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.