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Readings: 3rd Sunday in Advent

05 December 2014

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Isaiah 61.1-4, 8 -end; 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24; John 1.6-8, 19-28 

ANOTHER arresting appearance by John the Baptist provides this week's Gospel reading. There is much in John's account that is similar to Mark's (Mark 1.1-8), and yet the settings could hardly be more different. For Mark, the Baptist is the last of the prophets, as both his words and his appearance make clear. For John, he is a complex character who breaks into the mystery of the incarnation to prepare the way for Jesus by denying himself. Three times he answers a question in the negative: he is not the Messiah; he is not Elijah; he is not the prophet (John 1.19-21).

Meanwhile, the answer to the questions that the priests and Levites have asked stands among them (John 1.26). John's baptism will reveal Jesus as the Messiah (John 1.31) but, unlike its substantial counterpart in the events described by the other (Synoptic) Gospels, the Spirit descending on Jesus does not seem to be visible in this account. People will have to take John's word for it, and testimony is critical to his role (John 1.19; 1.34) as the prophet who sees prophecy fulfilled but still has to contend with a disbelieving audience. It is almost too tempting to see this failure played out in the bitter reversal of Jesus's trial and death. Denied three times by one of his closest followers (John 18.15, 25-27), Jesus will die under the label "King of the Jews", a title conferred by a resented Roman governor against the wishes of those who had called for Jesus' crucifixion (John 19.19-22). 

But that is to move too far ahead in the narrative. The background to John's proclamation is the long tradition of hope for the Lord's deliverance by a people whose history is full of conquest, exile, and foreign domination. The prophecy of Isaiah which links Jesus directly to the longing for a saviour through the voice of the Baptist (Isaiah 40.3) reassures the audience that God has not forgotten them. Again we see, in the space of two Sundays' readings, a great difference of approach. Where Mark's Baptist is earthed in clothing and food, John portrays him almost ethereally as a window to the light, a voice unattached to any physical description. He fulfils the prophecy of Isaiah, but claims nothing in his own right. The priest-poet Malcolm Guite captures this in a sonnet for the eve of John's feast day:

So John the Baptist pioneers our path,

Unfolds the essence of the life of prayer,

Unlatches the last doorway into faith,

And makes one inner space an everywhere.

Least of the new and greatest of the old,

Orpheus on the threshold with his lyre,

He sets himself aside, and cries "Behold

The One who stands amongst you comes with fire!"

(Malcolm Guite, Sounding the Seasons, Canterbury Press, 2012)

 The final part of the prophecy of Isaiah paints a confident picture of what a restored relationship between God and his people will be like. Captivity gives way to freedom, mourning to rejoicing, exile to homecoming, scorched earth to new growth (Isaiah 61.1-4). The rich metaphor of preparation for a marriage imagines the rehallowing of the covenantal bond between God and Israel (Isaiah 61.10). Like other prophetic utterances, it is hard to pin down within precise time limits. But, as Paul reminds the Thessalonians, such words are not to be despised (1 Thessalonians 5.20). They define for their hearers a space and time of hope, rooted in the confidence that a God who calls is also a God who keeps faith (1 Thessalonians 5.24).

This space and time have their own purpose, as Bishop John Cosin saw when composing a new collect for the Third Sunday in Advent for the revised version of the Book of Common Prayer in 1662, after the Restoration of the Monarchy. He may have had recalcitrant supporters of the Commonwealth in mind when he prayed that God's faithful ministers would prepare for Christ's second coming by "turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just". Yet, in brilliantly adapting Luke's account of the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1.17 in the Authorised Version) to this purpose, he also saw a universal need for a whole Church to be guided into reconciliation with God. John's call to conversion of life, then and in our own time, is as urgent as it ever was.

 

Dr Bridget Nichols is Lay Chaplain and Research Assistant to the Bishop of Ely, and a Visiting Scholar at Sarum College.

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