We’ve just come through a General Election and we find ourselves in a time when anything could happen both in the context of Brexit and in the context of social justice in this country. More than ever before we need as a Church to speak into our society and communities with prophetic insight and to be a voice for the voiceless. On this third Sunday of Advent we remember John the Baptist and his life and ministry as a prophet, and the message he brought – to repent and prepare a way for the Lord. I am sure you might imagine what message John the Baptist might bring if he was here now.
The Theologian Goldingay declared “Only a fool would want to be a prophet. A wise person would run away from God’s summons, as Jonah did. But the person who fails to escape becomes a blessing and finds great fruitfulness.”
Prophets can be a pretty hard bunch to get along with – they can be offensive, confront the confident with rebuke, and be scary people. That means they can sometimes say things we need to hear, but don’t like hearing!!! A prophet like John the Baptist would fit into this category. I don’t think any of us like being rebuked and told off when we’ve done something wrong. But is it unfair when a prophet is used by God to warn, rebuke and correct a wayward people in order to bring them back on track and out of harm’s way? John’s actions were motivated by love, not hatred, hard as his message might have been. And as we know John ended up paying the ultimate price for his faith and that hard message. Yet when speaking about John, Jesus said “Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
The account we heard in today’s Gospel reading speaks of how John had been arrested and thrown into prison. Even in prison it seems he heard “what the Messiah was doing.” He must have been able to maintain contact with his disciples, and of all the things he wanted to know – of all the news he might have been interested in – he simply wanted to know if Christ was “the one who was to come, or should they expect someone else?” If I was thrown in prison for my faith, I hope and pray in God’s grace that I would not lose heart or hope. But in that question from John I think you get some idea of the yearning and hope that John had expressed in his prophetic ministry. He had lived in faith, walked in faith, and stepped out in faith. I believe John’s heart must have rejoiced when he heard words of Jesus’ reply, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” These words will have been music to his ears.
Goldingay also reminds us that a prophet confronts the downcast with hope. When we read the words of the prophets in Scripture, we are still confronted with hope even today. And when we are in a wilderness, when we are lost, when we find ourselves imprisoned by the chains of life, when we find ourselves to be spiritually dry or barren, I think we need to be confronted with that eternal hope. Within that hope we find grace and truth. The Advent message is Christ will come, Christ has come and Christ will come again reminds us that God is in control and that gives us hope. Christ was and is and is to come.
A prophet often speaks out in the times we find ourselves in the wilderness, or the desert – into the times that we are spiritually dry or broken. We can invite God into those barren places, and He can make them fruitful. We can prepare the way – that’s like rolling out the red carpet ready to receive God. Let’s remember that in Isaiah’s time the entire nation was in a spiritual wilderness – in exile – a place it had been for 70 years, and each Israelite needed to get ready spiritually for the restoration of their nation and freedom from exile.
8 And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way; wicked fools will not go about on it. 9 No lion will be there, nor will any ferocious beast get up on it; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, 10 and the ransomed of the LORD will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.
So what language would you use to someone who is in a spiritually dry or broken place? You would use language that was gentle, tender, compassionate, comforting and loving – language of hope, language of grace and truth. No wonder then that Isaiah was told to comfort God’s people – to address Jerusalem tenderly – speaking into the heart of their brokenness, as a mother would speak to her child. Yes, there had been a time of rebuke – and there often needs to be that time of rebuke to wake us up, to snap us out of that fog we can find ourselves in – but it was followed by a time of comforting. Judgement has to come before a blessing can follow.
So the Church today can speak with prophetic insight by taking a stand against injustice, corruption, selfishness, deceit, and lies. It can buck the trend by helping to rebuild communities, by loving the people on the fringe – the lost, the lonely, and the outcasts. It can stand to make a difference and bring people together and offer a message of comfort and hope. As the church, we all have a role to play in this. We are the body of Christ and ambassadors of Christ. Do you feel like that when you are sent out from this place? You are an ambassador of Christ.
How can we be confident of this? Well, we are in that season of Advent…that time of waiting, expectation and hope. People may come and go, but God never fails – for His Word endures forever. If you have had a spiritually dry year, a wilderness journey, a time of brokenness I hope and pray you take double comfort from this message. Remember, blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
May you be filled with expectation, and in this advent season roll out the red carpet for God and know his comfort and his peace. May you also know that whenever you speak out words of grace and truth – the Good News to people – yes, it may be challenging for them, but it can also bring deep hope because God cares and God can and will comfort his people.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.Amen