My earliest, perhaps most vivid childhood memory involves the excitement of receiving an advent calendar aged around three – and not being able to bear the anticipation, opening each and every door on 1st December - counting down to Christmas – and then deep disappointment that I hadn’t brought the big day any closer.
A new appreciation of the advent season as an adult – not least because I’m now responsible for the practical preparations – card-writing, present-wrapping, tree-decorating, food shopping, bed-making… sermon-writing…
But more so, that this is a season of interior preparation for the coming Saviour – so that when Christmas actually arrives, we can sing that wonderful line from ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ with heartfelt gusto: Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
Particularly if you have children, it may be that the herald of Advent, prompting us to prepare - to get ready – with all the edible and material preparations, is that ubiquitous, chubby, red-suited guy, cheerfully dishing out gifts. If Father Christmas or Santa is in one corner, then we are this evening going to consider his absolute antithesis in the opposite - this obscure, wild, skinny prophet, dressed in camel skins, handing out warnings and insults and threats.
John the Baptist, the figure in today’s gospel reading, is the one who helped prepare a people for the arrival of Jesus those two millennia ago and he is one who can help us prepare as the Christmas season rolls around again. John arrives on the scene, aged probably around 30, and began preaching and baptizing in the River Jordan. There was huge significance in that location; crossing the River Jordan in the history of the people of Israel signified entering into the Promised Land. Now, that promised land – long-lost through years of exile and occupation – that promised land where God’s perfect rule had its way was coming into being.
As we prepare this season to encounter Christ afresh at Christmas; as we prepare for the coming kingdom of God in all its fullness, there are three paradoxes that John the Baptist draws to our attention.
Six spokes of a wheel
Three ways to prepare this advent:
Prepare our hearts (water and fire)
Prepare our minds (justice and mercy)
Prepare our posture (stillness and action)
Firstly, prepare our hearts with
WATER & FIRE
“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
As I mentioned, Advent is a time of inner preparation as we look to welcome Jesus, our Lord and Saviour, God-as-a-human-person coming amongst us. Being aware, just like the throngs of people on the banks of the River Jordan, of our own fallen, broken, sinful ways, we confess our sin again, and seek the wonderful cleansing and forgiveness that God gives freely to us all, without limit, whatever we have done.
John offers the baptism of water – of repentance – turning from what is past and being washed gloriously clean.
But John tells us that Jesus offers something more - the baptism of fire, of the Spirit.
The writer Dallas Willard lamented what he termed: “the gospel of sin management”, which purely seeks to deal with our mistakes, with the past but does not offer a transformed life with God, lived out day-to-day. John offered a one-off turning point in the water of baptism, but Jesus offered the in-filling of the Holy Spirit. In Luke’s gospel, when the angel Gabriel tells John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, about the son he will have, who will make a people prepared for the Lord – we have this wonderful throwaway line: that even before he is born he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. That the Holy Spirit – the very presence of God – the same Spirit who hovered over the waters of creation – can fill an unformed, unthinking, unborn foetus is remarkable – and should encourage us, if we feel too small or too weak to be filled ourselves with the Holy Spirit.
The water of baptism will wash us…..
but the fire of the Spirit will fill us and transform us.
What needs to be washed out of our lives? What caked-on habits, behaviours or attitudes need to be soaked in the Jordan?
And what emptiness, lack, hopelessness or uncertainty within us could be filled with the fire of the Spirit, bringing hope and direction to our lives.
The first paradox – an invitation for water and fire in our hearts.
Secondly, this passage encourages us to prepare our minds with
JUSTICE & MERCY – the second spoke on the wheel.
We see justice and mercy in John’s response to the different people who come to him. Some people arrive on the banks of the River Jordan aware of their separation from God, aware of their weakness, their brokenness, seeking forgiveness. They came confessing their sin and receiving baptism into new life. There is mercy shown freely to them.
Just finished running Alpha at church last week – those for whom this has been most transforming, are those who are perhaps at the bottom of the heap… Mercy is shown to those who are humble.
The Pharisees and Sadducees – the religious leaders – turn up too, maybe with a different motivation, since John does not mince his words with them. They are told quite plainly that their religious credentials – their status holds them in no stead, when faced with the coming judgment. As Jesus’ words will later reveal – justice needs to be meted out here, as the religious leaders are actually putting obstacles in the way of ‘the wrong kind of people’ meeting with God. Justice is coming for the proud.
The quoted words in our gospel reading come from Isaiah chapter 40:
A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
5 And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Preparing means a leveling of the land – a reversal of the current order. What does that look like? I think Mary gives us some of the answer in her celebratory Advent song, as she anticipates the birth of Jesus:
“He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.”
Terrifically satisfying in the light of some less-than-humble leaders in our current times. But before I get too smug, I need to recall that in the global scale, I am far and away in the richest sector of the world’s population. These are words of comfort and challenge in equal measure.
Continuing Isaiah 40 – once the highway is prepared for God, this is the kind of God who arrives on the scene (from verse 10)…
10 See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,
and he rules with a mighty arm.
See, his reward is with him,
and his recompense accompanies him.
11 He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young.
Here is this beautiful contrast between the military might of a powerful warrior God, establishing justice, and the pastoral image of the vulnerable little lambs being drawn to the heart of the shepherd God.
As we prepare our minds for the arrival of Christ, can we hold together an understanding of the God who is both mercy and justice?
Which side do you tend to emphasise?
If we lean in our imaginations towards considering God as our cosmic comfort blanket, then this might be the time to meditate on God’s almighty power, that will override our current political turmoil.
If you primarily consider God’s immense might, then may you be encouraged to meditate on God’s gentleness and intimacy. Could you let your (British) defences down, imagine yourself being gathered up and carried close; being drawn into the very heart of our merciful God?
In the news last week, Leonardo Da Vinci’s portrait of John the Baptist was unveiled, having undergone restoration – 15 layers of varnish removed. John, as he is often depicted, is pointing, but the dark varnish had concealed the object to which he pointed. The restoration revealed a cross in the darkness. This paradox of characteristics is revealed ultimately in the cross of Christ where justice and mercy meet.
Prepare our hearts with water and fire
Prepare our minds meditating on God’s mercy and justice and finally,
Prepare our posture in
STILLNESS & ACTION
The Greek philosopher and mathematician Archimedes is credited with these famous words: Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the earth… describing the disproportionate strength that comes from balancing a lever on a fulcrum or pivot and applying a force – however heavy the object, theoretically anything can be moved with a long enough lever balanced over a fixed pivot.
The Franciscan theologian Richard Rohr uses this image to describe the necessary relationship between stillness and action in the Christian life – or contemplation and activism – or engagement and retreat.
Advent is a time to recalibrate that scale of stillness and action. And depending on our temperaments, one of those ends of the spoke will feel like a more comfortable place to be. Being busily engaged in the world or being quietly on retreat with God. I hazard a guess, that the latter is harder for most of us in our full London lives.
We are told in the passage that people left the busy city of Jerusalem and the surrounding regions – they would have walked for a couple of days to find this wild prophet in the wilderness – to encounter one who was immersed in the presence of God. John’s wild appearance and unusual lifestyle indicates that he has been outside of civilisation for a while – retreating – and there is a holiness that emanates from him as a result.
And yet John is fulfilling the active call on his life – to be a herald for Christ. Even in the womb, before language has formed, he leaps for joy at the presence of his cousin Jesus, performing his job as herald before he was born. Again, in Isaiah 40, the prophet states:
You who bring good news to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem,
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
That disembodied voice in Isaiah calling out in the wilderness has flesh put on it in John the Baptist. This herald for God who is both a still, fixed point, fixed on God – and a lever, fulfilling the active call on his life.
In a way, the church today is like a reincarnation – in the truest sense – of John the Baptist - proclaiming to the world to prepare, prepare, prepare for the coming king. Ignatius: “He who goes about to reform the world must begin with himself, or he loses his labour”.
There is much good news for us to share and Christmas services to invite people to; yet only by making room for even moments of stillness – that place to stand – will we be able to be truly active and engage and able to move the world.
I’ve asked us to imagine these three paradoxes like spokes of a wheel – fire and water, justice and mercy, stillness and action – and at the centre is, of course, Jesus Christ, offering us to be washed clean with the water of baptism and an in-filling of the fire of the Spirit. Holding together – even embodying – the characteristics of justice and mercy; inviting us to meet him in the stillness of the wilderness and to go out into the world with him to proclaim his kingdom.
Before I close, let’s take a moment of quietness to consider, what one way am I to prepare this coming week?
To be washed clean? To be filled up?
To marvel at the power and justice of God?
To be gathered into his arms and held close to his merciful heart?
To find a moment to be still and just be?
To raise up my voice and herald the coming king?
Prepare (A Blessing for Advent) —Jan Richardson
Strange how one word
will so hollow you out.
But this word
has been in the wilderness
This word is what remained
after everything else
was worn away
by sand and stone.
It is what withstood
the glaring of sun by day,
the weeping loneliness of
the moon at night.
Now it comes to you
racing out of the wild,
and waving its arms,
its voice ragged with desert
but piercing and loud
as it speaks itself
again and again:
It may feel like
the word is leveling you,
as it asks you
to give up
what you have known.
It is impolite
and hardly tame,
but when it falls
upon your lips
you will wonder
at the sweetness,
that finds its way
into the hunger
you had not known