Tomorrow will be a milestone for me: the iPad arrived on Thursday, and so in the morning I shall preach my first paperless sermon in the thirty-five years since I first preached as a teenager. Here it is:
There’s no doubt about it: if you put together your dream team for ‘I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here’, John the Baptist would be on it. The man who lived in the desert and existed on a diet of locusts and honey would be a shoo-in for the bush tucker trials. In a cage, having insects dropped on him? Breakfast. Being forced to eat the private parts of strange Australian animals? Lunch. Any fading radio or television personalities seeking to re-ignite their careers by endearing themselves to the public through their endurance of humiliation would be blown away by J the B.
But sometimes we don’t get much past that aspect of John, those elements of his lifestyle that we condescendingly assume to be eccentric. Who has not secretly sniggered at the gospel descriptions of him?
There is far more to him, in terms of the way he prepares the way for the Messiah – which is why, part-way through Advent, we skip thirty years beyond Jesus’ birth to passages such as today’s. These six verses, which we might mistakenly dismiss as a mere preface to the real action, are packed with significance for the coming of the Christ.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene – during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Verses 1-2)
‘History is bunk’ was the foolish saying of Henry Ford, the car maker. It is a sentiment echoed by the so-called New Atheists today, who sneer at our scriptures on the basis that it is crazy to base our lives on writings from the Bronze Age.
But Luke – not for the first time – locates his story in space and time. ‘This is the year that it happened,’ he says, ‘and these are the people who were in power.’
Why does this matter? Because the coming of the Christ changed everything. There are such things as events that altered the course of history, and Luke makes the bold claim that the arrival of the Messiah is just that – indeed, the greatest such event in history. This is what we are marking. There are certain parts of our Scriptures where it is of little account whether they are historical, but this is one of many – and the pivotal one at that – where the fact of history is critical to the truth.
Well, this is not an interventionist God but the work of a God who is always at work in history, and who did his most significant historical work among the human race when he gave up his only begotten Son.
It is this God who is committed to changing history. It is this God who cares about the historical circumstances in which we find ourselves. The God who announced his Son through John the Baptist during the reign of Tiberius Caesar, under the delegated authority exercised by Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip and Lysanias, and during the times of Annas and Caiaphas, is the God who is still at work in the reign of Elizabeth II, her Prime Minister David Cameron and of Mark Wakelin’s presidency of the Methodist Conference. Here and now, in December 2012, that God is present and at work for his kingdom through his Son and in the power of his Spirit.
What does that mean for us? God through Jesus is always committed to working for salvation. That includes now. Take a moment to reflect: where do we need to see God at work? Where does our world need to see God at work? The Advent message as John the Baptist heralds the coming King is that the King is still coming in salvation, because history is the arena where he works. That means us, just as much as the biblical story.
Our second theme is power. Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip and Lysanias; Annas and Caiaphas. It’s quite a list, isn’t it? John the Baptist announces the coming Messiah in a context of these powerful people.
The snag is, John isn’t impressed by the powerful and the Gospel writers certainly weren’t, either. Pontius Pilate chose to save his own political bacon rather than do justice. Herod saved his adulterous marriage by executing John. Annas and Caiaphas conspired in the arrest of Jesus.
John, on the other hand, works on the margins, in the countryside (verse 3) and the wilderness (verse 4), far from the centres of power, just as Jesus was born in little old insignificant Bethlehem, not in the capital city of Jerusalem.
It raises a serious question for us about how we view power and influence. Ours is a culture that refers to the President of the USA as ‘the most powerful person on Earth’. We talk about politicians being ‘in power’. It is also exercised by the media and by multinational companies. We defer to the influence of celebrities.
And before we look too far down our noses at this culture, let us remember that the church falls into the same trap all too often as well. We like it when a famous person becomes a Christian, as if their testimony were more valuable than that of an ‘ordinary’ person. We think the Church is more effective when we lobby politicians. We are under a delusion that the most important people in the Church are the ministers, and especially those holding senior positions.
Does any of this make sense when John exercises his ministry off the beaten track? When the only time we know he came into contact with the powerful was when he criticised Herod’s adulterous marriage and paid with his life? It’s hardly the kind of life that would feature in Hello magazine, or get press releases in the daily papers.
Knowing this, I am fond of the expression coined by one Christian that what we are about in the mission of Jesus is ‘the conspiracy of the insignificant’. It is the sort of thing going on at Corinth when the Apostle Paul reminds them that not many of them came from influential parts of society.
So take heart if you are one of our world’s nobodies. You are precisely the sort of person God delights to use in the spread of his kingdom, as he reverses the values of our world. If he even sent his Son to be born in an obscure town and raised in another backwater, if he grew up as an artisan rather than a power broker, what do you think that says about his potential to use you in his kingdom purposes?
However, that still leaves a question especially for some Surrey residents. We include among our number people who are influential in ways that the world recognises. Should such Christians give up their roles?
By no means necessarily. There are a few such people featured among the disciples of Jesus in the Gospels, and occasionally in Acts and the Epistles. They clearly remained where they were when they were called by Christ. The distinctive Christian call to such people is surely to subvert the world’s love affair with power by not using it in self-aggrandising ways, but by seeking to use such positions for the welfare of others, as a voice for the voiceless not a cheerleader for the privileged, and in the fashion of a servant, contrary to expectations.
Thirdly and finally, having been firstly among the historians and secondly among the politicians and the powerful, then we are now among the civil engineers. Our third theme coalesces around images of roadworks:
‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
“Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.”’ (Verses 4-6)
Straightened paths, filled-in valleys, mountains and hills flattened, crooked roads straightened, rough ways made smooth. As the arrival of winter here sees the increase of potholes in Surrey roads, so a Highways Agency project rather like this prophecy of Isaiah 40 that Luke quotes sounds very appealing to us.
But we generally interpret this as an image for the kind of message John the Baptist proclaimed, namely one of repentance. Although Isaiah 40 in its original context has a sense of smoothing out the way for God to lead his people on a highway back from Babylon to Judah, in the New Testament’s use in relation to John it becomes a metaphor for repentance. John is announcing that the King is coming, and so just as a town is cleaned up before a royal visit, so we need to straighten out the roads of our lives in order to be ready for Christ.
That much is certainly true. We need to get rid of our crooked ways if we are to be fit to receive the King. Advent needs to be a time of self-examination. Preparation for Christmas is not merely about completing the present-buying, writing the cards and finishing the annual letter. It is a time of spiritual preparation, which is why there are hints in earlier centuries of the Church that Advent was regarded as some kind of penitential season, almost like Lent. As the world is filled with lights outside, we need to shine lights inside to see how we are preparing our hearts and minds for the reign of God in Christ.
Yet let me suggest there is more to this than we sometimes suppose. There is here preparation that we need to do – ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight paths for him’ but this is not just about commands to us. The rest of the prophecy is about promise – ‘Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill laid low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation.’
Not only are we commanded to change, God promises change. I believe this means a couple of things. One is the gospel reminder that the call to change our lives is never meant to be accomplished on our own. We are incapable alone of making ourselves into the people God wants us to be. But his command to turn our lives around is accompanied by the promise that he will be at work among us by his Spirit to fulfil those purposes.
However, I think there is even more here than that. If God promises that we shall change from crooked to straight, from rough to smooth, then I suggest that is not only about growing in holiness. I offer to you the thought that there is much that is rough and crooked in our lives that is not necessarily sin. We carry burdens, brokenness, damage and pain from so much of life and I believe God also promises the straightening out of these sorrows and defects, too. Is that not what Jesus also came to do, as well as call people to repentance, as his cousin John did? Just as I long for the day when I shall no longer have to slalom around the regular potholes in our road – well, I can hope! – so I long for the day when God will complete his work of restoration in every way.
If you thought, then, that everything about John the Baptist was severe, I invite you to think again. Yes, there is the challenge to repentance, but it comes in the context of the God who is always at work in history – including ours. It comes as good news from the God who is pleased to work among the nobodies and on the fringes. It comes as part of a rebuilding package for every part of our lives.
Let us celebrate the ministry of John the Baptist and every way in which he points us and the world to Christ.
A bumper selection, collected and curated by Joanne Cox, is on BigBible.
If I were ever to be on a TV show, I think Grumpy Old Men might suit me. Not that I would ever be famous enough to be invited, but I can be the sort of person who thinks that Ebenezer Scrooge was given an unfair press. It’s not simply that this is the time of year when Debbie gets out all the Singing Santa toys that she and the children love (and which can drive me mad), it’s this Second Sunday in Advent.
You see, the grump in me wonders why it got changed in the current Lectionary. You used to know where you were in the four Sundays of Advent. The first Sunday was about the Advent Hope – not just Christ’s original coming but the promise of his appearing again in glory. The second Sunday was about the promise of the Messiah in the Old Testament prophets. Sunday number three introduced you to the man with the extreme diet, John the Baptist. Then on the fourth Sunday it’s the Annunciation by Gabriel to Mary.
What went wrong? How come we now get a reading about John the Baptist this week as well as next week? Some of it has to do with the moving of Bible Sunday into October, although I’m not sure which came first. Perhaps a grumpy old man like me should appreciate two weeks’ worth of his fire and brimstone preaching, but actually I miss the emphasis on the prophets.
And no, it’s wrong to see the prophets as a job lot of grumpy old men. In the short term, they did warn people about the consequences of sin. But in the long term, they held out the hope of God’s future. In Isaiah’s case, that included the hope that God would send his Anointed One, that is, the Messiah.
So, then, what does this passage from Isaiah point us to in the hope of the Messiah’s coming? I want to take Isaiah’s original intentions and give them a distinctively Christ-centred flavour.
Firstly, let me take you to the manse Debbie and I had in the circuit before last. Known among local Methodists as ‘the Frost manse’, because David Frost famously lived there as a boy when his father was the local Methodist minister just after World War Two. The house had begun life, though, as the admiral’s house for the nearby Chatham Dockyard. Thus, although it was terraced, it was a large house. The downstairs study which Paradine Frost, David Frost’s father, had used when he was there, had by our time been converted into a huge kitchen. There was ample space not only to cook but also to seat several people around a dining table for meals.
There was a large window from the kitchen looking out onto the garden. Unfortunately, it didn’t let in much light, and we had to turn on the lights earlier and more frequently than might have been expected.
Why was this so? Because a large tree stood not far outside the window. Far enough away for the roots not to affect the house, but near enough to darken the kitchen. Eventually, we asked the circuit if they could send in a tree surgeon, which they did, and we gained more natural light when he had reduced it to a stump.
Isaiah begins by talking about a stump:
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. (Verse 1)
‘The stump of Jesse’ is a tragic statement. You will remember that Jesse was the father of David, and all Israel’s hopes had been in him. Yet this seems to suggest that David’s line has failed, even to the point where his father is named instead of him. The great tree has been cut down to a stump. ‘The stump of Jesse’ implies human failure and sin. Time after time, Israel and Judah had been let down by her kings.
Yet, says Isaiah, ‘from the stump of Jesse’ shall come ‘a shoot’ ‘and a branch shall grow out of his roots’. From a long line of human failure, God will grow his purposes. From generations of sinners, God will bring his Messiah. From iffy patriarchs whose morals crumbled under pressure, to Rahab the prostitute, to King David the adulterer and murderer, the ancestral line of the Messiah is filled with broken sinners. Within the purposes of God you get Moses who murdered a man and ran away, then protested when God called him that he couldn’t be a public speaker. You have Gideon, who was fearful and full of doubt. There is Jeremiah, who may well have suffered from depression, yet only Isaiah exceeds him among the prophets.
And so that is the first theme I want to take from Isaiah – the hope of the Messiah is one of God working through sinners. God’s purposes are accomplished through a people that one video clip I saw the other day called ‘The March of the Unqualified’.
This Advent, then, be encouraged by the prophetic hope that whatever your failures, whatever your weaknesses, whatever your disappointments, God is capable of working his purposes out through you. If you think that your sins have disqualified you from God and that you have shrivelled from a tree to a stump, then know that God is able to develop a shoot from your stump and a branch from your roots. The God of grace and mercy has come to shine his light into the world even through a cut-down stump.
Secondly, if there’s one thing I get very little of as a parent of young children, but which I would like to have more of, it’s rest. While – as I told Knaphill last week – I begrudgingly rely on an alarm clock in the morning, there are times when it’s not needed. We have two small human alarm clocks, and one in particular. Rest is something Debbie and I envy in others.
But the trouble with words is one of multiple meaning. Think of how you look up a dictionary definition for a word, only to face a range of options. And ‘rest’ is one such word. In the way I have just used it, the connection is with sleep. But ‘rest’ can also mean ‘stay’. I’d like to combine the two meanings of rest into one, of course: stay asleep!
But it’s this second meaning of ‘rest’, that of staying, which Isaiah uses here:
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. (Verse 2)
It’s not simply that the Messiah will have the Spirit of the Lord, it’s that the Spirit of the Lord will rest – that is, stay – on him. Generally in the Old Testament when the Spirit of God comes upon someone it is a ‘tumultuous and spasmodic’ experience. The Spirit usually comes dramatically, but only temporarily.
Therefore it’s a big thing for Isaiah to speak about the Spirit resting on the Messiah. Here is the one on whom the Spirit will come and remain. The Messiah will have God’s Spirit permanently. And when John the Baptist says that Jesus is the one on whom he saw the Holy Spirit come and remain, he is making a big claim – a claim that here indeed is the Messiah.
What does this resting of the Spirit upon Jesus mean for us? It ushers in the New Testament era of faith, where the people of the Messiah may receive the same gift. The coming of Jesus the Messiah is the coming of a new age, the age of the Holy Spirit, where Jesus, who received the Spirit permanently, gives the Spirit to his followers in the same way. There may still be dramatic experiences of the Holy Spirit, but the Spirit does not generally depart from a person any more. The Spirit may become distant when we grieve him by our sin, but the intention of Jesus in the messianic age is to give the Holy Spirit as a permanent endowment. In this way, Advent and Christmas look forward to Pentecost!
So be encouraged. Just as the Christ child is called ‘Immanuel’, God with us, so he comes with the promise of God being with us – ‘even to the close of the age’ – because he who receives the Spirit permanently gives the Spirit in the same way. Do not think that God has deserted you. As one Christian scholar puts it, even doubt ‘is a time of “disguised closeness” to God’. Or as the liturgy puts it, in a dialogue between minister and congregation: ‘The Lord is here.’ ‘His Spirit is with us.’
So far, then, we have good news twice over: firstly, that God works even through sinners and failures to bring his messianic purposes to fruition. Secondly, that the Messiah receives the Spirit permanently and gives the Spirit in a similar way to his disciples, so we may know that God is always present with us, even when we can neither see nor feel him. I want to draw out a third strand of this messianic hope before I close.
Just as we’ve thought about the word ‘rest’ as having more than one meaning, this third thought also depends on a double entendre. Not in the sense of a rude joke, but because biblical words are often so rich they convey multiple meanings.
There is one such word in our passage, and Isaiah uses it more than once: righteousness: ‘with righteousness he shall judge the poor’ (verse 4); ‘Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist’ (verse 5). Isaiah uses the word ‘righteousness’ of the Messiah here in terms of who he is, and what he does. Isaiah uses ‘righteousness’ for the Messiah’s dealings with people, and for the society he creates.
It’s a many-layered word, and at the heart of God’s righteousness in Christ is God’s covenant faithfulness. In covenant faithfulness through Jesus, God will make people righteous with him. Ultimately, we know he will do that through the Cross. But this righteousness is not just a ‘get out of jail free’ card for the Day of Judgment. God’s righteousness is also about the transformation he wants to bring to people, to societies, to the world and even to all creation. God’s righteousness is about personal and social salvation, personal and social transformation.
If this is what Jesus the Messiah came to do, it crosses the boundaries we sometimes erect in the church. On the one side we have those who say personal conversion to Christ is the be-all and end-all of faith. They say that society will not change until people are changed by God. On the other there are those who are almost cynical about personal conversion and say the big thing is social justice. Yet the righteousness of the Messiah doesn’t allow us to split personal conversion and social justice and play them off against each other, supporting our particular favourite. Jesus has come to call people to personal faith in him, and to share in his project of transforming the world.
And if that’s the case, woe betide us if we reduce Advent or Christmas to gooey sentimental thoughts about a baby. The baby who came did so through God’s purposes of using weak, sinful people. The baby who came would receive the Spirit in full measure and permanently, and came to give the Spirit permanently to those weak sinners that God delights in using. And the baby who came gave the Spirit to weak sinners to bring them to faith in him and to empower them to work for God’s kingdom.
The prophets don’t let us settle for a half-hearted, diluted hope. Let’s make sure we drink their hope neat.
One of my least favourite, but most necessary, possessions is the alarm clock. Without it, someone like me, who is constitutionally a night owl, would oversleep every morning. I cannot say I appreciate the insistent beeping that says, “Listen to me, I am so annoying. Just get up and switch me off.” While other people bounce out of bed, energised to meet the new day, I wish the god of sleep had not been dethroned for yet another day.
The apostle Paul wouldn’t have known about alarm clocks, but he describes Advent in a manner that is like seeing it as God’s alarm clock. It urgently tells us God’s time. It tells us that
our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed (verse 11)
The night is nearly over; the day is almost here (verse 12).
Advent is the season that tells us God’s time. It tells us not simply that Christ is coming in terms of his birth at Christmas, it tells us that he will one day appear again, this time not in obscurity but in glory.
In these terms, we might get nervous about Advent as an alarm clock. The thought that ‘our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed’ makes us think of those Christians who are forever predicting that Jesus will come again very soon. Their predictions always fail, and we are left with the Christian faith being discredited by what is either well-meaning error or cynical emotional blackmail. We want none of that. We know that Jesus said no-one knew when he was coming again.
But the basic truth which Paul elucidates here must be true: our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The fullness of God’s kingdom is closer. There is less time until the general resurrection of the dead, and God brings in his new heavens and new earth.
God wants to tell us his time. He will not tell us when Jesus is returning, but the fact that he is has an effect upon the way that we live the Christian life. With an alarm clock, there is no room for complacency. It rings or beeps incessantly, until we do something about it. And that is what God is doing at Advent. He is saying to us, this is no time to be lax about being a Christian. Rather, this is a time to be active, deliberate and full of intent as a follower of Jesus. Like the t-shirt slogan says, ‘Jesus is coming: better look busy!’
Telling the Advent time, then, is about living with a sense of urgency. Not frantic, not haunted or hunted, but urgent.
That’s all very well, but what does that mean? Paul calls us to two actions that we need to do when the alarm clock goes off. The first is to wake up:
The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber (verse 11).
In a service where we have already baptised Leo, ‘wake up’ may be a theme that provokes certain thoughts and emotions from Kim and Mark! While I hope that at two years old, Leo has long since established a sleep pattern, there are doubtless still plenty of occasions when his parents don’t need an alarm clock, because they are woken by his calling.
What does it mean to wake up when we discover the urgency of God’s time? Partly, it is about the urgency of which I spoke a moment ago. When we know that the grains of sand are trickling down through God’s timer, then we know we need to wake up and get on with things. The alarm clock says, if you don’t get on with things now, you’ll be late for work. And you don’t want that. The crying baby says, I have an urgent need. Come to me!
What kind of person is ‘awake’, according to Paul? It is one who is prepared for the end of the night and the breaking of the dawn. For Paul, the ‘night’ is the present evil age, the age of sin, which Christ came to conquer and redeem in the Cross. The ‘day’ that is ‘close at hand’ (verse 12) is the kingdom of God, where God reigns in love, justice and grace. If we have heard God’s Advent alarm clock, we want to be living as if it is daylight, not as if it is night.
So if I am to be ‘awake’ in the sight of God, I will be a person who embraces the kingdom of God. I will be someone who lives according to the values and principles of God’s coming age, even when they conflict with the darkness of the contemporary ‘night’ in which we find ourselves living.
Therefore, to live awake as if in God’s daytime is to live by love for God and for neighbour. To be awake in Christ is to live in a spirit that forswears revenge in favour of forgiveness. To live in the day means to show God’s special concern for the poor and the obscure, instead of the popular fantasies that prefer the wealthy, the powerful and the celebrities. To be awake in the kingdom of God is to live a life based on the fact that the most precious thing in all the world is to know that I am ‘loved with an everlasting love’ by Almighty God in Jesus Christ. I do not then take my significance or status from my job or my social standing: to do so is a vanity, compared with God’s love for me in Christ. To live as awake in the light of Christ is to know that God’s words are a light to my path, not to let the loud but passing fads of our culture steer our lives.
Advent, then, is a call to wake up to God’s time: that Jesus who came will come again. It means we need to wake up and live in God’s daylight. I’ve just suggested a few examples of what that will mean for us.
But to do so requires a determined attitude. When we wake up, there are various things we need to do in order to face what life has for us. One such thing is to get dressed, and that is the other thing Paul calls us to do here: get dressed. In fact, he says it twice, in slightly different language each time:
So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light. (Verse 12)
Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ (verse 14).
‘Put on’; ‘clothe yourselves’. Get dressed. Wear on the one hand ‘the armour of light’ or on the other hand ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’. What are we to take from these images? I believe it’s something to do with the fact that to live according to the daylight of God’s kingdom rather than the night-time of the present age is going to take an effort. We need to be intentional about it – that is, it won’t just happen to us. The old slogan ‘let go and let God’ may be valuable in teaching us to trust God, but if we think we don’t have a responsibility for our actions, we’re tragically mistaken. We need to co-operate with the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We shall live by his power, but we need to say ‘yes’ to walking in his ways.
We have all the resources of Jesus Christ, but we still need to ‘put him on’ – to be ‘clothed in Christ’. God shines his light, but we still need to ‘put on the armour of light’.
And perhaps ‘armour’ is a telling image for the clothing we wear. To wake up and live in God’s daytime is to accept not merely that we will live differently from the world. It is to accept that to do so will mean we need the protection of divine armour, because we shall find ourselves in a conflict, and sometimes under attack for doing so. The trouble with living by daylight is that light starts to shine into darkened places, and the darkness no more welcomes that than a dictatorship embraces dissidents. If we put on the armour of light, we are the dissidents of the world.
Think about it in relation to the examples I mentioned a minute or two ago: loving God and loving neighbour sounds attractive – after all Girl Guides promise to love God and do good – but while society will accept this up to a point, what our culture really wants to believe is that charity begins at home. In other words, we put ourselves first. Forgiving those who wrong us may get some admiring coverage for a while, but ultimately it’s a challenge to those who always need to find a scapegoat to blame for everything. Finding our status in the love of God rather than in our job or our social standing turns our society’s way of putting people in their place upside down. Favouring the poor and the marginalised may win you certain plaudits, but in the long run our economy can’t run that way, because it’s structured to thrive as much by our purchasing the things we don’t need as anything else.
It requires determination, then, to wake up and get dressed in the light of God’s time. Right now, Paul places us at the end of the night, as dawn is coming. Night is fleeing, the day is on its way. But his image breaks down, because he is imagining not a sequence where day follows night but a clash between night and day. If we live in God’s coming daylight, we shall be drawn into that conflict until the time of God’s final and ultimate triumph over the night. Sometimes, the forces of the night will inflict suffering on the armies of the day. That is to be expected for a community that was formed around the sinless Son of God who was crucified on false charges.
But … we are not merely the community of the Cross, but of the Empty Cross. We are the people of the Empty Tomb. We who are called to wake up and live in the light of God’s coming day are those who do so, knowing what the future holds. The final chapter of Revelation, the final book in the Bible, contains an image of God’s people in God’s new Jerusalem that is pertinent to our theme this morning. Revelation 22:5 says this:
There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.
Friends, as the Advent alarm clock rings and we wake up, determined to get dressed and live in the light of God’s coming day regardless of the temporary presence of the remaining night, we do so knowing the future God has for us. Whatever the darkness does to us now, the Advent hope is not merely that the light of Christ comes into the world. It is that it will prevail.
Whatever the evidence looks like at times, when we commit our lives to following Jesus, we sign up with the winning side.
That’s the Advent hope.
For the second year running, a group called Beyond Church has organised an outdoor Advent calendar. It’s a series of beach huts on Brighton beach. Does anyone fancy Brighton beach in December? They had a hundred people turn up on the first night. But if you don’t fancy that, you can follow it online or follow the daily coverage in The Independent and stay in the comfort of your home. If, however, Brighton in winter isn’t challenging enough for you, then you can travel north to Bridlington, where local Christians are doing the same on their beach. Brighton or Bridlington, though, you’re talking about bleak places at this time of year.
But Advent is about God doing great things in bleak places. Today’s Gospel reading offers us precisely that, as it describes the essence of John the Baptist’s ministry. John’s ministry not in a cold, bleak place but a hot, bleak place – the wilderness – prepared the people of his day for the coming of Jesus. We too may discover a profound meeting with God in the bleak places.
The first thing I want to share is to do with our significance to God.
When I candidated for the ministry, my Superintendent Minister at the time gave me a piece of advice. It began with the word ‘Read’, and you know that’s a favourite word of mine! But he went on to say, ‘Read political biographies and learn all you can from the people who exercise power.’
There is some virtue in this, of course. It is good to understand the way things work and the motivations people have. What I wasn’t to know was that he was a man obsessed with getting to know the well-known and the powerful – admittedly in the small pond of Methodism – and that his interest in the influential was about climbing the greasy pole of preferment in the church. He succeeded – for a short while.
And you might think when you hear the beginning of this reading that Luke has a similar interest:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Verses 1-2)
Emperors, governors, rulers, high priests. Indeed when you read Luke’s Gospel, you often find him setting events in historical context. But you know, Luke isn’t too bothered about the Emperor Tiberius or Pontius Pilate or Herod, Philip, Annas or Caiaphas. He isn’t star-struck. Luke knows that God has a special place for the poor and marginalised, for those whom this world doesn’t regard as powerful or significant. So Luke recognises that the true action doesn’t take place in a palace or a temple, but in the wilderness. The same Luke who tells us about the manger and the shepherds takes us to the centre of God’s purposes where the red carpet is made of sand.
Here, then, is this country boy, John, living in the middle of nowhere, probably undetectable by sat-nav. And he is God’s person for this strategic moment in history. He gets to be the compère for the long-awaited Messiah.
Now if this is true of John, what might we take from this? I suggest it’s time to challenge all the ideas that some of us might not be valuable to God or able to be used by him. So often I hear people saying, “I can’t do that, I’m not a minister. I don’t have your knowledge. I’m not special. I’m not anyone.”
To that, God says a great big NO! Because to him you are significant, you are made in his image, you are redeemed by his Son, the Spirit of God lives in you. And what matters is not your ability but your availability. This year, learn that you are significant to God. He isn’t waiting for you to be rich and famous. He isn’t impressed by celebrity culture. He is just waiting for you to say ‘yes’ to him, because he loves you and he has a purpose for you that nobody else can fulfil.
You are significant to God.
Secondly, John in the wilderness shows us the importance of God’s word.
Two things in this reading point to this. One is that John’s ministry begins when ‘the word of the Lord came to [him]’ (verse 2). The other is that Luke sees John’s ministry as a fulfilment of the prophecy in Isaiah 40 (verses 4-6). Between them, these help us in our call to hear the word of God.
How John receives the word of the Lord isn’t explained to us, any more than it is in the Old Testament when we read similarly that the word of the Lord came to a certain prophet. We know ourselves that there are many ways that we hear God’s message. The common theme, surely, is that John was listening. And focussed listening is a great challenge in our society, when we are being bombarded by messages from here, there and everywhere. You have turned your mobile phones off before the service, haven’t you?
There were three people in the rows in front of us who had their cell phones open during the entire movie. They were text messaging and surfing the Internet and otherwise annoying people. As I saw those cell phone screens open during the movie, I observed that the people using them were not fully committed to being anywhere during those two hours. They were physically sitting in the theatre, even sitting with others who accompanied them, but their minds and hearts were all over the place. They were not fully present, in terms of their attention, to the visual and auditory experience in front of them, they were not fully present to their friends and family that they were sitting next to, and they were not geographically present to the people they were text messaging. They ha a hand and foot in several different places that were disconnected, leaving them as some sort of radical amputees. They were everywhere and they were nowhere. (Page 68f)
Everywhere and nowhere, radical amputees. Because they couldn’t or wouldn’t be fully present to one source of communication. A page before this, the author quotes a magazine article in which the writer argues that the rise of new technology has adversely affected people’s ability to concentrate for a long period of time on reading. Now people get fidgety after two or three pages.
Now you know I am not exactly adverse to new technology, and I know not all of you use it, but we are all affected in some way by the increased number and speed of communications today. But if I really want to reflect deeply on a Bible passage, then it’s not enough for me to look it up on the Internet and display it on my computer screen as I do when preparing sermons, because if I do that there are plenty of distractions at hand which disturb my concentration. I have to go away from the computer and ensure that I am only focussing on that Bible passage. It’s the same with a book. I can’t read one at the desk where the computer sits.
Why go into all this? Because if we, like John, are to hear the word of the Lord, we need to do some radical things in terms of aiding our concentration in listening. We need to set aside time for the Scriptures and prayer that are away from other distractions. That’s why a set time of personal devotions is good. Get away from whatever might tempt you with a stream of other messages or information, whether that’s the computer, the television or the phone.
Luke may not have had modern communications tools, but I feel sure the only way he would have concluded that John the Baptist fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah was that he – as a Gentile interested in Judaism – had given concentrated time to the Scriptures. And John probably only heard the word of the Lord because he had put himself away from distractions, too. In his case it was the wilderness. In our case it might simply be another room in the house. But whatever it takes, do it – because we need to hear the word of the Lord.
Thirdly and finally, John in the wilderness shows us the importance of repentance.
John proclaims ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (verse 3), and Luke adds imagery to this from Isaiah 40: the way of the Lord is to be prepared by making crooked paths straight, dealing with bumpy roads by filling valleys and lowering mountains, and smoothing out the rough ways. It’s what we all wish the Highways Agency would do for the A12.
Now that’s more than a cheap joke. Many of us know what it’s like to drive stretches of the A12 and feel the suspension of our car tested. The section from around about Witham to Colchester is particularly taxing. We long for a straight, smooth road. No wonder it was dubbed Britain’s worst road in a 2007 survey.
God longs for a smooth, straight road, too. His desire is that the potholes in our lives be filled in, that our crooked ways are made straight, and that when people encounter us we don’t damage their suspension!
In the wilderness, away from other distractions, we find ourselves unnervingly face to face with ourselves, and the disguises with which we cloak our sins are gone. Spiritually naked before God, we know what we must do. John’s baptism (which is not quite the same as Christian baptism) gives us the symbol of washing to be made clean and new.
So what are our crooked ways? Where are we not on the level? What are we hiding in our valleys or covering with mountains? Let’s not pretend that just because we are churchgoers and Christians that we are fine. Most, if not all, of us, need straightening out by God in some ways. If we just see Advent as a time when the anticipation and excitement ramps us towards the 25th, we are seriously mistaken.
For repentance is fundamental to our Advent preparation. If the King is coming, we need to make a straight and smooth highway for him in our lives. And repentance is essentially two things in the Bible. In the Greek of the New Testament the word means ‘a change of mind’, just as our English word ‘repent’ is related to the French repenser, which means to think again. So repentance first of all means we have a change of mind, a complete rethink about our lives. Jesus is not just a bolt-on to an existing Western lifestyle. Meeting Jesus means thinking again about the whole direction of our lives.
And the second thing it means, more so in the Aramaic and Hebrew behind the New Testament culture, is related to that. It means ‘a change of direction’. Because if we have had a change of mind about our lives, it can’t stop with the thinking: the thinking must lead to action. If we continue with the imagery of the road, this is not about a straight road but about a U-turn. God’s sat-nav is pointing some of us in a new direction, and our spiritual health depends on us following the new route instructions.
In conclusion, someone once said that Advent is a mixture of promises and warnings. We have had both in our reading today. In appreciating our significance to God, we have a promise of grace. In hearing the call to repentance, we have a warning. And in coming to God’s word, we have a message that is both promise and warning.
What is the Holy Spirit bringing to us this morning? Promises? Warnings? Or both? Let those with ears to hear, hear what the Spirit is saying.
“This is my friend David Lewis, whom I’ve never met before.”
Those of you who came to the recent demonstration of the Digital Hymnal may remember me using those words. David, the minister of Hutton and Shenfield Union Church, brought the equipment to show us what it could do. I knew David through Internet connections – Facebook, Twitter and his blog. But before that evening we had never met. I had seen photos of him, I knew what his work was and had some idea of his interests. But I had never actually met him.
On Advent Sunday, we think in similar terms about Jesus. We know him, but we have never met him face to face. Yet on Advent Sunday, our thoughts traditionally go not to his first coming in the Incarnation but his ‘second coming’ – although the expression ‘second coming’ is not a biblical one. The main Greek words used in the New Testament mean his ‘appearing’ or his ‘royal presence’. Right now he is hidden from us and we know him from the Scriptures, the internal witness of the Holy Spirit, the sacraments and what we see of his work in others and in creation, but we have not seen him. Advent Sunday is when we look forward to seeing him when he appears.
So we turn to these words in Luke 21, a chapter where Jesus addresses all sorts of world-changing events – the Resurrection, the coming fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 and the ‘second coming’ – or, if you prefer, ‘the appearing of his royal presence’. What does Jesus say to his followers?
Firstly, he gives his followers a sign:
‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’ (Verses 25-28)
Is this a weather forecast? No. you don’t expect these verses to be followed by someone saying, “And tomorrow will be windy with scattered showers.” Rather, various Old Testament prophets referred to the ‘Day of the Lord’ having cosmic portents involving the sun, moon and stars – there are echoes here of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Joel.
So is it a sign of the Last Judgment? You might think so when you read about ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with great power and glory: that fits our stereotypes about Christ’s return. Except … it’s a quotation from Daniel 7, and the context is one of vindication after suffering. Which makes the more likely context here not the Second Coming but the Resurrection.
So – the Resurrection of Jesus is a sign of the Second Coming. Why? Because the Resurrection was the first evidence of God making all things new. Jesus received his resurrection body, just as others will at the End.
What does that mean for us? It means that in the Resurrection we already have the guarantee that God will renew creation and bring justice. The Resurrection is what the New Testament calls the ‘first fruits’ – it’s the harvest that happened in late Spring which reassured people the main harvest would come at the end of the summer. For us, then, the Resurrection means we know Jesus will appear again, and God will put right all that is broken and that contradicts his will. Because we are Easter people, we are also Advent people.
When I was a teenage Christian, I discovered the music of an American Christian singer called Randy Stonehill. The last song on one of his albums was called ‘Good News’. I expected a song called ‘Good News’ to be about the Cross, but it was about the Second Coming. ‘Good news, Christ is returning,’ sang Stonehill.
And now I think he was right. The coming of Christ is good news, because it means all will be well. And we believe that because we have the sign of the Resurrection. So when injustice prevails, remember Jesus is risen and will come again. When suffering overwhelms, remember Jesus is risen and is returning. This is a doctrine of hope for the Christian.
Secondly, Jesus gives his followers a parable, the story of the fig tree:
Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Verses 29-33)
I have two problems with this story: firstly I am no gardener, and secondly I don’t like figs. However, it is clear even to a garden-phobic, fig-hating person like me that there is a simple principle at work in this parable. When a tree sprouts leaves, you know what is coming: it is certain.
What does that mean for the followers of Jesus? I think it means this: the purposes of God are certain. When God sets out to accomplish his great plans for creation and for humanity, they will be fulfilled. I am not suggesting that God dictates everything and that we are mere pawns, nor do I believe that our every action is predestined. What I believe is simply this: that God has free will and we have free will, but God’s power means he has more free will than us, and he uses it to further his purposes of salvation. As the fig tree sprouts and later summer comes, so God speaks and his words do not pass away.
How do we respond to this parable? In rather similar ways to the sign of the Resurrection. We respond with hope and with humble confidence. We put our lives in the hands of the God who promises to work for good in all things with those who love him, those who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).
So this is a parable of hope for the disciples of Jesus. Those of us who entrust our lives into his hands and follow him know that a good outcome is promised for creation. Suffering will not render life meaningless. Evil will not prevail. Things may happen which cause our pulse rate to rise and worries to increase, but in the midst of the anxiety God offers us peace, because his Son is risen from the dead and is coming again. Be encouraged! As the communion liturgy says, ‘Lift up your hearts – we lift them to the Lord.’ And, ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.’
Thirdly and finally, Jesus gives his followers an exhortation:
‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’ (Verses 34-36)
What is the essence of this exhortation? To me, it is a call to a disciplined life. ‘Be on guard,’ says Jesus. Don’t have a lifestyle of dissipation and drunkenness. ‘Be alert.’ These are the watchwords of lives with a focus, a focus on Christ, and therefore matched with a discipline to keep that focussed concentration on him and not on sin or a casual approach to life. The watching and alertness are not about working out exactly when Jesus will return, but about keeping our eyes fixed on him in our lives.
So the way to prepare for the coming of Christ is not to work out a celestial timetable, but to concentrate our efforts on doing what pleases him. We do that in contrast to a lifestyle of ‘dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life’, as Jesus puts it – which remains a very contemporary challenge.
The temptation to ‘dissipation’ or self-indulgence is all around us, but Jesus calls us to self-discipline and self-denial. The life of the world to come will not be a hairshirt one, but it will be one where joy and pleasure are based not on what I get, but on what I give. So let’s get in tune with it now.
The temptation to ‘drunkenness’ is not merely about alcohol, but about addiction to all sorts of things from drugs to food to shopping to relationships. Often our addictions mask pain in other areas of our lives, but Jesus calls us to face that pain and find healing with him. Then we can let go of damaging habits and live a life that anticipates the healing found in God’s kingdom.
As for ‘the worries of this life’, our whole consumer society is based on feeding those worries. It isn’t that Christians can’t enjoy good things, but an obsession with them is counter again to the values of God’s kingdom, where true riches are found in other things, notably the fruit of the Spirit as God renews people to be more like his Son. Those are what the Christian will chase.
So in conclusion, Advent is a time of hope for the Christian. As we recall Christ’s first coming and anticipate his appearing again, God’s action in the Resurrection gives a certainty to our hope. His purposes of love are certain and we are in his hands. That means we respond by reordering our lives according to the purposes of his kingdom, which means living distinctive lives –counter-cultural lives. May the hope of Christ’s coming give us the passion to do so.
 Tom Wright, Surprised By Hope, chapter 8.