‘The Baptist joys at Jordan’s edge;
with urgent force he rends the night.
He challenges the clouded heart:
“Be turned full-face: Behold the Light!”’
I think these words from one of our Advent hymns convey very well the sense of our Gospel reading this morning. Somehow, John the Baptist in the wilderness has caught a glimpse of the possibilities of God’s kingdom on earth. It is a kingdom in which the wickedness of oppression and injustice find no place, in which the poor and the humble will be judged with righteousness and equity, the needy shall be defended and the oppressed shall be rescued. John has learned that this kingdom has come near, and so joyfully he starts shouting the urgent news so that people might prepare themselves for it.
Perhaps the people are tired of the way things have been in their lives, for they seem ready to respond by going in numbers to John and receiving his baptism. But while John is filled with joyful anticipation, he is also frustrated by the illusions some people bring with them. People should not think that his baptism is some sort of magic that will get them out of trouble. People should not think that their privilege will protect them; rather, their privilege might just isolate them from the life of the coming kingdom. John’s baptism is meant to be a sign that people have taken his message to heart and changed their lives to live according to the values of God’s kingdom.
Jesus, the promised one from the root of Jesse, did come after John, and he did bring the kingdom of God with him. He showed us what God’s kingdom on earth is like, and taught us what it means to live in that kingdom, a kingdom that is so often obscured by the injustice and oppression that remain so prevalent in the world. Each Advent, we are invited again to consider our lives in the light of the kingdom, to turn our lives again towards that light and to live by the light we receive.
Jesus is the one on whom the Spirit of God rested, the one who delighted in the knowledge of God. He knows that it is only by God’s Spirit that we are freed and enabled to live in God’s kingdom. The Spirit of God is the Spirit of perseverance and encouragement, the Spirit who keeps hope alive in us when there is so much reason to be despondent.
The apostle Paul suggests that our hope is manifest in the ways we find to live in harmony with one another according to the Spirit of Jesus. The prophet Isaiah presents some marvellous imagery of life together in the kingdom of God, imagery which is at once inspiring and also indicates how radical a change in our natural instincts we must be prepared to undergo. A wolf living at peace with a lamb, a calf with a lion.
On that day when the earth is finally full of the knowledge of the Lord, none shall be hurt or destroyed by another in all God’s realm. This requires not only that our natural instincts be overcome, but that the reasons for those instincts are done away with. The strong will do no harm to the weak, but rather support them. The privileged will no longer benefit from systems that exploit the less fortunate, but rather share their resources.
Paul wants us to start, humbly enough, simply by welcoming one another, just as we know ourselves to be welcomed by Christ. We are to accept even those who are different from us as they also seek a place in the kingdom of God, not as one might reluctantly accept a burden, but joyfully, as one might accept a wonderful gift, knowing that Christ has accepted each one of us who have come to him as the wonderful gift he somehow considers us to be. When we truly allow ourselves to encounter one another, despite whatever discomfort such encounter might cause, we can discover the gift that each one of us is.
‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.’