A wild and risky Advent message

Stephen Adam, 10 December 2017

Isaiah 40: 1–11; Mark 1: 1–8

The Advent season is perhaps the deepest and richest season of the Church year, with its really big themes and its focus on penitence and judgement, expectant waiting and looking for the coming of God’s kingdom.

The trouble is that we’re not very good at waiting, and Christmas is the supreme example of this – the Christmas lights and decorations are everywhere, the cathedral ice rink and market are in full swing, and many people are well advanced with their Christmas shopping.

And yet, if we rush too quickly to Christmas we lose so much of the depth of this season of waiting. Our waiting isn’t casual or passive – twiddling our thumbs, as it were; rather, all our worship is imbued with a sense of urgency, of longing expectation for the new life of Christ and for the new and just ordering of God’s creation.

It’s an urging for God to act, an ache for God to fill the emptiness, an ache expressed by the psalmist in his yearning cry, ‘My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?’ (Psalm 42: 2) – an ache that is as potent today in our bruised and anxious world as it was in the time of the Israelites’ exile to Babylon or in John the Baptist’s time under Roman occupation.

The Advent collect where we pray, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, ‘Give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness and put on the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility’ – this collect reminds us that waiting isn’t about inactivity. We’re called to be decisive and determined, and there’s no escaping the connection between the glorious Advent hope of this season and how we live, day by day.

For some reason the word ‘visit’ is omitted from the modern Common Worship version of the collect and is rendered instead simply as ‘come’; but that word ‘visit’ is important, because it carries an intentional ambiguity. There is ‘visit’ as in a guest visiting and staying awhile and bringing a blessing – which is what we look forward to with the babe in the manger at Christmas: the mystery of the Incarnation, the Word made flesh. But there’s also a deeper meaning, as in ‘visitation’, which is altogether more daunting. When the archdeacon has his visitations he’s holding the churchwardens to account for their stewardship; when a government inspector visits an establishment there’s an expectation of judgement. And so our Advent season is imbued with both these senses of visit: of blessing, but also of judgement.

Our gospel reading is breathless and urgent. It’s a bit like an alarm clock going off. ‘Come on, wake up’, Mark is saying to us. ‘Sort out the really important priorities in your life!’ There’s no cosy birth narrative for Mark; he cuts immediately to the chase, with the focus on John the Baptist – that strange, disturbing figure from the wilderness proclaiming the arrival of the Messiah.

Mark starts his good news with the words, ‘The beginning’, echoing that very first verse of the Bible where in Genesis 1: 1 we read, ‘In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth …’

Here is a vision, then, of a new and restored creation as this roughly dressed hermit figure proclaims the prophet Isaiah’s message of hope and promise: that God is on a rescue mission, that he is going to do a new thing, that he is going to act freshly:

Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough places made smooth:
And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

John’s message of repentance is austere and uncomfortable. Repentance is much more than simply saying sorry. The meaning of the Greek word used in Mark’s gospel is much deeper than that, conveying the sense of a complete turn-around, a radical and permanent re-orientation – a change of our minds, our purposes and direction.

Repentance is much more than simply saying sorry … a complete turn-around, a radical and permanent re-orientation.

So the Advent message proclaimed by John the Baptist is wild and risky for us – it’s about us imploring God to come among us and to change things, and to change us as well.

Michael Mayne has some wise words to say about that big word ‘judgement’ when he reflects how judgement is something that we pass on ourselves each day by our actions, our words and our relationships.

We can choose whether to stay shut up in our own lonely darkness; or whether we respond to the light, to respond with trust to God’s love in Christ and to respond with care, compassion and attentiveness to one another. That journey from darkness to light is the motif for this whole Advent season.

We can choose whether to stay shut up in our own lonely darkness; or whether we respond to the light.

We can know nothing of that mysterious final judgement, when our faith tells us that all things will find their completion, their fulfilment in what Jesus came to proclaim – the establishment of God’s kingdom and rule in all its fullness. But what we can hold on to is that the God revealed in Christ is both our judge and our Saviour.

John the Baptist points away from himself and to another figure. John is completely self-effacing. He’s saying, ‘Don’t look at me! Jesus is the Messiah who should be the focus of your attention’.

That outstretched arm of John the Baptist is both an indictment, a warning of judgement, but also an invitation to us – an invitation to discover our true selves and all that makes for our human well-being, by responding to the love and faithfulness of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

Michael Mayne has also written of how in one telling detail John the Baptist gets it both right and wrong. John talks of someone more powerful than him who is coming, even the thongs of whose sandals John will not be worthy to untie. In this, John rightly recognises the majesty and glory of the Messiah.

But there is another scene to be played out three years later which would have astonished John. In an upper room in Jerusalem, Jesus will stoop to the lowliest and most humble position to wash the dirty, dusty feet of his bemused disciples. In the most powerful, symbolic way imaginable Jesus reveals the compassion and love of God: a servant love that will be taken to the uttermost limits on the cross.

As we move through this Advent season and prepare to celebrate again the mystery of the Incarnation – this window into the very essence of God, who in the Christ child combines in the deepest way both majesty and compassion, glory and utter selflessness – our response surely can be one only of silence, lost in wonder, love and praise.