Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Isaiah 11:1-10
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

It seems as though Christmas comes earlier every year. The lights go on and the trees go up in the shops just after the summer holidays, Santa’s grotto opens around September - and here is John the Baptist getting in on the act, because he’s a week early. The Sundays in Advent have four themes, which are alluded to in the prayers when we light the advent wreath: first come the Patriarchs, Abraham and Sarah standing for all our ancestors in the distant past who first had faith in God.  Then the Prophets, who proclaimed God’s word to Israel. Then, next week, John the Baptist, and finally the Blessed Virgin Mary.
But in fact we see John the Baptist again next week, so all is well. This week’s reading reminds us that John the Baptist has two roles: he is both the last of the Old Testament prophets and the forerunner of the Messiah. He comes after the Old Testament witness, and before the coming of Christ. And this week we look back to the prophets of old. 
What were prophets in the Old Testament? What did they do? Sometimes we think that they predicted the future, but they didn’t do that in detail, and it wasn’t their primary concern. The prophets of ancient Israel spoke the message of God to his people, according to whatever their need was at the time. If they were going wrong, they needed to be corrected. If they were suffering affliction they needed comfort and hope. But the prophets always proclaim what God is like, and the standards he expects of his people. God demands justice, righteousness, equity for the poor, liberty for the oppressed, because that is what God is like, and God calls human society to reflect his nature. 
Today I am sure many people are recalling Nelson Mandela, a real prophetic figure of our own time. His courageous witness for what was right and just, for all people, his stand for forgiveness and reconciliation, his hope that South Africa could become a free, just and inclusive society, when that must have seemed impossible to many. He was a true prophet, and through his witness saved his country from the terrible violence that might otherwise have happened. 
But the prophets of ancient Israel also look forward to God’s action in the future. And this was because God is consistent. God is always both the judge and the saviour of his people. So the prophets looked forward to future salvation, even when things seemed to be going terribly wrong in the present. 
So the prophet Isaiah, who we heard in our first reading, looks forward to a Messiah, a righteous Spirit-filled king of the line of David. And this is in contrast to the weak and corrupt kings of Isaiah’s own time. God’s chosen leader will get it right and accomplish God’s whole purpose. The Messiah will bring about Isaiah’s vision of justice for the poor and equity for the meek in a restored paradise (which, by the way, is vegan, as was Eden - there is no violence even in the animal kingdom in Isaiah’s vision).
And as St Paul reminds us in the letter to the Romans, and the prophets themselves said, this salvation is for all people, Jew and Gentile, for every one of us.
John the Baptist in today’s gospel reading is fulfilling an Old Testament type prophetic role. This caused tremendous excitement at the time as there had been no prophets for centuries, and it was widely believed that the coming of the Messiah would be heralded by the appearance of a new prophet.
So John goes our into the wilderness and enacts the repentance that he was calling people to. His dress and his diet are truly penitential. And he’s quite clear that repentance had to be sincere. Like the prophets of old John does not restrain his language about insincere religious leaders. How about this as a strategy for greeting new people arriving at Church: “you brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!”? Well, perhaps not. We are Anglicans...
There are two important ideas in John’s message: wrath and repentance. “Wrath” in the Bible is closely related to desire. It is the craving for an insatiable desire that eats us up and torments us. A tangled writhing brood of vipers is a very powerful image for the Biblical idea of wrath. This is always rivalrous desire, wanting what others have, trying to grab and hold on to what we feel we lack, leading to envy, violence and hatred. 
Repentance is the conversion of our desire. Repentance means turning around. From wrath, the death-bound desire that closes us in on ourselves, to the open, generous, loving desire of God. If we are open to God’s desire then we are open to receive his life, to be baptised with the Holy Spirit. 
John’s baptism signifies the first part of this, repentance, the conversion of desire. But John looks to Jesus to give what he himself cannot give - the life of God.
And John is clear that to receive this gift there has to be a real change within. We cannot rely on having Abraham as an ancestor. Or on any other “automatic” guarantee of salvation. Be that living a respectable life, going to church, or whatever. True repentance is essential. No external sign can substitute for the true interior conversion of our desire.
But, John is still the last of the prophets, before Jesus. So he does not yet know the way in which the Messiah’s mission will unfold. He is the forerunner, but of something he cannot yet imagine. In today’s reading he seems to imagine that the Messiah himself will bring wrath for the evildoers, but things turn out differently, as we shall see next week.
For the time being, we are to examine ourselves and seek to repent, to re-order our lives according to God. To seek the conversion of our desire from what is death-bound and turned in on ourselves, which the Bible calls “wrath”, to the overflowing, utterly generous and self-giving desire of God, in which alone we will find our true life. And this is how we, like John, prepare the way for the Lord, and for his Kingdom to become known.

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