St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP | Tel: 028 7126 2302
Firstly, we meet this very strange man, John the Baptist. He was an awkward type of person. Many will have mocked him as the only child of older parents who was a bit odd and thus to be ignored. He had opted out of family and city and lived a self-sufficient semi-nomadic life. The wilderness of Judea leading down to the River Jordan is and was a barren and dangerous place. But his life makes sense as a fulfilment of what Isaiah had talked about. Not only is renewal possible – but it is actually coming. Isaiah spoke of a God who believed in people and in what they were capable of through grace – and now John says that the promised figure is close at hand. And John also insists that people will need to have a change of heart if they are to recognise this promised Saviour when he appears in their midst. We should not measure God by our standards.
Followers of Jesus are not merely thoroughly modern people who live in a here-and-now bubble, trying to do the right thing and pass the divine religion test. That is childish. Christianity is based on the belief that God is revealed gradually and in real time. There is a divine plan to restore the human race to the dignity for which it was created. That plan involves human co-operation just as the Adam and Eve's misuse of free will messed up things at the start. Thus, John's message is not just that Jesus was coming shortly after him – but it re-echoes in every generation where God is being revealed in our day and in our concrete circumstances. Thus, the Advent call is not merely to repent of sins but to have eyes for where we can see hints of the divine amidst the noise and confusion of our time.
Secondly, this message of hope appears far from the establishment's seat of power. John angers his contemporaries by preaching in the wilderness. But John says more. He says that new hope will spring up in the desert, the place where wild beasts lived, where there was no formal place of worship. John's unusual lifestyle was not just the context for his message. It was part of the message. Poverty, simplicity help you to see more clearly. Those more preoccupied with self can have less space for others. Those with little to lose may have a lot to give. History shows that renewal has always started with radical communities on the edge. The Church will never be renewed merely by commands from the centre and by those who want renewed status and control, but by those on the edge who live in a rich Spirit-driven poverty. The Church will be renewed not by those who fight hard for the Lord so much as by those who are weak enough to let themselves be used by God. The modern prophets in every generation never proclaim a God that we can domesticate and box inside laws and hollow claims of purity and perfection. Those who major on the power and the rights of God risk being self-serving rather than God-fearing. Those like John the Baptist who becomes fools for Christ's sake empty themselves so that the uncomfortable voice of hope can be heard by those who feel that their lives are in a desert. Personal egos and narrow agendas get in God's way. Christ cannot be proclaimed by those who are frightened by the fear of losing their power but by those who are amazed at God's power in little people and lonely places.
God is renewing his Church through the pandemic. Our job is to get on board rather than let our agendas get in the way. The gift of a rich Advent may well be the best present we will get this Christmas.by Author
Thirdly, what might this speak to our current reality? I know that many people are angry at the limitations on public worship of God during lockdowns. But John the Baptist sees the dry desert as a place of rich blessings where God is revealed. Yes, we have to champion the cause of churches being open for our rich sacramental life. But we miss a God-given opportunity if all we can do is rail against the lockdown. Through the yearning, God can widen our hearts. It is easy to be grateful when things are going well for us. Prophets help us to see God's hand when things are difficult. John the Baptist tells us not to be afraid of the deserts in our lives. Weakness is a blessing for Church. It can help us move away from demanding our rights to standing with those who are neglected in many ways and for whom life seems one long desert, one long Advent of disappointment. A self-absorbed Church is a countersign of Jesus. The Advent time of loss is an invitation to proclaim hope to those who are suffering and to offer solidarity to those who are afraid to dream. We will have more credibility when we focus on the pain of others outside our limits rather than the stress that we feel ourselves in our little world. Repentance is about broadening horizons, not narrowing them. We pray for eyes needed to recognise the Saviour in this mess and not merely for an escape from the challenges into the false security of some comfortable stability. We know from Jesus' contemporaries that those who could not recognise him in the wilderness could not recognise him in the Temple.
Advent offers us a rich context for prayer. We miss the point if we look too far forward and think only of Christmas. Can we pray for the hope of John the Baptist in the desert, proclaiming that God is in our midst? Can we be in touch with the deepest longings of our hearts, especially where we all need healing and forgiveness? Can we echo the words of the psalmist, praying that mercy and justice can meet and that justice and peace can embrace in our day? Can we ensure that we plan for our children to get love and belonging and not just boxes and ribbons? They want to float on a bed of hope rather than risk drowning in a sea of cold gifts. Advent is a time to yearn for wholeness and holiness and not to be swamped by the noise of empty celebrations. God is renewing his Church through the pandemic. Our job is to get on board rather than let our agendas get in the way. The gift of a rich Advent may well be the best present we will get this Christmas.
+ Donal McKeown