Advent 2 • 10 Dec 2017

Isaiah 40:1-11
2 Peter 3:8-15a
St Mark 1:1-8

Rev. Dr David Gill

John the Baptist

The Second Sunday of Advent. Last Sunday the curtain rose once again on our year-long replay of the Jesus drama. Suddenly, today, there thunders on to the stage that strange character they called John the Baptizer.

He has come stumbling out of the wilderness, seen in those days as a place of spiritual testing, spiritual insight. He must have looked a mess. Gaunt, after his diet of locusts and wild honey. Clad in rags – camel hair rags, at that. With an unkempt beard and a passionate, perhaps slightly manic glare in his eyes, he went around shouting at people to repent.

All considered, John the Baptist does not sound like a particularly fun drinking companion. He is not someone you’d choose as your next door neighbour. Probably not someone you’d choose as the next minister at Crows Nest either – being called a brood of vipers every Sunday would test even the remarkable patience of this congregation.

What are we to make of the wild man from the wilderness? John himself can be dismissed easily enough as an eccentric. But we should not dismiss too quickly the message he brought or his role in the subsequent recognition of Jesus of Nazareth. For the gospels seem to suggest that he was saying something important.

Two things, in fact.

First, John was a pointer. Like one of those signs you see when travelling as a tourist. “Look,” they say. “Pay attention. Here is something – a view, a building, a historic site – that you shouldn’t miss”. “Look,” John is saying. “Pay attention. Here is someone you shouldn’t miss. Here is the one for whom Isaiah and the other prophets yearned. Here is the man whose significance is cosmic.”

Second, John was telling people to get ready. Big things are happening, he announced. The kingdom of God is at hand. The reign of love is coming. The one so long awaited is at the door. There will be no privileged in-group, no disregarded out-group. We all face judgement. So, for God’s sake and your own, take stock of yourselves and repent.

By repent, John doesn’t mean people must feel sad or guilty. There’s no virtue in going around with a long face. He means people need to change. Repentance is about reversing direction, taking hold of your life and doing a U-turn with it.

That message is for us too. It is echoed in Advent’s call to make ourselves ready, to change.

Change? Now there’s a word that gives church people conniptions.

Some years ago, at a meeting of the governing body of the National Council of Churches in Australia, our then president, Archbishop Aghan Baliozian, was getting around in a wheelchair. He had fallen and sprained his ankle while trying to change a light bulb.

It was an opportunity too good to miss. I announced a competition for the best answer to the question: how many bishops does it take to change a light bulb? The Uniting Church delegation won. Its answer? “You can’t change that light bulb. Our father gave the church that light bulb!”

There were nodding heads and rueful smiles right across the conference room. Every denomination knew the problem. Most congregations know the problem too. Change is always difficult.

But back to John the Baptist. He wasn’t interested in mundane things like light bulbs. He wasn’t demanding change for the sake of change. Nor was he just trying to bring things up to date a bit. He went deeper, much deeper.

He wanted the Jewish people to be true to who they were. To remember their special calling. To respond anew to the God who had been with them through good times and bad. To be ready for the history-bending event that was about to break upon the world.

He was calling his people to a profound spiritual renewal. His words call us to the same.

For us, what might such renewal entail?

Beware the easy answers. Several easy answers – that is, phony answers -- are in vogue in our churches right now.

There’s the desire for novelty. Protestants, more than our Catholic or Orthodox friends, tend to assume innovation is the key to spiritual renewal. If something is new it must be good. If it’s old, scrap it. Embrace Hillsong, forget plainsong! But life isn’t that simple. Nor is faith. Renewal that is truly of God entails a return to the sources of life, not their replacement with whatever happens to be the fad of the day.

There’s the desire for better management. Gerald Kennedy, a Methodist bishop in the United States, once commented that “the United Methodist Church is so well organised that it will flourish in the USA long after Christianity has ceased to exist!” True, the church is an organization, it does need to be managed and managed well, but heaven help us if we think more streamlined systems are going to save us.

There’s the desire for accommodation, for trimming the church’s message to suit whatever people today seem to want. Go light on worship and doctrine, play up instead the fellowship and social service. But that track has no integrity for the church. It misunderstands not only the gospel but also humanity’s deepest needs.
Where should we turn for the renewal the church today so desperately needs? If I had the answer to that I’d run for pope, but here are four things to ponder.
First, God never abandons his church. The long centuries past have brought tough times aplenty, many a lot tougher than our own. During those times, Christians have experienced renewal, not just once but repeatedly.

We should take heart from that history: the great monastic movements of the early centuries and middle ages, the movements of renaissance and reform, the Wesleyan revival, the Catholic renewal symbolized by Vatican II and now by Francis, the ecumenical movement of which we are part. That selection just scratches the surface. For some strange reason, it seems, God never gives up on us.

Second, renewal that is truly of God is always Jesus-shaped. We should be wary of any self-proclaimed “renewal” movement that promotes selfishness, distrust or division. The way of Christ is always the way of love. And along that way there is always a cross.

Third, we’re looking for the renewal of a community, not the promotion of individual I-me-my religion. Remember Pentecost. As the book of Acts tells it, “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit”. That’s “all,” not “each”.

Fourth, authentic renewal always surprises. We may appoint planning committees by the bus load. We may redraft our mission statements until the office printers run dry. We may devise the most impressive programs, convinced beyond doubt that we’ve nailed exactly what is needed. But God’s ways are not our ways. Be prepared to be surprised, be very surprised!

Fifth, renewal that is of God is exactly that – a gift, something that comes from beyond ourselves. We may yearn for renewal. We may pray for it. We may clear away obstacles to it. We may receive and celebrate it. But we never create it.

God never abandons his church. Authentic renewal is Jesus-shaped. It is communal. It surprises. And always it comes as a gift.

One of the practices I’ve learned from charismatic and Pentecostal friends is the gesture of the open hands. The symbol of need, trust, confidence. And utter dependence.

In the spirit of John the Baptist, it is a gesture for the church in our time. A gesture that says come, O God, renew the life of your people. Kindle within us the fire of your love. And make us ready to meet our Redeemer.