Address for a service of readings and hymns for Advent 3.
(Malachi 3,1-4; Luke 1, 5-17; Luke 1, 39-47a; John 1, 6-8, 15-16, 19-27; Isaiah 61, 1-4, 8-11)
This is the time of year for looking back. No doubt some of you, like me, have looked back through your calendar and diaries, to remind you of what happened this year, as you write to the friends and relatives you are in contact with only at Christmas. And from now until New Year, newspapers, magazines and the TV channels will be full of ‘Reviews of the Year’, looking back over events in politics, society, the arts and church.
It’s the time of year when we try to make sense of what has happened, and to forecast what it might mean for the future. How did we get to where we are now? Is there a pattern? Who else is involved? Are we going in the right direction?
And, if we are people of faith, can we see God’s hand in all of this?
This is exactly what the first followers of Jesus did as they met together and told his story to each other and to new disciples who joined them. This is what the writers of the Gospels did as they collected those stories together and committed them to paper.
They were trying to make sense of the life and death of Jesus, who they believed was the Christ, the Messiah, God’s chosen agent in bringing in the Kingdom of God on earth; yet who was not the Messiah many of their compatriots were expecting. He was not from among the political or social élite, he did not lead a popular uprising or a victorious military force. He was not from a priestly clan, and he criticised many of the religious leaders and their laws and practices. He came from the northern border country, his following was relatively small and mainly from among the lower classes and the outcasts of society, and he died the death of a criminal at the hands of the occupying power.
How could this be part of God’s plan?
Looking back, the early followers of Jesus had other events they needed to make sense of, especially the ministry of John the Baptist. How could they explain the fact that there were two prophets, one working mainly in Galilee and the other mainly in Judea, preaching and calling people to repentance at almost the same time, and announcing that the Kingdom of God was near at hand.
Being Jewish, or at least Greek converts or proselytes to the Jewish religion, they naturally turned to the Jewish scriptures and to their history, myths and legends to make sense of what they had experienced.
They made sense of John the Baptist firstly by looking back into the great prophetic figures of the past, especially Samuel, Samson and Elijah, and comparing John to them. Elements of the stories of all these figures were combined to create a back-story for John. Samuel, or at least his mother Hannah, provided the story of John’s birth to a barren and elderly woman, announced in the Temple, where Samuel received his call to ministry. Samson provided his clothing, and food, and his ascetic lifestyle. Elijah, who it was popularly believed would return to herald the Messiah, and who challenged a wicked king, provided a character on which to base John’s message, and the challenge to King Herod that led to his death.
The early witers also looked into the later prophetic books, like Isaiah, whose prophecy about the return from exile in Babylon, speaking of the voice crying, “In the wilderness, prepare a way for the Lord” became a prophecy about John, preaching in the wilderness of Judea; and Malachi, whose prophecy about the messenger of God suddenly appearing in the Temple was fulfilled in the story of the announcement of John’s birth to his father in the Temple and Jesus being presented in the Temple.
All these elements are found most clearly in Luke’s parallel stories of the births of John and Jesus. Early Christian beliefs about John are summed up in the Canticle which his father Zechariah speaks after his birth, which we know as the Benedictus, and which links John back into the history of the Jews and forward to the coming Messiah, Jesus;
“Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty saviour for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1, 67-79)
Throughout all four of the Gospels, stories about John, both in the miraculousness of his birth, in what is said about him, and in what he says about himself, make over and over again the point that he is less important than Jesus.
Other prophecies from the Jewish scriptures, and in particular the prophet Isaiah, provided the explanation for the career of Jesus, both through the use of the ‘Servant Songs’ to explain his suffering and death, and through the use of passages such as Chapter 61, which we will hear at the end of this service, to show that his ministry of teaching, healing and comfort to the poor and dispossessed was indeed part of God’s plan.
I began by saying that this is a time of year for looking back; but it also a time of year for looking forward. It is the time when we anticipate a new year, perhaps an opportunity to make a new start, and make resolutions to do better.
The passages we heard in this service also look forward, to the coming of the Kingdom of God that John and Jesus both preached about, to the time when God’s values and God’s justice will prevail, and not only human society, but the whole of creation will be renewed.
So often, our New Year’s resolutions are to do with ourselves, our health, our prospects, our prosperity: giving up smoking, dieting, getting a new job or working harder. The message of John the Baptist points us to a greater reality, and invites us to be part of a bigger picture – the Kingdom of love and justice that Jesus inaugurated through his teaching, life and death.
As we mark the beginning of a new Christian year in Advent, and prepare ourselves for the offer of eternal life we received in the coming of Jesus, may we resolve to give ourselves selflessly to the fulfilment of the vision that is set out in what we have heard today, and so bring in that time of light and peace; and may we, with all humanity, both demonstrate and share in the divine glory revealed to us through Jesus, the Messiah.