Luke 3: 1-6 Advent 2
One of the great joys and privileges of priesthood is the opportunity to administer the sacrament of baptism. Thus far I have baptised a fair number of extremely cute babies, quite a few wriggling toddlers as well as some adults. As someone who was also baptised as an adult, I always feel particularly moved by undertaking this act as I know that to be prepared to stand up and declare faith in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit takes courage and trust. I am pleased to say there have been no disasters – yet! I haven’t dropped any of the wriggling bundles of joy that are handed over to me, I have managed to make sure that the right baby is given the right name and so far, there have been no unfortunate incidents involving bodily fluids from either end! All in all it has been a pleasure and a delight – I get to cuddle babies and welcome them into the family of God and once I have upset them by pouring water over them just when they least expect it I hand them back to their parents! Result!
I do however often reflect on what it actually means to the families who arrive, literally wearing their Sunday best, with their nearest and dearest, to have their children baptised. The cynic in me sometimes fears that it is merely a social ritual but, because I am ever the optimist, I retain the hope that it might just stir a thought about the significance of the ceremony, about the sheer holiness of that moment when their beautiful and much-loved child becomes a member of God’s family. Most of the baptisms that I have celebrated in this parish are at Holy Cross and I am moved by the thought of the hundreds of children who over the centuries have been presented by their parents to receive this sacrament.
Has that moment been the beginning of a lifelong fulfilling relationship with God, has it shaped their whole lives? Or has it just been an hour on a Sunday afternoon that is overshadowed by the subsequent party that inevitably takes place afterwards?
This Sunday in Advent we honour the prophets as we begin to reflect on the ministry of perhaps the greatest prophet of all John the Baptist, he who first was given the overwhelming privilege of taking water and using it as a sign of God’s redeeming love for all of his children. We know little of John’s early life – born in old age to Elizabeth and Zechariah it is likely that he was orphaned at a young age. Given that he was effectively Jesus’s cousin he may possibly have been brought up in the same extended family but while it would be easy to romanticise a blissful childhood with both boys playing happily together in the olive groves, we don’t actually know how John developed into adulthood. In the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel there is a short description of his birth which ends with the verse “and the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he lived in the desert until he appeared publicly to Israel”. This implies that John was pretty tough from the word go and if he was living in the inhospitable environment of the desert its hardly surprising that he developed a somewhat eccentric taste in clothes and diet as well a distinct lack of social skills!
Luke places John’s ministry very precisely in a historical context by naming the rulers of the time. Judea was very much a puppet state of the Roman Empire. Despite there being a nominal king, Herod, in place the real power was wielded by Pilate the Roman governor who would be so key in bringing about Jesus’s eventual fate. The country was a hotbed for political radicalism and you can see why the slightly crazy figure of John with his spirited outbursts and charismatic ministry would be attractive to the dis-empowered and frustrated Judeans. After all the establishment continued to kowtow to the Roman oppressors, the high priests were subjugated by the authorities – what was needed was someone who was unafraid to stand up and tell it how it was, someone fearless who would stir up the people and empower them to take action, to be a movement for change.
John’s itinerant ministry based around the River Jordan focussed on baptism as a sign of repentance, a public declaration that the person coming forward was not only aware of their sins but wanted to seek God’s forgiveness, desired to live in a new and holy way. John knew that this baptism could only go so far – it was possible to be sorry for previous sinfulness and to pledge to live a new life that was not marked by wrongdoing but it was not yet possible to be redeemed of that state. Only Jesus’s death upon the cross could do that. John was very clear what his limitations were. He may well have lived a somewhat unorthodox life in the desert but he was very aware of the prophetic writings that foretold of his role in the coming of the Messiah – “ a voice of one calling in the desert, prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him”
Regardless of his followers desire for John to be the one sent by God to re-establish the covenant with his people John knew from the start that he was only the warm up act – the main event was yet to commence. I’m sure we have all had those experiences when we have felt like the person in the background. The person that does all the preparatory work, irons out the little niggles that exist, smooths over the cracks, calms down the people who are getting over anxious, takes on the burden of ensuring everything runs smoothly. You spend hours agonising over the tiniest detail, you live and breathe the task you are undertaking and then its over, at least it is as far as your involvement is concerned. Someone else takes centre stage, someone else delivers the key message, someone else gets the glory, the appreciation, the accolades. That can be hard. It can feel unfair. Why should that other person be lauded for all your hard work? They just swan in at the last minute and end up getting all the thanks. At such times it can be hard to hold on to the knowledge that whatever the situation may be, at work, at home, even at church, we have to be prepared to submit to God’s will for us, for the part He has destined that we play in the building of his kingdom.
John knew exactly what he had to do. He willingly took on his role the one who would lay the foundations from which Jesus would build his kingdom, his humility was beyond reproach, his willingness to submit to God’s will unquestionable. He knew that he was fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy, that he was the one calling in the desert, the one sent to prepare the way, to make ready the path that Jesus’s ministry would take, the one through whose actions humanity would see the glory and beauty of God’s salvation. If we reflect onwards to the point at which Jesus asks John to baptise him, although that moment is not actually recorded in Luke’s Gospel, the account appearing in Mark’s Gospel instead, surely it was at this incredible moment that John knew that his role has been more than fulfilled, that it was time to step back.
Sometimes that is what we need to do, we need to be step back and be thankful for what God has called us to do – even when we are feeling slightly miffed at being relegated to the back benches. But there is one task that we definitely need to be out there for, fully visible to all who we encounter. The task of proclaiming the Gospel, the task of living out kingdom values and in doing so drawing those around us to seek a relationship with God. If we briefly reflect on our reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we can be encouraged by his joy in the knowledge that those to whom he write are doing exactly that – seeking to speak the Gospel message, to grow the body of Christ, to actively participate in God’s mission for the world. Despite being imprisoned, Paul is confident that his prayers for the early Church will be fulfilled and he is strengthened by the prayers that he knows are surrounding him.
Today we give thanks for the ministry of John the Baptist and indeed his example (although possibly without emulating the diet of locusts!) We remind ourselves of the importance of all we do to God’s glory, no matter how small and insignificant it may first appear. John’s ministry was not the whole deal as far as God’s plan to re- establish his covenant with creation. But without it Jesus’s early ministry may have looked very different. Had John not heard God speaking to him and calling him to the unique ministry of baptism, and more importantly had he not responded who knows whether that fundamental act of our faith would exist now. Just like John, Paul and the members of the emerging church in Philippi, we are also called to proclaim the Gospel. And as our Advent journey continues, we have such a great opportunity to encourage those around us to think more deeply about the true meaning of Christmas.
More people step through the doors of a church in December that any other time of the year. That in itself is a gift. That enables us to witness to God’s constant and inclusive love. Indeed, we can do this just through the way in which conduct our Christmas preparations in our everyday lives – the way in which we can ensure that Christmas is Christ centred, that Advent is more than a countdown to a day of indulgence, that it is a time of reflection, of stillness, of overwhelming gratitude for God’s generosity in giving His Son to us that we may be drawn ever closer to Him and as we do so lead others to the true Light of the World. Amen.