Comfort, comfort ye my people. Words from the first reading, Isaiah chapter 40. The Lord is about to act to save and restore his people. Their long years of exile and suffering are over. Isaiah was writing at the time that Israel was restored, and the people were allowed to return and to rebuild Jerusalem; but his words have also been taken as looking forward to the promised Messiah, or Christ.
But as we read on into today’s Gospel our focus settles on the strange figure of John the Baptist, and there seems to be little about comfort in what he has to say. Only Luke tells us anything about where John come from - Luke tells us that John was the son of a temple priest called Zechariah, and that John’s mother Elizabeth was a kinswoman of Mary the mother of Jesus. The other Gospels say next to nothing about John’s origins, and so far as those who came to hear John preach were concerned, this new prophet had appeared pretty much out of nowhere.
Isaiah and the other great prophets of old were treasured and carefully studied: their words spoke of a new thing that God was about to do: the Messiah, God's anointed servant, would come to liberate his people. But since those days the prophetic voice had vanished from the land, and there'd been no real prophets for centuries. Until John. John, living in the desert, dressed roughly in camel skin, and eating locusts and wild honey, was a man who lived and looked and sounded like a real prophet. And could he be more than that, the people must have wondered? Could this man be the Messiah?
But John answered their questions with a firm no. He had come only to prepare the way, he told them. But be sure that God is about to do a new thing among you, and you need to be ready for that. And here the message of John matches very well the theme we find again and again as we read the great prophets of old. For the most part, there is little comfort in what they have to say.
The word of the prophets is more often challenge than comfort. You believe your birth makes you God's people, but you're wrong. That’s what John told those who came out to hear him, and it’s a constant theme of the Old Testament prophets. You think you’re God’s people, but to really be God's people you have to live in God's way - and you’ve not been doing that. Time is short, and you need to change: begin again, repent and turn away from your old lives - take to heart the commandments you've watered down and adapted to fit your own needs.
So John was a new prophetic voice, giving good news, yes, but with a challenge attached, an urgent call for change. If you’ve ever been to the River Jordan, you’ll know that it’s no great water-course like the Ganges or the Nile, sacred rivers to other faiths. In fact it hardly even matches the Thames or the Severn. In places it's hardly more than a marshy stream - but it was enough. It was enough for baptism. And those who took John's words to heart went into that water to wash away their old and sinful selves, and to declare that here and now they were turning back to God.
So how was it that John made such an impact? Well, the time was right, and the people were longing for change, and itching for freedom. John looked like a prophet, and lived like a prophet, and, yes, no doubt some of the people who came to hear him were there as much for the spectacle, the novelty as anything else; but there were many who’d longed to hear a new voice of prophecy, and a new call from God.
And, more than that, John was the fact that this man clearly lived the message he preached. People were tired of hearing the second hand preaching of the priests, and John's was an authentic voice: not only his words but his whole life spoke of protest, judgement, and God's urgent call to repentance. He was telling the people something that in their heart of hearts they already knew, a call that in the depths of their souls they’d already heard.
And his was a voice in the wilderness. Today that would mean a voice no-one heard, but things were different then. The limestone desert between Judaea and the Dead Sea is one of the most hostile and inhospitable places in the world, but in Hebrew thought the desert is a positive place. This is where you go to seriously engage with God, leaving behind the distractions and comforts of life. Where else would you expect to hear God’s prophet speaking God’s word?
And the humility of John would have impressed those who were tired of the religious teachers of their day. They could make a good living, and gain high status in society - compare that to John who was seeking nothing for himself. I am only the messenger, he told them. Among you is one the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. To fasten or unfasten shoes was a slave's duty; so John was saying 'I am less than a slave, compared to the one God is sending to you.'
Those who have no time for faith in God often point to the fact that religion was been the cause of more human war and suffering than almost anything else. Sadly that’s often been true. And far too often still we find religion offending against the very God in whose name and with whose authority it claims to speak.
But John the Baptist was not converting people to religion. He didn’t need to do that, for they were already religious folk. Their problem was that their religion had lost touch with God. So John's task wasn’t to make them religious but to convert their religion. To do that John moved away from the expected religious places synagogues and shrines, the temple, the places where people taught and discussed and debated. For John had come to speak for God, and not about God. His words sprang directly from God, and not from a religious system of doctrine that might claim to have God locked inside it.
Words like reform, reformation, renewal, revival are scattered through the history of our faith, 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, so it doesn't get sidetracked into existing for its own sake or serving its own hierarchy or the powers that be. And because we should never be too comfortable with where we are and how we do things, or at ease with the things that are wrong and harmful and unjust in the world around us, or indeed within ourselves. That’s what Advent is for: fresh thinking, tuning into God, re-creating ourselves. Prepare yourself, for the King is coming, said John the Baptist to those people then; a prophetic message that’s just as vital, just as challenging, just as necessary, when we hear it now.