“The Lord has robed me in deliverance and arrayed me in victory, like a bridegroom with his garland, or a bride decked in her jewels. As the earth puts forth her blossom or plants in the garden burst into flower, so will the Lord God make his victory and renown blossom before all the nations.” So writes the Prophet Isaiah in our first reading, words written at the time of the people’s return to their own land, and to Jerusalem. As he sets his people free God’s greatness and glory is displayed for all the world to see.
Then in today’s Gospel we’ve read about John the Baptist, the man sent to prepare the way for another new act of deliverance: the promised Messiah. “He was not the light,” says John the Apostle carefully, “but he came to bear witness to the light.” Only Luke tells us anything about the origins of John the Baptist; and for most of those who heard him, this new prophet must have appeared out of nowhere. But out they came in great numbers to hear him there in the desert. And they could tell from the strangeness of his clothing and lifestyle, and the urgency of his message, that here at last was a true prophet like the prophets of long ago.
Those great prophets like Isaiah were treasured and still studied carefully, for people found in their words a fresh promise, something new that God was about to do: the Messiah, God's chosen and anointed servant, would soon come to liberate his people. And there was John, living in the desert, dressed roughly in camel skin, eating locusts and wild honey: all of a sudden someone who lived and looked and sounded like a real prophet. People must have wondered whether he was more than just a prophet. Could this man himself be the Messiah?
But John answered that question with a firm no. He told them that he’d come to prepare the way for one the strap of whose sandal he wasn’t worthy to unloose. That would be a menial slave’s job, by the way. So John was saying “I am less than his slave.”
But he also had a stern warning for the people: you think God’s going to do something new, and you’re right. It’s about to happen, and you’d better be ready. That’s like the things Isaiah and the other great prophets of the Old Testament said to the people of their day: do this now, they said: turn away from living in a way that is making God angry and start again. Take his commandments to heart, and get yourselves ready to meet him.
The words of the prophets were as much about challenge as comfort. The same with John: those who came out to hear thought that their birth as Jews was enough to make them God's people. But John said: “You’re wrong to think that way. To really be God’s people, you must to live as God wants you to, faithfully, obedient to his laws: and the time is short, so take this chance and do it now - begin again, repent, turn away from your old lives, and write God’s law on your hearts: the commandments that for too long you've been watering down, adjusting to fit your own needs.
And John baptized people; baptism was part of the process of becoming a Jew if you hadn’t been born a Jew. So John was treating the people as if they weren’t already Jews by birth. His baptism restored their status as God’s people, making a fresh start. If you’ve ever been to the Jordan, by the way, you’ll know that it’s not one of the world’s great rivers. It’s not the holy Ganges or the royal Nile, it’s not really a match even for the Thames or the Severn. But it was enough to be baptized in; and those who took John's words to heart went into its water to wash their old and sinful self away, and start afresh.
How come John made such an impact? Well, the time was right, the people were longing for change, yearning for freedom. John looked the part and lived the part, and for people tired of hearing the second hand preaching of the priests, he spoke with an authentic voice. And it wasn’t only his words: his whole life was a critique of the status quo; a cry of protest and a call to judgement.
So John I guess was telling people something that in their heart of hearts they already knew, his call was one that in the depths of their souls they’d already heard. So here’s a thought as regards the mission of the Church today. How do we click with the priorities, the hopes, the dreams that people already have? Do we need a different approach? Or do we just need to get on with living the faith we proclaim, and waiting for that point when the time is right and people respond? However we answer that, John’s call to us is to be much more than a Sunday Church.
Now John’s was a voice in the wilderness, and we may often think that ours is too. But things were different then. The desert land between Judaea and the Dead Sea is a barren and inhospitable place - but deserts have a positive role in Hebrew thought. The desert is where a person goes to seriously engage with God, leaving the distractions and comforts of life behind. And prophetic voices often come out of the desert. Mission needs to be based in a community that is seriously seeking God, and seriously praying to God, and placing itself at God’s disposal. John the Baptist was a man who claimed nothing for himself. That must have impressed those who were getting tired of the religious teachers of the day, folk who held high status and made a good living. I am nothing, just the messenger, said John. And today the Church will be most effective in mission when it’s most forgetful of itself.
Those who reject our call to faith will often claim that religion has been the cause of a lot of the bad stuff in human history: war, suffering, division. That’s often been true, and religion is still doing damage in the world, and in doing so offending against the very God in whose name and with whose authority it claims to be acting and speaking. There’s far too much bad religion around. But true mission is not about selling religion. John the Baptist was not selling religion. He wasn’t converting people to religion, He didn’t need to: these were already religious folk.
What John did need to do was to convert their religion into faith. He was preaching to people who did all the religious things, but they’d lost touch with God. I’m sure that’s why John didn’t teach in obviously holy places like synagogues or shrines or indeed the temple itself. That’s where people met to teach and discuss and debate religious matters, but that’s not what John was doing. He was preparing the way, not debating about God, but to speaking directly for God: speaking God’s own urgent word of renewal.
Words like renewal, reform, reformation, revival are scattered throughout the history of the Church, along with names like Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, John Wesley and Billy Graham. Why so much reform and revival? Because religion needs constant conversion, if it doesn't it gets sidetracked into existing for its own sake, serving its own interests, its own hierarchy or toadying up to the powers that be. It starts to get faithless. Revival is about the renewal of faith, reconnecting with God. And through history, mission happens when revival happens. Mission to those outside the Church begins with mission to those inside it.
So we should never get too comfortable with how we are now, nor too much at ease with the way the world around us does things, or indeed with our own selves. Advent is one of the times when we’re challenged to think things out afresh, to tune into God, to re-create ourselves. John said to the people then: get ready, for the King is on his way; and that prophetic message is just as vital, just as challenging, just as necessary, for the Church today.