Reflection: Advent 2
Reading Luke 3:1-6
Did you notice how Luke introduces the story of John the Baptist?
It is worth paying attention to it. Luke sets John’s place in time, in history, with what appears to be a certain degree of precision ‘the fifteenth year of…’ Certainly his intention seems to ground the story of John in time. However there are problems with the dating he gives - because Luke’s purpose is much more than historical detail and instead a call to faith; a call to recognise the activity of God in the world.
To look at the names Luke works with is to see how he summons up the powers of the world about him: he begins with the empire, then regional authorities and finally the religious leadership of the time. This is a catalogue of power and influence; it broadly names the political and religious establishment and in the same breath conjures up a catalogue of oppression, lost causes and lost hope.
And yet, this massive opening sentence is not the last word! In fact its clauses lead us to a startling conclusion – that it was in these very same days of lost hope that ‘the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.’
There are certain resonances here that make us prick our ears: ‘the wilderness’, and ‘the word of God’. The wilderness is of course the very opposite of the imperial court, the senate, the assembly or the temple. For the people of scripture, the wilderness is no spiritual wasteland but always the place of wonder, revelation, the place of divine encounter: as Moses turned to see the burning bush, and the Israelites received the revelations at Sinai.
Even today we understand something of this: accustomed to our city life and a world away from John in time and space, we turn from our urban comforts and wander in our hills to receive a landscape that is stark, beautiful; that expands our emotional and spiritual horizons and that cuts us down to size – a realisation that the poet James K. Baxter noted when he spoke of New Zealand as “a country made for angels, not for men”.
So, in a time when hope had been lost, at an unexpected time, from the wilderness appears a messenger from God.
John’s message from God is that even in this moment where hope seems lost, God is active and there is a way forward. We are to repent. We are to change our minds. We are to change the way we see the world; and change the way we live. This is not just an intellectual adjustment, a minor change of focus, but something more far reaching and John urges this change of life by promoting baptism by him in the Jordan. The old religious language for this turnabout is ‘conversion’ – a turning away from the past way of being and embracing a new way of being in the world.
So in this second Sunday of Advent, as we prepare for Christ’s coming at Christmas, we hear a call for conversion, for radical repentance and in how we see the world. A response in heart and mind changes our spiritual landscape and draws us into the wilderness of God, to that place of the Spirit where illusion, sham and deception evaporate and we are open to the reality and mystery we name as God.
It would be a mistake to think of John’s call merely as an odd little occurrence in Palestine some two thousand years ago. The spirit of repentance, the recognition of the need for radical change is not entirely lost even today. The Spirit of God is not confined to a moment in time: in an unexpected way, from nowhere, God acts. Think of the movement for climate change and the great about-face we see the survival of the planet to require. For a moment, simply juxtapose in your mind the message of John the Baptist and the about-face required of the world to avoid the disasters that face our planet: we start to see that repentance is multi-layered and multi-dimensional.
Repentance is not just the matter of an individual response to an altar call or someone seeking baptism, wonderful though these transforming moments are. Repentance has deep social and communal aspects embedded in the life-long searching, turning, returning and renewal of the divine in us. Repentance is always an awakening; a realization and discovery: it is an about-turn of mind and will to the God we have forgotten; the holy wonder we have lost sight of; and, for that matter, the world we have wasted and may yet lose.
To repent as John calls us is to seek a better way of being in the world and, looking past the ways we deceive and serve ourselves, to seek the Kingdom of God.