John – out in the desert – was in the great tradition of the Hebrew prophets. And here, we see him aware that the time was upon Him to fulfil the destiny given to him right from his conception when still in his mother’s womb, he first encountered a baby to be called Jesus being carried within his Aunt Mary’s womb.
So, in responding to a calling from God he came in from the wilderness and began to preach a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Luke names a list of rulers who probably wouldn’t have been happy with this scruffy looking prophet from the desert coming to the people and trying to put things right, especially if they thought that the one who was coming would take over their leadership from them.
Yet he came proclaiming boldly, “to prepare the way of the Lord; to make his paths straight”, this is the message of the prophet Isaiah and John the Baptist is here to put it into practice. Times are about to change people, hear ye, hear ye! The mountains are about to move, the whole landscape will change, crooked will become straight and rough will become smooth. But most importantly, all flesh will see the salvation of God.
Bold statements that saw the people distracted with superficial things come out from Jerusalem to see him. They were intrigued by this strange phenomenon of a wild man preaching repentance. They were fascinated by surface level things like his camel hair suit, wild hair-do and homemade leather belt and his fiery and passionate message of challenge. They wanted to interview him and then tell all their friends about their remarkable experience. “Who are you?” they asked. His answer was short and to the point: “I am not the Christ.” “Are you Elijah?” “No!” “Then who are you?” they persisted and though they had their doubts about who he was, his message to their ears was clear: Repent.
Repent at Christmas? Isn’t that the message of Lent, when we hear of all that torture, blood and suffering of this Jesus to whom John was a sign? But not at Christmas! Christmas is nice. Christmas is about a cute little baby and carols and presents and food and shopping!
Yes, repent approaching Christmas. John calls us to approach Christmas with honesty and openness to the Word of God. He calls us to repent our way to a merry Christmas.
Advent means “coming” and it requires a thoughtful and reflective approach to the coming of God into our humanity; with all our muck, sin and death. We prepare for Christmas by repenting. Repenting for John is more than having a change of heart or a feeling of regret. It is more than a New Year’s Eve resolution. Repentance is a turning away from ourselves, and in simple trust and faith in God’s grace, turning back to him.
Advent marks the start of a new church year, and it is customary at the start of any year to reflect on the past, look at the present and contemplate the future. We find ourselves reflecting on what God has been up to and what he will do in the future. In tough times when we feel a bit alone, it is pretty easy to start to worry about our future and feel as though we have to make everything happen by ourselves, without God! Then there is always all those things we see and hear on TV these days – so much fear and terror. So many tragedies, so much suffering.
But into this comes this fiery witness – John. He calls us away from our worries and puts our life into perspective – God’s perspective. He displays God’s passion to have us back with him. John shows God’s deep concern for us and points us sinners to the medicine for our disease – the antidote to our worry, the security for our future – Jesus.
Each of us is invited to come to Jesus one-on-one. John says prepare for the advent – the coming – of Jesus. We can’t rely on our pedigree as a dyed-in-the-wool Lutheran or an extra special member of this parish. There is no room for pleading ignorance concerning God’s call to come clean with him and repent. No, there is only room in our hearts for the grace of Jesus –that’s what it’s all about.
For us Christians, there is a lifetime of living that comes from this grace that fills our hearts. We are called by the Lord through John to reflect on what we do with the Lord’s grace and love.
Consider the following….
- If you have food in the fridge, clothes on your back, a roof overhead and a place to sleep, you are richer than 75% of people in the world.
- If you have money in the bank, in your wallet/purse and spare change in a jar somewhere, you are among the top 8% of the world’s wealthy.
- If you woke up this morning with more health than illness, you are doing better than the 1 million who will not survive the week.
- If you have never experienced the danger of battle, loneliness of imprisonment, agony of torture or pangs of starving, you are ahead of 500 million people.
- If you can attend a Christian church meeting without fear of harassment, arrest, torture or death, you are more blessed than 3 billion people.
Sobering facts that see us hearing the voice of John more as the God fearing Jews coming out from the Holy temples of Jerusalem than the wondering “un-godly, unknowing” gentiles
So, is it time for us to do a similar thing. To hear his message from the wilderness and repent, I think so. Just as it is also the time that we take his message with us into the wilderness knowing of the need to call the world to repentance and make the way straight for the coming of the kingdom of God?
Many would say that we now live in a post-Christian society, that our society has become more secular than Christian or in some parts of the world other faiths have taken precedent. Perhaps the world view right now is not so different from the time of John the Baptist, with everyone looking out for themselves and building their own kingdoms, trying to take what is someone else’s for their own benefit.
We could also say in some ways that the those of us who would call ourselves a part of the kingdom of God, the church, aren’t that different to the rest of society. We are distracted by the need to get ahead, to have all the right ‘toys’ in our houses, garages and driveways, we work too hard to have time to play, we focus on our own needs instead of the needs of others and building the kingdom of God is fairly low on the agenda for a fair majority of us. So yes, John’s message is for us too, and especially during this Advent season as we journey along the path to Christmas.
And maybe as we go, we can share our hope, our vision and our faith with those around us by becoming quiet and caring prophets as we through our actions make the path just that little bit smoother for others to see the salvation of God as well.
Post message reflection partly based on the writings of Duke Ellington
Imagine weaving your way through an ancient crowded marketplace. Pots are clanging, merchants are squabbling and a donkeys are braying as they wait to be unloaded. Your sandals scrape on cobblestone. Someone carrying an arm load of palm branches brushes quickly past you, knocking you to the ground. “Sorry!” he shouts without looking back. “I’ve got to be there when he comes!” You rise and taste the blood on your upper lip. Others are scurrying by—some with little children in their arms, some hand in hand with their lovers, one with no hand at all. A man with a withered leg hobbles up and pauses to catch his breath. “Why is everyone in such a hurry?” you ask. “It’s the healer!” he grins through three crooked teeth. “He’s coming this way.” You decide to follow. A dozen ornately clad religious teachers push briskly past. One seems excited. The others appear annoyed. “He is a great rabbi!” brags the one. “We’ll see about that!” scowl the others. You approach the gate and the crowd begins to cheer. They lift their palm branches high, like a thousand fans for a pharaoh. “Hosanna!” they shout as a wave of excitement fills the air. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven! Glory in the highest heaven!” You strain to see what is happening, looking for a warhorse, a chariot or a god. What are they waiting for? Whom are they cheering? A king? A healer? A general? And then you see him—the man on a donkey. Crowds are parting to let him pass—this strange and welcomed visitor. Not a king. Not a general. No person of prestige or power. A simple man on a donkey, with power to rivet the crowds. The religious teachers march up and order him to silence the masses. You press closer and see Him looking at the broken, hungry, oppressed and lost people, and then from His heavy eyes you see a single tear drop and wonder of such a man being honored so greatly, yet so greatly honors those before Him. . (Pause) In a moment, you are transported to the streets of your town. Crowds are scurrying. Tinsel is glittering. A tiny speaker is blaring, “Here comes Santa Claus,” above a plastic Christmas tree. You look up, half expecting to see the man on the donkey, but all that greets your sight is a mass of anxious people, a blur of bustling crowds. Credit cards flash. Tills ring. Bright wrapping paper is bound with bows but no one is speaking—no one. They all seem in such a hurry, but no one says a word. So silent about the king whose name alone bears witness to the approaching holly day. Holy day. Holiday. There is nothing said about the healer, the teacher, the king—no praises, no whispers, no words.
Then suddenly you hear those words mentioned by the veterans on that one day of the year when they once again march united, and come to understand the power and hope of those words said for their fallen comrades through the trust of what awaited them because of the one man who defeated death that life become eternal:
The tumult and the shouting dies—
The Captains and the Kings depart—
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe—
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard—
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding calls not Thee to guard.
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!
As we celebrate Advent-the coming of our Lord Jesus, we again see our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ the Son of God look toward the broken, hungry, oppressed and lost people. And look toward us and ask that we bring before Him our needs and the needs of our world. Bring before Him our fears, and the fears of the people that all will see and know the hope that is He. Amen