Lectionary texts: Baruch 5. 1-9; Malachi 3.1-4; The Benedictus (Luke 1.68-79), Philippians 1.3-11 and Luke 3.1-6
On Saturday 5 December 2009, people across Britain took to the streets to call upon their leaders, and their fellow citizens, to wake up to the dangers of human-assisted climate change, and to embrace difficult changes to our lifestyles and our political/economic priorities. Advent is an entirely appropriate time for us to ask about the challenges that confront us, what is required of us, and how we should act. But it also reminds us that there are no quick fixes and that the future we seek is not our own. Life is, in Christian terms, a gift that we need to learn to receive.
If you had your head screwed on and were looking to change the global system, it is probable that the recommendations of a zealous ascetic calling out from the wilderness (a place of desolation he had deliberately chosen above the lure of ‘civilisation’) would not be the ones you would naturally choose to start out with.
It would surely far be better, and much more realistic, to focus instead on those impressive corridors of power where influential deals are struck, savvy compromises made, and where “something can really be done” by people who are genuinely “in the know about the issues” – as newspaper commentators and leader writers like to put it. In which case the desert denunciations of John the Baptist might provide difficult guide and counsel.
The message of the forerunner of Jesus of Nazareth – another decidedly awkward character – is both far-reaching and alarmingly straightforward. The crises we face with our lives, he says, cannot simply be pushed onto someone or something else. They reside within our own hearts and choices. What you need to do is to choose another path and walk on it, to seek God’s upside-down kingdom before the top-down varieties on offer all around you. How? By living out an ethic of social righteousness (justice) and personal holiness (wholeness). In short, to co-opt some famous words of another prophet-from-the margins, Gandhi, the desert baptiser seems to be saying: “become the change you propose in the world.”
As the Gospel of Luke reminds us, however, this is no Victorian message of individualistic self-improvement and “pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps”. It is a call first to undergo a radical transformation at the hands of God, and second to embrace a shared vocation of subversive behaviour and outlook – in the eyes of the conventionally religious and socially respectable, at least.
Luke makes three important contextual links to the preaching of John the Baptist, all of which help us to understand its true significance and radical nature. First, in chapter one, his father Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah, marks his birth with a message of praise to God for delivering the people from their overpowering enemies, and with an invitation to accept the coming judgment – recognising it to be one which is finally full of mercy and tenderness, not hell and brimstone.
There is an important twist in the Benedictus (as we call it), in that Zechariah’s order was one that did not manage to return from Babylonian captivity, as recorded in Ezra 2. 36-39 and Nehemiah 7. 39-42. So he speaks as a survivor, not a victor. Here, then, is a message of recovery and hope in the face of genuine historical tragedy: but one that is not trapped bitterly in the wounds of the past. Instead, it is full of vulnerable (and venerable) wisdom.
Second, the early preaching of John, as recorded in St Luke, prepares for the advent of Jesus with a clear ‘Jubilee manifesto’ – one echoed throughout that gospel. The valleys are filled, the mountains are flattened out, and that which is crooked is made straight. Maybe that doesn’t sound too environmentally friendly, but these are images are actually about social levelling. They are taken directly from Isaiah and refer in turn to the Levitical Sabbath year, intended to take place every 49 years, which proclaimed a radical reforming programme of economic equalisation – including particular favour for the sojourner, the foreigner, the outsider.
This law was never fully implemented, it seems (modern human beings are not alone in their persistent waywardness!), but it was clearly understood as mirroring the heart of God for a true community of restoration and common life. In Luke 4 it forms the core of Jesus’ famous Nazareth sermon – good news for the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed… and the final dawn of what is termed “the acceptable year of the Lord”: a personal and social Jubilee revolution based on the righting of relationships among people and with God.
Third, John’s call for repentance, metanoia (literally, turning right around and heading in a different direction) is set consciously against the backdrop of the Roman Empire, of Tiberias and his delegates – named one by one at the beginning of chapter three, along with the religious establishment. Herod, ruler of Galilee, is specifically reprimanded at the end of this passage. Meanwhile, the examples John uses of a ‘new righteousness’ address distortions in communal living (whoever has two shirts must give one to the person who has none), in the economic system (the unjust imposition of Roman tax), and among the occupying armed forces (extortion).
It would be hard to think of more provocative examples of restitution. No wonder he ends up being imprisoned and executed. The important point is that John is not calling on people to seize control and overthrow the system in favour of a competing one; he is calling on them to subvert all dominating systems by living differently and identifying ways in which what is wrong can be challenged at its roots.
Most importantly, John’s message, though demanding, is practical and creative. It helps to bring into being a new community (depicted elsewhere in the Beatitudes) where status and position do not rule, but active love and solidarity does. His instrument for achieving this is not coercion, legal observance, or religious ceremonial and position – the things that Paul sets aside at the beginning of Philippians 3 – but voluntary baptism. That is, immersion into the life-giving of God: something that will be made fully known and operative through the One who is to Come and by the power of God’s spirit, he says. There is fire here, the destruction of all that destroys (Luke 3.17). But the purpose, echoing the words of Baruch 5, Malachi 3.3 and anticipating Paul (Philippians 1.10), is to refine and purify; to bring out and shine what is truly good and life enhancing.
What all this perhaps reminds us is that in the culture of modern civic religion, baptism has become something very far removed from its New Testament origins. In its early practice baptism signified, via its Jewish Passover roots, being taken down into the waters of death with Christ in order to be released from fear, raised up with him, and joined to a new community committed to living out the difference God’s love makes to every decision we have to take about our lives, our neighbours and indeed our environment (creation).
Later, in much of the 1700-year history of Christendom, it became an oath of loyalty to the concordat of state and church – one that some Christians, Anabaptists and others, resisted as a corruption of the Gospel message, even to the point of death. Now, in the hands of those churches still residually required to offer it for infants rather than adults as a civic duty, baptism is more often seen as a naming ceremony, as a social ritual, as a ‘rite of passage’, as a bit of religious insurance, or – if you are that way inclined – as a way of the institutional church counting or claiming those it thinks of as its own.
All this is quite removed from the disturbing wilderness preaching of the Baptiser, or the even more troubling invitation of Jesus to share his way of the cross. Perhaps the time has now come for the Church of England and others to distinguish between the kind of blessing we Christians should be prepared to offer any and all people at important stages in their lives (like the birth and naming of a child), and an event which embodies and signifies the joy and burden of being fully part of the Body of Christ, constituted and offered sacrificially for the life of the world. To recover, in other words, a sense of church as “a peculiar people” committed to an alternative way of living established by gift rather than possession, grace rather than mortgage, and (in John’s and Jesus’ footsteps) resistance to the powers-that-be when appropriate.
Of course, this is relatively easy to say, and difficult to do. To be a people who are, in the words of the Apostle, “growing more and more in love” so that we can form “truthful judgement and knowledge” and so “be able to choose what is best” in the light of the advent of Christ (Philippians 1. 9, 10a) is a testing vocation, to say the least. But it is precisely what is required of the constant companions of Jesus – a community of commitment and character.
This kind of ‘climate change’ in the church is also what might enable us more effectively to bring to bear on the larger problems of the world (like the other kind of climate change) the impact of the message of Advent hope. The message is this. Change is possible because, in the One who is always coming, always inviting, deep transformation is offered – starting, as John reminds us, with routine faithfulness in the face of human and systemic imperfection. For as Zechariah says (Luke 1. 79), our job is to point with our lives to “a light that is shining on all who live in the shadow of death, and to guide our steps into the path of peace.”
(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is an address given for Advent 2 at St Stephen's Church in the Anglican Central Parish of Exeter on 6 December 2009. http://www.stephenproject.org.uk/