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O Lord Jesus Christ,
God for whom we watch and wait,
you sent John the Baptist to prepare the way of your Son:
give us courage to speak the truth,
to hunger for justice,
and to suffer for the cause of right,
with Jesus Christ our Lord.
Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11
The servant of the Lord said: The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” ’ as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Post Communion Prayer
We give you thanks, O Lord, for these heavenly gifts;
kindle in us the fire of your Spirit
that when your Christ comes again
we may shine as lights before his face;
who is alive and reigns now and for ever.
Every Christmas card we’ve received so far this year has comments about the strangeness of our times. Here we are already at the third Sunday in Advent, just under a fortnight to go! They were strange times, too, for John the Baptist.
Just, for a moment, put yourself into the crowd. You’ve been watching streams of people coming from Jerusalem, and all the villages roundabout, flooding into the desert to hear this man. When you find him, you are confronted by an extraordinary sight. An unkempt figure, wearing rough clothes and looking precisely what he was, a man of the desert accustomed to living rough. Under normal circumstances most people might have considered him a man of no consequence, someone to be passed by, as we might similarly regard a Big Issue seller or a homeless person sleeping on our streets. May we be forgiven! For when his time came, John responded to God’s call without hesitation, confident in knowing what he was called to do. Consequently, the crowds who flocked to hear him, saw before them a unique figure, apparently humble and self-effacing, but able to speak with authority, with credibility, and with the eloquence of the best persuasive preachers. John had always known his would be a special life-long vocation to which he remained faithful.
Those multitudes in the desert listened to a man with neither status nor power, but whose words stirred hearts and minds. They responded readily to his plea to turn from their sins and be baptised in the River Jordan, a symbolic washing away of a previous lifestyle. John never failed to point beyond himself declaring ‘I am the voice of one calling in the desert, Make straight the way for the Lord!’. When pressed as to his true identity, he declared he was neither an old-style prophet, nor the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ, but simply one baptising with water. Did he scan the faces in front of him before declaring …‘among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.’
In that crowd, you would have sensed the mounting excitement mirroring the heightening tension in John’s voice. You might have looked around, searching for an unfamiliar figure. John understood his role was that of a herald, announcing the imminent arrival of someone important, as was the custom, urging people to remove any obstacles and perfectly aware he himself would be overshadowed. Commenting on todays readings, Jane Williams, wife of the previous Archbishop, Rowan Williams, pointed out that even though so many had been preparing for the Messiah for so long, when the time comes, not everyone will be pleased to see God or be thrilled by what he prepares for his world: as true today as it was then, 2000+ years ago.
However, the reading from Isaiah is full of joy, an emotion John would have recognised and identified with. It actually lists the future benefits: good news to the oppressed, support and encouragement for the captives, the bereaved and the suffering. At last the earth will see the full nature and glory of God. Isaiah pictured Israel delivered from exile in Babylon and the ‘year of the Lord’s favour’ restored. This was a season when all debts were written off, slaves freed and all property returned to its rightful owner. By John the Baptists’ time, there was, however, some apprehension concerning release from exile. Among the Israelites there were those who still saw themselves an oppressed and conquered people with an uncertain future. John’s proclamation pointed to the One who would finally bring it all to pass, even if that was not yet fully understood. John was a true witness testifying to the light – not the light himself, he pointed to Christ’s coming as the Light of the world so that all might believe.
At this stage in Advent, maybe you too feel the stirrings of excitement? We sense Isaiah’s joy, the confident but humble assertions of the Baptist and, as parents and grandparents, hear again the call of the angels through children’s nativity plays, carol services and so on. Things will be different this year but even a pandemic cannot stop righteousness, salvation, justice and praise from breaking out, letting us see what God is really like. (Remember, for example, the tremendous outpouring of generosity and mutual community caring with so many people coming together to support the lonely, isolated and needy). This is the time of year when we may look far ahead to Christ’s second coming, when we will be judged finally by Christ himself. Very recently, Bishop Robert said words and religious services are not sufficient by themselves; what indicates the sincerity of our Christian faith most are our actions in putting the needs of others first, even when the going is tough. By living well, we hope to claim God’s promise of eternal life. John the Baptist was fearless and uncompromising in his teaching and his whole life shows us God did not promise us an easy or safe passage.
John’s role in preparing the world for Christ’s coming, acting as a herald, gives us the impetus to pick up that wonderful news and through the Holy Spirit, similarly act as God’s megaphones, joyfully shouting aloud the coming of Christ!
As we use this waiting period of Advent, this time of preparation (and I don’t mean sending cards, wrapping presents) but reminding ourselves that God is with us even though we may not readily recognise him. With practice, we’ll get better at it. A few years ago, the then Bp of Reading had a book published called ‘Do nothing – Christmas is coming!’ His point was that frantic rushing around distracts us from the presence of Christ. In some ways that may be even truer this year, although others suggest we’ve more time and space to read or hear those familiar and wonderful words Handel set to music so stunningly.
Much bad news and uncertainty abounds but we’re called as Christians to cling to the truths we know, certain that God will come and make himself known. At present this may be through a glass darkly. We cannot pin him down, he works through crises and the ordinary processes of life, so we learn most by allowing the Holy Spirit to enter out hearts, helping us play our part in the community of the Lord’s people.
Therefore in Advent our prayer must be ‘Come, Lord Jesus.’ We learn to live through waiting, active waiting, which requires patience and urgency too.