Good Shepherd Advent 3 2020
The illuminated advertising hoarding opposite Tesco Express on Roseburn Terrace isn’t often a stimulus to theological reflection, but a couple of the posters that are currently on electronic display there have a distinctly Advent feel to them. One of them has the strapline “Don’t get caught out” and the other reads “You need to act now”. They remind me of the urgency of John the Baptist’s call to his contemporaries to repent and his warning that they may not recognise the Messiah in their midst. In fact the purpose of the advertisements is to encourage businesses to prepare for the changes that will come on New Year’s Day when the Brexit transition period comes to an end. Business people have had a long and frustrating wait for clarity on those issues. Waiting and clarity are also Advent themes.
The Jews who journeyed to the Jordan valley to be baptized by John the Baptist, and those who came to question him were all waiting for the coming of the Messiah. The questioning to which John was subjected by the priests and the Levites suggests that some had begun to wonder whether John himself might be the Messiah. John’s behaviour was, after all, challenging and unusual. He was inviting people to be immersed in water and was linking that immersion with repentance.
Up to that point, water had been used by Jews for only two religious purposes: ritual purification and the ritual cleansing that converts to Judaism were required to undergo. John the Baptist was inviting people who were already Jews to go through that ritual of change, to acknowledge that they needed to change. For the repentance which John preached didn’t just (or even mainly) mean saying sorry for past wrong-doing – Jews have other rituals for that purpose. It meant turning round, changing your expectations of yourself and of others, rearranging your priorities. John was saying that observing the law and the prescribed rituals was not enough – religion is nothing unless it is life- changing. It’s easy to get caught out, John warns, and if you think that your religious practices are a destination, that you have in a spiritual sense arrived, then you aren’t waiting at all. You need to understand that you are on a journey. You need to act now and to act is to change.
Those who questioned John wanted clarity about his identity. Might he be Elijah? Or “the prophet” – and John rejected those suggestions. He answered their next question
“What do you say about yourself?”
in a way that was strikingly free from egotism, by quoting the prophet Isaiah:
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’”
He shifted the focus away from himself and towards Jesus, and his next response is in the same vein:
“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.”
It’s both an answer that points towards Jesus, and an answer which hints that not everyone will be able to recognise Jesus as the Messiah. The Messiah is here, John says, but you do not know him and may not recognize him because you lack clarity of vision. Your expectations are wrong. If you are to recognize him, you will need to be open to change.
Advent invites us to reflect on the answer to the question “For whom are you waiting” and John the Baptist points us in the right direction. We are waiting for the light that came into the world when Jesus was born, the light that shines in the darkness. We know that in Advent we are waiting to celebrate once again the love of God made visible.
The eighteenth century French spiritual writer Jean Pierre de Caussade asked the question
“Why are we waiting?”
and answered it by suggesting that we need to act now:
As Dean reminded us in his sermon last week, we lose ourselves in the very heart of God by prayerful listening. Jean Pierre de Caussade taught that it is in the present moment that God is most present, present in our waiting and our listening. He put it thus:
“All that takes place within us, around us, or through us, contains and conceals God’s divine action.”
And it is in the waiting and the listening that we discover that.
Why are waiting? Because we know that God is present in Jesus in our human condition, and, because of that, is present in the here and now with all its difficulties and uncertainties, and present in the as yet unseen time that lies before us.