ADVENT 2 REFLECTION
The desert, the wilderness, is a dangerous place. It is not just the barren, threatening landscape, the lack of water, the heat. It is also the place, notably this desert of the gospels, that was the breeding ground of revolutionaries such as the Maccabees. The desert was the place of the people’s wandering in the Exodus, trying to make their way to the Promised Land. The desert bred the prophets, the voices crying in the wilderness. It was in the desert that John the Baptist called the people to repentance and baptised them with water for cleansing and renewal. What a revolutionary prophetic figure he was, dressed in camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey – desert fare. Echoes of Old Testament prophets.
But now he was a prophet for his time and we hear his voice as we are on our journey towards Bethlehem. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”. Turn back to God, turn so that you can see what God is doing to bring heaven here on earth. So prepare the way for this coming of the Lord. Make straight paths, don’t go meandering around being diverted by other things.” Now, he said, is the chance to be renewed, so confess what is not right and be washed clean in the waters of baptism, in that river which had been the boundary of the Promised Land and had to be crossed before the people of Israel got there. It was very symbolic of entering new territory, the time and place to be ready to welcome God’s new beginning.
His message clearly connected with those people who had walked into the desert, looking for something new, some radical, revolutionary change. That is one of the groups of people who came, the ones who were searching, the ones who knew they needed something more.
Then come the Pharisees and the Sadducees. It is interesting how these two different powerful groups are often grouped together, because we know they held very different views on some important things. They come, seemingly out of curiosity, and to see, perhaps, what might be going wrong and need correction. Did they expect to hear a prophet? They probably expected to see a madman.
They get short shrift from John. It was insult enough to call someone a viper in those days, but to call them a brood of vipers was extreme indeed. What a thing to say to the guardians of the faith! But then prophets were never known for diplomacy but for speaking out in the cause of truth. So this prestigious group were told that their heritage was not enough to make them good, not by any means!
Probably the key to understanding all this is when John says “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” It is not enough to be thought to be good, or to repent inwardly. There has to be some definable result of turning back to God. Otherwise, what’s the point? The kingdom of heaven was not to be a cosy place where people could feel welcome and secure, but a place where God’s purpose could be seen, where change was evident. This is quite a message for us today too. Part of that message is shown to us in the contrast between those who come into the bare-essentials simplicity of the desert place to see what they can find, and those who come there in the assumed security of who they know themselves to be. The message about repentance is about change that happens when the trappings of self-assurance are peeled off and we stand humbly before God. As we hear the words of John the Baptist in Advent, they remind us that Christmas is not just about being helped to feel good, full of joy and peace. If we are to accept the Christ-child, God with us, we have to be prepared to make and to see a difference, for ourselves and the world around us. It shouldn’t just be a matter, afterwards, of clearing away the wrapping paper, tidying up the kitchen, taking down the decorations for another year. The importance of this annual celebration is that we go on being reminded of what it is all about, and Advent points us to how we should approach this time.
So what might be the prophetic voices in our time and place as we prepare the way for the Lord? What are the things we should pay attention to? Let’s look at what John shows us. But first we should note that John’s anticipation of what kind of person the “one who was to come after” him might be, was not in fact at all like what happened. He certainly saw power. He talks about unquenchable fire burning away the chaff. That was not the kind of person Jesus turned out to be. Indeed we hear later how John was so confused about the way Jesus did things that, as he lay in prison, he sent his disciples to ask if Jesus really was the expected Messiah. Jesus replied by telling John’s disciples to look around. They would see the lame walk, the blind receive their sight and the deaf hear. They would see healing love. They would not see a raging, unquenchable, violent fire. John knew that the Messiah would make a powerful difference he just mistook the power. He had, as we read today, understood that he was not worthy even to carry this one’s sandals. The powerful Messiah humbled him in his expectation. Maybe this humility is something that is prophetic for our day too.
Humility and simplicity are not the first things that come to mind as we look around at the pre-Christmas build up. There is far more about glitz and glamour and excess. The gift catalogues that come from charities like Uniting World, World Vision, Oxfam and so on try to put a different voice into all of this. They are some of the voices that call us back to understand the values that are born in the desert places, where, indeed, much of these charities’ work is done.
Who else do we see or hear of humbly living prophetically for our time? Is there a connection back to the stripped away simplicity of the desert? That does not mean that we are all being asked to sell up and move into Australia’s vast arid spaces. But how do we treat the peoples for whom that was, and sometimes still is home? Sometimes the cities can feel like deserts too for those who live on the margins because of circumstances, illness, lack of acceptance, lack of communication skills and so on. Do we hear those voices crying out “Make straight paths for the Lord”? There are many voices that call out to us, sometimes shouting clear messages about injustice, about lack of respect for nature and for people who are different. There are plenty of people who speak out about racism and sexism and many other “isms”. But it all comes down to us, because if we just come here and listen to things that don’t seem to connect with us, what’s the point?
But I don’t think prophetic voices or actions, or those that seem to show the fruits of repentance need to be extreme. Someone was telling me recently about when they worked as a nurse before becoming a minister. At night time, after the visitors had left, she would go to her patients with a bowl of water and gently wash their hands and then their feet. There is something Christ-like about this isn’t there? Jesus own act of gentle servanthood was a kind of summary of his ministry, offered near the end. It was a boundary crossing act, just as the whole of the incarnation is a boundary-crossing act.
Today we are thinking about peace, inside our theme of vulnerability and hope. Living at peace with ourselves, with our neighbour and with the stranger, and with the creation around us is what we would all like to do. Maybe that connects us with simplicity, humility, and with what we keep on discovering as we turn to God in repentance. I have had the words of the song “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me” going around in my head. It may seem a big step from John’s fiery prophetic voice in the desert to the words of peace, but the call of John was one of drawing people back to what they really needed in their lives. It was a call away from the self-assurance of those who thought that they knew it all or had it all, especially in the line of faith they could draw back through their ancestry. It is when we face the vulnerability of doing that that we discover the depth of peace and love that opens us up to accept the gift of the incarnation, God with us. We are reminded of that as we come to share in communion shortly. Let us then come to the table in our vulnerability, in hope and in peace.