Sunday, December 7, 2014

preparing the preparer - a reflection on St John the Baptist

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit.

Today is the second Sunday of Advent; and as you know it is traditional during Advent to focus on the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. But as I said last Sunday, rather than preaching on those directly this year, I am simply going to remind you of them each week and ask that you use them as a lens to consider what it is that our readings have to say to us each week as we journey through Advent.

Now, the second Sunday in Advent is a time when we look with particular attention at prophets, those who foretold of the coming Messiah. In our readings today we look in particular at one of these prophecies: the prophet Isaiah tells us of one who will cry out in the wilderness to 'make straight the ways of the Lord.' St Mark clearly identifies St John as being that person who was prophesied by Isaiah as being the one who would prepare the way for the one who was to come. And St John himself proclaimed that he was as nothing compared to the one who was to come after him, one whose sandals he wasn't worthy to untie.

So John's role is very much one of preparation, of preparing the people of Israel for the coming of the Lord. This is why in the Eastern Church he is better known as St John the forerunner, to emphasise that role of preparation.

And perhaps it would be no harm for us to consider the preparation of the Forerunner – what it was that prepared him to accept the role that he was to play in God's plan of salvation, to answering the call that had been placed on his life. For John, like us all, had free will – he was no puppet, unable to say 'no' to what it was that God was asking of him. And it seems to me that his parents must have had an important part to play in this – that the way that they raised him would have been very important in helping be able to say 'yes' to what God was asking of him.

We know John came from a very religious family. His father Zechariah was a priest who served in the Temple; not only that, but St Luke's Gospel tells us that both his parents were righteous people, devout, who kept all of God's laws; and we see both of them speaking prophetically in that Gospel. His father, has a vision with an angel and later speaks prophetically about his son; and his mother Elizabeth speaks prophetically on the occasion of the visit to her by the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is likely that this was a poor family, just as the family of Elizabeth's cousin Mary was poor. But they were rich what what our Lord would later describe as 'treasure in heaven' – spiritual values, the love of God, and the love of his laws. And they would have passed these values on to their beloved, miraculous child, while also, of course, seeing to his material needs as best they could; an example, it should be said, that modern parents might bear in mind at at time when so many swamp their children with unneeded material goods, especially at his time of year, while making only the most token efforts, if not neglecting entirely, their children's spiritual well-being. What does it profit a child to have every toy and gadget from the shop, if he or she knows nothing of eternal life and are not prepared in the slightest to lead a life that will help them enter into it?

Words that one could almost imagine St John the Baptist crying if he were engaged in his ministry today. But how did he, in his own time, answer the call God gave him, of preparing the way for the Lord? He told people that the kingdom of God was at hand and that they must repent – repent of what? Of their sins. And what is sin? Sin is the way our lives fail to conform with what God wants of us, the things that we think or do or say that are not in accordance with his holy laws. And what is repentance? It is more than simply saying sorry and then continuing on as before. It is recognising and accepting that what we have done is wrong, that it is indeed sinful, and rejecting it, making a firm intention to change our ways, to do better in the future. Why? Because sin is offensive to God and worse it separates us from him – sin is our choosing to reject God – which means that we are choosing to refuse what he created us for – to be with him in heaven for all eternity. To chose sin is to reject salvation.

This is how St John the Baptist prepared the people of his time to meet the one who would come after him, how he prepared them to meet the Christ. With strong words and stern warnings and a call to radical change. And in this time of Advent, when we think of when Christ will come again, when we think of when we ourselves will meet him, his way is a way we can prepare ourselves for that day – a day that I pray all here will find themselves prepared for. Amen.  

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