Prophets have a job to do which is both simple and difficult: they proclaim the word of the Lord God, calling His people to repentance, to turn away from their sins, and to turn back to the Way of the Lord. It sounds simple in theory, but in practice it is difficult. People don’t want to listen, or be challenged. It is easier to stay as you are, and not to worry, but that simply won’t do in the long run.
John the Baptist, the son of Zechariah, goes out into the wilderness, a desert place, where people have an encounter with God. He preaches a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. Jews were used to the idea of ritual washing and cleanliness, but this was something more, something which would turn your life around. Changing your ways is both an event and a process: you have to will to do it, and to persevere in doing it. At its heart it involves wanting to live the way God wants us to love: being loving, and forgiving others as we have been forgiven. It sounds easy enough, but doing it day after day, week after week, year after year is hard. We fail, and keep failing, but GOD STILL LOVES US. He doesn’t turn away from us, even when we turn away from Him, because that is what love, mercy, and forgiveness are all about. God wants to change the world profoundly. That’s what Isaiah’s prophecy quoted in Luke Gospel is all about. The promise of salvation offers the world a radical change, as we see in the prophet Habakkuk, ‘For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.’ (Habakkuk 2:14 ESV) All the prophecy in the Old Testament points to, and finds its fulfilment in, Christ: ‘For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,’ (Col 1:19). We will see God’s glory both in the baby born in Bethlehem, and when Christ shall come at the end of time as our Saviour and our Judge. We are prepared for this by the message of the prophets, and especially by John the Baptist, who quite literally prepares the way of Lord.
So we need to be prepared, by saying sorry to God, by asking for His forgiveness, and by turning our lives around, so that ‘that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ’ (Phil 1:6) We’re a work in progress, and for the past two thousand years this is what the church has been, and will continue to be, until Christ comes again. We will fail, on a daily basis, that’s not the point! The point is that we keep trying, and keep asking for forgiveness, and keep trying to live the Christian life. It’s a big, daunting task, which, if it were just up to us individually, we would have no chance of achieving. But it is something which we can do together, as the body of Christ, and relying upon God alone: it is His Gospel, His Church, and His strength in which we will accomplish this. Too often we trust in ourselves and fail. We need to trust in God and ask him to bring about the proclamation of the Gospel through us. We need to be like John the Baptist, preparing the way for the Lord who will come again as our Saviour and our Judge.
The church, then, must be a voice crying in the wilderness. What we proclaim may be at odds with what the world thinks we should say and do, but we are not called to be worldly, to conform ourselves to the ways of the world. We live in a fallen world, which is not utterly depraved, but which falls short of the glory of God. The church exists to conform the world to the will of God. To say to the world: come and have life in all its fullness, in Jesus Christ and turn away from selfishness and sin.
Now, the world may not listen to us when we proclaim this. It may well choose to ignore us, to mock us, even to persecute us. We must, however, be prepared to do this regardless of the cost to ourselves. We must bear witness to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, and their saving work in the world, even if it means losing our lives, because it says to the world: we trust in something greater than you, we know the truth and it has set us free. We are free to love God and to serve him, and to invite others to do the same, to be baptised, to turn away from the world, and be fed by word and sacrament, built up into a community of love, offering the world a radical alternative. ‘And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.’ (Phil 1:9-11 ESV)
God offers the world a radical alternative, built on LOVE, which is shown most clearly in the Cross, when Jesus died for love of us. For love of us, whose sins nailed him to it. God loves us so that we might become lovely, and gave His life for us, so that we may come to share His life . This is our hope, this is the hope of Advent, the hope proclaimed by the prophets which we need to live out in our lives. Only then can the world come to believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.