Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8
“I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1.8)
The richest gifts in life often come in the shape of people and events we have anticipated for some time, but which still manage to surprise us. It might be meeting up with an old friend. Or maybe a special anniversary or occasion that we hope will be a turning point, a fresh start or a new opportunity.
Of course, how things work out depends on who we are looking for, what we are seeking. We may not be able to determine who or what ‘turns up’ for us, but our satisfaction or disappointment, perhaps even our capacity to recognise that this is ‘the person’ or ‘the time’, will be shaped by what – if anything – we were expecting in the first place.
This is the specific challenge of Advent. Who is the Jesus who we hope will be born in our hearts and in our world? What can be achieved through him? And how shall we respond, personally and collectively, in this time and place?
The people to whom Jesus first appeared, those who ended up calling him the Christ, had inherited a variety of ideas about who the Messiah, ‘the chosen one’, was going to be. In one strand of Jewish expectation he was a ‘kinsman redeemer’, a warrior who would deliver a fractured, exiled people from occupation, division and defeat, providing victory and vengeance instead. “See, the Lord comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him” (Isaiah 40.10).
Then again, the anticipated Messiah was also a royal figure, a restorative king in the line of David whose rule would ensure, in the words of the Psalmist (85.1,9), that the descendents of Jacob continue to be vindicated and that “glory shall dwell in our land” once more. Shepherd imagery in the Hebrew Scriptures is monarchical, by the way.
In these terms, the expected Messiah is a nationalist hero for Zion, for Jerusalem, for the cities of Judah. But he will also bring God’s favour close to hand, he will offer forgiveness for wrongdoing, and in the most elevated version of the vision, in him “steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; justice and peace will kiss each other.” (Psalm 85.10).
Is Jesus the answer to these kinds of longings? The answer is less than straightforward. John the Baptist prefigures him with wild asceticism and prophetic warning rather than princely grandeur. In the ‘one who is to come’ you will be confronted with the essential holiness of God, not just water from the Jordan, he declares (Mark 1. 5, 8). Likewise, the writer of the second Epistle of Peter sees all worldly things being called into judgment by Christ and renewed by him, both in this instant and in eternity.
There is a strong echo here of the divine rule which the expected Messiah heralds… but in the shape of Jesus, the man from the backwater of Nazareth, the character of this hope changes radically. For a start he is not a military figure. On the contrary, he elevates peacemakers, calling on his followers to love enemies, to bless their cursers and to repay evil with good. His last earthly instruction to Peter is to put away the sword. “Strive to be found by him at peace” says the Epistle.
Next, as I have pointed out often before, Jesus challenges the narrow boundaries on God’s love that had been established by the religious authorities and their purity codes. Rules are to benefit people, not the other way round, he says. He shows his lordship by washing feet and cleansing outcasts. He forgives people outside the formal Temple system.
Jesus as the Anointed One of God helps us to see that the personal, the social, the spiritual and the political are finally all of a piece. But he does this by demonstrating the power of God’s love to cleanse every aspect of our lives, not by becoming a nationalistic religious or political figure in the way that historic Christianity has sometimes been tempted to cast him.
The “make a straight path for the Lord” injunction in Mark 1.3 is a direct reference to Isaiah 40, which Luke quotes in more detail. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” Here are images of levelling. What is low is raised up, what is high is brought down, as in Mary’s celebratory song, the Magnificat. These powerful pictures are from the Jubilee tradition, whereby land and debt was to be restored and equalised periodically, particularly to help the weakest.
Scholars may argue, as they do, about how far the Jubilee was actually implemented in Ancient Israel, but there can be no doubt that Jesus makes it a central part of his ministry, both in the way he treats people and in the way that he pictures God’s arriving kingdom as a feast in which all may share, and a release from indebtedess that all may enjoy. (“Forgive us our debts” is the best translation of a famous phrase in the Lord’s Prayer.)
For this to be possible, however, a radically new life-direction is needed involving restored relationships among people and with God. In that sense, Jesus fulfils expectations. Those who are bruised will be comforted, the Messiah “will speak peace to his people, to those who turn to him in their hearts” and the promise is given of a new creation with holy justice at its core.
Here, then, is the Jesus who awaits us, the one in whom we meet each other and God anew, in whom old barriers are lifted and with whom new opportunities for life in its fullness appear. But what does that mean today? What do we expect to be and to do as a result of living on the far side of this biblical hope, while remaining on the near side of the final fulfilment of God’s unrestricted life, in which we live and move and have our being?
The answer, which is in fact more like a questioning, lies in voluntary baptism. To be initiated by the Holy Spirit into a body of people shaped by the crucified and risen Christ is to be invited to meet Jesus, the Anointed One of God, not just in theory, in our own imagination, in the multiple images we have created, or even in the pages of scripture. Rather, it is to become part of a community formed by him, fed by him and guided by him.
No matter how personally vivid our faith may be, or for that matter how weak and fitful it is (remember Jesus blessed the spiritually poor, not religious giants!), we cannot “know Jesus” on our own. We know him only as he draws close to us – in those ‘Emmaus occasions’ where words exchanged, texts explored, and strangers encountered become for us his body, his blood, signalled in a moment of surprise recognition as bread is broken and shared.
That might happen around the Communion table, or it might happen over a sandwich and coffee with your pain-in-the-neck neighbour. Similarly, it may occur in prayer and liturgy (when pennies drop, hearts are melted and light is cast), but it is equally likely to happen when we do the things Jesus did and take as our sustenance the words he spoke and the hope he promised.
If the Jesus we are expecting this Advent is truly the Christ of the Gospels, the comforter of the disturbed and the disturber of the comfortable, then the most important task for us as a church right now is to be the church – by which I mean to be the kind of people who are found regularly in the company of Jesus, in the midst of whatever else it is they are given to do.
Many people get easily confused about what ‘church’ is. They think it’s a building, or a religious institution, or a club for people who “enjoy that kind of thing”. It may indeed need structure, organisation and devotees. But it isn’t about them. ‘Church’, rather, is the name of a public space for risky, experimental living – for doing crazy stuff like forgiving others, offering hospitality to oddballs, sharing what we have in common and with others, learning how to live justly, and re-telling key stories of redemption and change. I’m paraphrasing some key elements from the gospels here. The word ekklesia refers to this kind of ‘zone of action’.
‘Church’ is also a place where people are specifically equipped to undertake these difficult activities by being taken deep into the waters of death and then raised through them with Christ, so that they know in their hearts how God’s love can embrace everything that could ever be thrown at us and still not be exhausted. That is, we are equipped for what lies ahead by being baptised “in the Holy Spirit”, in the life God gives beyond our limited capacities. This is vital because keeping Jesus’ company often amounts to being asked to “share God’s sufferings in the world” (to use Bonhoeffer’s poignant expression), and this is not something we can do in our own strength.
On this basis, the mission of the church is to be people who visibly live out the refreshingly good life the Gospel announces; to do so before (and as part of) the community we are set in; and to act by the only strength that the Gospel offers – the persuasion of God’s Spirit, not the overwhelming power and deadly might that “worldly realism” wants to tell us is the only course – because it doesn’t believe in the God of life, but only in the suasion of carrots and sticks.
If our churches, with their building projects, their ministries, their sharing of resources with the community, their social life, their worship, their learning, their proclamation and in their engagement with larger concerns are clear about the message and hope of Advent, then there can be no doubt that they have a future, because they are mortgaging themselves on the love of God, not on credit of the more crunchable kind.
Once we are clear about what the Gospel is for us, the only real question is ‘what shall we do and how shall we do it?’ The ‘how on earth can we survive?’ question is reserved for those foolish enough to think that survival is in their hands, because they haven’t understood what baptism really means. So they are expecting death. To be church is to learn how to expect life. Once we get that, there’s no turning back – except from those illusions about grasping power from which we must be delivered if we are to be in any way faithful to the Gospel.
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. His website is: http://www.simonbarrow.net . This article was first given as an address for Advent 2 at St Mary Arches Church, Central Parish of Exeter, on 7 December 2008.