Note: The video can be viewed here.
John the Baptist represents all those who cry out loudly in the background giving advice and warning. We hear echoes of his cries each day in the alarming News bulletins, in the strident headlines.
Covid infections increase. Rules are flouted! Civil unrest in Uganda. Persecution of Christians increases worldwide. Investigation into unjust practices in Government.
We are grateful to the news agencies and the alert journalists for keeping us alive to the problems and challenges. The News makes people uneasy and challenges us to change things. Is our Church strong enough to make a difference?
One journalist writes: It is a winter for the Church with falling numbers, ageing congregations and hostile media. There is winter darkness in a society where murders are almost a daily occurrence, the bonds of marriage unravel, addiction to drugs and alcohol is rampant, life in the womb is under threat and many are sleeping rough.
The Covid-19 epidemic has caused serious financial problems for many people. Winter is dark and cold as the light of faith disappears and religious fervour has gone cold. I’ve even heard it said that times are so bad we will have no Christmas celebration this year!
And yet Jesus was born into a hostile environment, the family living rough, the insignificant parents in an insignificant place. The first Christmas was in a draughty stable. Let’s never forget he came at Christmas to change people’s attitudes and ask us to work with him! So, we can do great things.
What about this headline? Christians gather together in a house of prayer in Ballymena to pray for each other and for the economy and for leaders. They gather to share expertise and joint projects to help the poor and underprivileged. Ballymena Forum gathers to discuss faith perspectives on Brexit. John the Baptist knew what he was doing and advising. Shouting out can awaken consciences and leaders begin new enterprises.
We are not doing too badly!
However, some enthusiasts urge us to think very big, initiate huge campaigns. Is that always good news? Think back to the Crusades of old. Even though great leaders were involved in them like St Bernard of Clairvaux, or King Richard the Lionheart, or King Louis of France we remember the Crusades as a failed enterprise, as a big mistake. There was a problem to be solved certainly. Islamist aggression is still a problem today. But big, loud campaigns so often go astray. People are terrorised, but only the symptoms change and the underlying sickness of sinfulness and power-seeking remains to haunt us. We don’t have to be spectacular, only honest with ourselves and outward looking. Today’s Advent message reminds us of human sinfulness and weakness. Perhaps that’s what John the Baptist wanted to achieve? He wanted us to think again! So once the shouting is over the echoes of his message remain. Prepare the way for the Lord; let that remain in our consciousness. Much of our daily lives can be rather trivial and shallow. We do some good here and there, but the good deeds are mixed up in silliness and wastefulness.
We want to be speeding down the highway to heaven but we often seem to be slip sliding away. John points away from himself and wants Jesus to be first in line. He wants to decrease as Jesus increases. John points us in the right direction by what he did. John was a humble man. I imagine in the desert he must have felt the heat of the sun and wondered at the beauty of the moon. We know that the moon depends for its light on the sun. It reflects the brightness of the sun just as he reflected the brightness of Jesus his Lord. He spent many hours in silence surviving on little food and drink, being abstemious, leaving himself exposed to the will of God. Advent invites you and me to do the same, to be quiet and reflective so that we notice the wonders of God’s creation around us and realise how dependent we are on the goodness of God. We may at times feel miniscule but as Christians we reflect the brightness that comes from Jesus our Lord and Redeemer.
Reflective hymn Be still and know that I am God.
Knowing we are called to reflect the glory of God, it’s important not to be intimidated. John was not intimidated by Herod. He spoke the truth. He challenged. He was courageous. We have to challenge our society and learn how to speak more convincingly, more persuasively about God’s plan for this world.
As Advent begins let us accept being a minority in our society. See it as a challenge when traditional values are rejected even in regard to marriage and family life. Do not be dismayed even if the practice of the faith is not foremost in people’s minds and our opinions are often scorned. John would advise us to listen attentively when others are critical of us because we have to be converted too. It is the accepted practice nowadays to offer excuses under the guise of promoting self-esteem.
Modern pharisees revel in self-justification. In our desert moments we can learn to face up to our own inadequacies and our own need of repentance knowing that God will forgive and strengthen. We resolve to keep calm and focussed on making a positive response, ready to build again.
Our message is that Christ is coming, soon. He is coming to inspire and encourage. He will be surrounded by light and song and rejoicing. He will be found in the most unexpected places. He will unite heaven and earth. That’s our good news. Our continuing challenge is to speak about that News to all.
Shout occasionally to get attention. Take time off to be alone and listen more carefully to God’s word. Pray more often and learn to assimilate the Gospel. Speak to the heart as Jesus speaks to our hearts. That’s what Advent is for.