St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP | Tel: 028 7126 2302
Firstly, John the Baptist is a striking figure. His birth happened in unusual circumstances. Now, he is living a strange lifestyle in a barren place near the River Jordan. Is he just mad? The early church recognised that he was a wise man who was trying to burst the bonds of complacency that held people. Both he and Jesus bore witness to radical nature of God's dream for the world. John saw himself as preparing the way for one who believed the world could be transformed by divine grace. The first reading speaks about a leader who will be a model of wisdom and knowledge – and of a world which will be driven not by antagonism and brutality but by reconciliation. John talks about repentance. But the scripture readings make it clear that he is not merely talking about being sorry for sins committed. Perhaps John is suggesting that the worst sin is to expect little from God, from the world and from ourselves. Advent is a time to have big dreams for the world. In a culture that is drowning in report of disaster and brutality, John, the rebel, asks us in Advent to be prophets who dream and speak of an outrageous future, based on faith in the God who has faith in humans. More perfume and wall to wall entertainment will not inspire the human heart that wants to believe that we are precious and valuable and not merely snarling competitors in a rat race. This Advent season, we can choose to be depressed by the constant messages of gloom or to be distracted from distraction by distraction. Or we can opt to be aware of the deserts around us and to believe that God's power will be revealed is our dryness, our loss, our barrenness, our broken dreams. That would be a radical John the Baptist-like choice.
Secondly, John the Baptist is not a self-publicist for he points to someone else who is much more important than he is. The constant temptation for Christ's church is to market itself, believing that we have to compete in the world of entertainment, attracting customers and maintaining our market share. John knew that he was not marketing himself, indeed, he offers a tough message – and keeps his hardest words for the strong, for the Pharisees and the Sadducees. He condemns them for believing that they somehow or other have the religious market sewn up. They proclaim their superiority over all other just because they are descendants of Abraham. But God is not concerned so much about membership of a select gene pool as with living in such a way as to produce good fruit. Generous Christian leadership inspires and liberates good fruit on the branches of the vine that is nourished and pruned by Christ. Advent is a time that challenges leadership at all levels in church to go far beyond asserting our history and identity and asking whether we are bearing good fruit to the honour and glory of God. If we miss that divine invitation, we risk - in the words of John the Baptist - being cut down and thrown on the fire. Are we prepared to be winnowed by God in our synodal conversations to ensure that the chaff is blown away and the good ears of corn are gathered?
Thirdly, it would be easy to see John primarily as one who condemns others. But he is actually calling them to be the wonderful leaders that they ought to be. Condemnation of others is easy – and that is a constant temptation for people of faith. But John's message is positive. He is telling his contemporaries to be open to the divine dream for the world so that they will actually welcome and recognise Jesus when he comes. Christian morality is not merely about keeping rules but about modelling divine love, self-sacrifice and the freedom to make good choices. In our culture we rush from one set of mid-season sales to repeated sets of alleged bargains, assuming that we can expect only trinkets that will soon be added to our junk in a throwaway culture. John the Baptist tells us that we need to be looking for God's wisdom in desert places, not in the abundant wells of the noisy city. Advent tells us that we need to hunger for the biblical vision of God if we are to attune our hearts to see the revelation of God's glory in a baby in a cowshed. Without Advent's desert, Christmas is just another distraction as we then gild the Bethlehem stable and do not see it messiness or its challenge to our limited imagination.
Advent is an uncomfortable time for many Christians. It seems out of tune with what is happening all around us. But John the Baptist steps aside from what his contemporaries expected – and he challenges us to do the same. Can we find time to read and reread today's scripture passages? What do they say about who we are as disciples of Jesus? What do they say about Church? What do we learn from Isaiah's mad dream of a world at peace with itself, where one species is not destroying another and where we are led, not by angry voices but by those on whom wisdom and insight, knowledge and fear of the Lord rest? Can we learn to challenge all abuses of power and all poverty of imagination? Can we inspire inspiring saintly role models who show the way, rather than the self-centred celebrities who merely distract us from taking life seriously?
Without a lived four weeks of Advent, Christmas risks being just one more distraction from distraction by distraction. John the Baptist tell us that God wants something immeasurably better than that for us – and from us.
+ Donal McKeown
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