Advent 3 | Thessaloniki
Is 61, 1-4, 8-end; 1 Thess 5, 16-24; John 1, 6-8, 19-28 (Canon LW Doolan)
It is not always a positive thing to be defined by what you are not. There is something of the protest in that type of approach. Protest is something I now have to live with. Being in the centre of Athens, as many of you will know, is a constant series of protests which brings a good deal of disruption in its wake.
On Friday night I was due to take part in a carol service for Roman Catholics and Anglicans in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Voula. It would have been a journey that required both the tram, and a bus at the other end. For three months no trams are running from Syntagma because of improvements to the new link through to Piraeus. That rather put me off as I would have to walk a distance to where the trams are terminating at present. I was then to catch a bus at the end of the tram line, and I’m not yet confident with buses, especially away from the centre of Athens. So I resorted to a taxi. Unknown to me, and to the taxi driver who had just come on duty, there was a massive protest in Syntagma and the city centre was grid-locked. It took my 1 hour and 45 minutes to get to Voula, arriving 25 minutes after the carol service had begun.
Just the day before this there had been strikes – no buses, no trams, no mainline trains, and the Metro only operating between 9am and 4pm. Of course, that was the day I had booked to spend a working day with our Anglican friends in Crete. My wife Lynne had gone to the city centre, once again cordoned off. She asked a policeman who was protesting and what about. Luckily she found a Greek policemen with a sense of humour who replied, along the lines of ‘what would you like the protest to be about – whatever it is just join in with it’.
Just as defining yourself by what you are not can be a statement of protest, so protesting can be a statement of what you are not.
Today on Advent 3, as we prepare ourselves week by week and day by day for the celebration of another Christmas in our lives, so we arrive with the great protestor, John the Baptist. The other John, John the writer of the 4th gospel, introduces the Baptist early in his version of the life of Christ, indeed he weaves the Baptist into his great Prologue about the mystery of the Word becoming flesh.
Yes, the Baptist is a considerable figure in the gospel narratives. Remember that Mary and John’s mother Elizabeth are related. John was conceived six months before the Annunciation of Archangel Gabriel. Christ and John are related, their lives intertwined, and their witness to the justice of God’s Kingdom and mission in the world are both united and inter-related.
However John the gospel writer quickly defines John the Baptist by who is not. ‘Are you the Messiah – no’ is the very clear answer. ‘I am not’. So we have the Baptist’s credentials. We know what and who he is not. Later stories of John the Baptist reveal who he is, to some extent, and he will be beheaded for speaking plainly and truthfully; but we don’t have to wait long in the 4th Gospel to discover who John the Baptist is.
He is the Forerunner; he is the Prodromos. He is the one who has a public ministry before his ‘second cousin’ begins his ministry after a time in the desert to get his mind and heart set on God his Father. John’s public ministry is about repentance. This is a form of protest. John’s ministry is a protest against the religious and cultural protocols of the day. Repent and believe in the Kingdom – turn a full 180 degrees to face the other way, sort yourself out, your life, your relationships, your values, and then the other 180 degrees and be a completely new and transformed person with faith in the living God. This is a clear rejection of the temple rituals that had become more important than faith; a rejection of much of the impositions of the Scribes, Lawyers, and Pharisees.
‘Get ready!’ Get ready for the one who will come who overthrows the kingdoms of this world. ‘Prepare!’ Prepare yourselves for someone sent by God who even John with his effective ministry and mass public appeal can’t even begin to match. ‘I’m not even worthy to tie up his shoe laces’.
John is the Forerunner. For us to prepare for Christ to be born afresh in us this year we must all look to John’s protest, and in discovering who he is not, to discover who Christ is. John’s message is prophetic, his proclamation is akin to the message of Isaiah and the other great prophets whose fulfillment is to be found in Christ, the Messiah.
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me’. These are the beautiful words from Isaiah which is part of his vision of deliverance, his protest, 800 years before John the Baptist. The protest words of the prophet are so significant that St. Luke refers to this very passage when he tells of Jesus reading from the scroll in the synagogue in Nazareth. ‘The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them,”Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4, 21).
So today we would do well to prepare ourselves for Christ’s birth by reflecting deeply on the message of the Forerunner, of John the Baptist, who cries out to each one of us in all our messy relationships and confusions; he cries out to us in our fears about Trump (I know he visited your city recently), our fears about Jerusalem, the South Pacific, Syria, fundamentalist Islam; he cries out to us in our fragility of health scares and financial instability; he cries out to us ‘I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness; Make straight the way of the Lord’.