domination would have despised. not from a place, a garrison or a seat of traditional learning does the God movement come but instead it has its beginnings in the wilderness - the margins of society!
Of course the wilderness had longed played a part in God's revelatory purposes. Moses had received his burning bush call in a wilderness. In the wilderness the freed slaves had been formed into a nation. Soon Jesus would go into the wilderness to contemplate how to work out his mission. It is the place where away from the prattle and busyness of life, people can hear the calling of God, the very thing we should be seeking at Advent!
What is the call we encounter in the wilderness? That's a big question but one aspect is that it involves our being open to change. John demonstrates this in his ministry of baptism. Today we have lost our sense of the sheer radicalism of baptism. This was after all a time when baptism was in Jewish eyes something for the gentiles. It was a means by which they were brought into the community of Israel. But surely people would protest, this was hardly needed for Jewish people who after all were the heirs of Abraham. Yet Luke tells us the Jewish people flocked to the Jordan to undergo what was in effect an admission that they did not have it all. For here we see the indicators that God is about to do a new thing. That is why the baptism was a baptism of repentance.
For us all too often repentance is about craven feelings and being sorry. But in scripture, repentance is about turning in a new direction, making a new beginning. Surely this seems to tell us that people were responding to a message that the tried and tested was not necessarily all that was needed and that instead they recognised that new beginnings and new perspectives were part of the ongoing journey engaged in by the people of God. Now just possibly is not this what Advent should be about for us?
And then finally this pasage looks to Deutero Isaiah who is thinking of the return from exile half a millenium earlier. this scripture looks to preparing a path for the Lord which puts right the imperfections of the day. What does that say to us? I think it certainly rebukes the strand of thought that looks only to end times without engaging in the dilemnas of the world. To me it suggests that we are called to address the wrongs of the world in a way that seeks to be in harmony with the Kingship of God. This means working for peace and reconciliation between diverse peoples. It means taking the wellbeing of the planet seriously when scarce resources and climate change threatens so much to so many people. It means working for economic justice and greater equality in a world that still needs to learn that the needs of the poorly housed and economically challenged surely come before the greeds of executives who despite seven figured salaries still moan on and on about bonuses. For it is when we commit ourselves to God's ways in God's world that we are enabled to discern God's salvation.
Christmas is still three weeks away. We can put all our attention on the big day and accordingly miss out on its purpose. Or we can take Advent seriously and through its observance take seriously the call of Christ to be at the heart of our lives. For Christ who has come into the world some 2,000 years ago surely cannot be left in the mists of history. In our Advent observance we are challenged to let him lose within our lives as our guide even if the direction surprises us. In our Advent observance we look to the fulfillment of his Kingdom in our world with great hope. So today Iam not going to wish any of you a happy Christmas. A fulfilling, faith building Advent must surely come first.