A sermon for Advent 2:
An up-to-date road atlas is a very useful thing to have when you’re on a journey.
Of course, in order to achieve a useful scale without being completely unwieldy, the country has to be divided into page-sized sections, so on your journey you move from page to page. To help with this, road atlases mostly come with a very useful feature: the pages overlap. As you get close to the edge of one page you cross a line – in this atlas it’s a blue line.
After you pass that line you are in an interesting place – you’re on two pages at once. You’re nearing the edge of what you can see, but as you turn over the page, you discover you’ve already embarked on the next phase of your journey with the miles laid out in front of you.
Sometimes history is similar – whether that’s our individual lives, our national life, or even the history of the whole of humanity.
In today’s Gospel reading we heard Matthew tell about John the Baptist.
I don’t know what you might feel about John the Baptist: perhaps you have an impression of some strangely dressed old guy ranting out in the desert? The details of John’s clothing and diet are certainly intriguing, though he was, of course only six months older than Jesus.
It’s true that there was nothing subtle about John or his message. That’s because John was a prophet in the Old Testament mould.
Like the Old Testament prophets, he was unconventional in his lifestyle: not because he wanted to draw attention to himself, but so that he could act out in his life the message God had for his people.
He was, like many other Old Testament prophets, a descendent of the priests of ancient Israel and he calls the people of Israel back to the LORD, Yahweh, their God.
But John the Baptist was not just an Old Testament prophet – with him, the path of history crossed the blue line and entered the overlap between the Old Testament and the New.
It had been 400 years since the last prophet had spoken the word of the Lord, but now, says’ John, the waiting is nearly over, and the Lord is on his way – now is the time to repent.
At the same time, John’s standpoint was one of complete humility before the coming Anointed one.
It’s easy to think that a humble person, especially a Christian, is someone who is invisible, unwilling to assert themselves or confront others, a kind of spiritual doormat. It’s easy to think of expressions of individuality as the opposite of humility because they draw attention to ourselves.
This is not the picture of humility which we get from John the Baptist. He was very much an individual.
But for all this John the Baptist had an appropriate and genuine humility. He always put himself in a proper perspective compared to Jesus. As we heard, he made no bones about the fact that Jesus was incomparably greater than he was.
He also made no bones about the changes in people’s lives which Jesus would require, because John the Baptist was a prophet. He had some very strong words to say – it’s not exactly politically correct to call your opponents a ‘Brood of vipers’ !
Like the Old Testament prophets before him, John delivered his message to everyone alike, tax collectors, soldier, Pharisees, king Herod, whoever. He was willing to challenge any person or behaviour that didn’t measure up to God’s standard, and so, like many prophets before him, he was killed for his words.
But John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. From his arrival, the journey of God’s people is near the edge of that page. Because the Messiah is already coming on the scene they are now on two pages at once.
Of course, as I make my way along in my car, and cross one of the blue lines in my road atlas, I don’t notice anything. The lines in my atlas are quite broad, but I don’t see everything taking on a blue tinge for a few hundred yards.
The extraordinary events around John the Baptist, from his birth onwards, had made many people think, just as would the even more extraordinary events around the birth of Jesus, but otherwise ordinary life went on.
Only when Jesus began his public ministry would the page be turned and the significance of those events start to become clear. “I baptise you with water”, we heard John say, “but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit”.
We’re on a whole new page, and it’s clear that the road is leading on to places that we couldn’t see before.
Let’s not forget, though, that a journey is a continuous thing. Just because we have crossed a blue line or turned a page doesn’t mean that the earlier part of our journey has ceased to exist or become unimportant. We wouldn’t be here if we hadn’t previously been there – this is Mark’s point in quoting from Isaiah: John the Baptist hasn’t come out of nowhere: he’s part of the plan.
In the same way, John the Baptist remains a key part of our journey, even though we only tend to hear of him in Advent each year.
But as Christians, we live in an even more important overlap. With the resurrection of Christ, the journey of God’s people crossed the most important blue line of all, and we now live between the first and second advents of Christ.
Like John the Baptist we are called to prepare the way for Jesus, but that doesn’t mean either making ourselves invisible, or silent.
Some of that is preparing the way for Jesus in our own lives – repenting and bearing the fruit of that repentance in new, God-centred lives as John preached.
But we are also supposed prepare the way for Jesus in the world around us. For that, we need to be God’s prophets, living, and speaking out, as a challenge to the things which are wrong around us.
We don’t have to go to the extreme of camel’s hair and locusts, but so long as we keep ourselves in a proper perspective, acknowledging God’s greatness, we can be individuals, rejoicing in our God-given uniqueness.
As we celebrate this Communion, we proclaim the Lord’s death and resurrection until his coming again. Let’s hold in mind that whatever the outward appearances, we have crossed the blue line and are nearing the edge of this page, and let’s prepare our hearts for the journey ahead.
We are people of the “now and not yet”, living on both pages: the old and new creations. Only the end of time will turn the page and reveal the next stage of our journey to places we can’t even imagine.