For many people Advent is a time for consumerism, buying things for Christmas. It is understandable. People find pleasure in stuff, in presents, and the excess which usually characterises this time of year. But Christians understand that true joy is not found in things of this world, but in God alone. Joy is our vocation as Christians, we are called to be people of joy. This can be hard at any time, but especially at the moment when the lives of so many people are filled with fear and anxiety for the health and well-being of ourselves and our loved ones as well as for the country in which we live. It is good to remember the words of the prophet Nehemiah:
‘the joy of Lord is our strength’ (Nehemiah 8:10)
Our joy as Christians has a supernatural source, namely God, and a supernatural end: God wills for us to be united with Him forever in Heaven. This is why St Paul can write to the Thessalonian Christians and encourage them to be filled with joy. Because of who Jesus Christ is, and what He has done, we are able to be joyful and hopeful for the future. Such an attitude leads naturally to prayer: we give thanks to God for all that He has done. Our prayer , like our life, is characterised by joy and gratitude. We are filled with it, and we share it with others, for such is the Kingdom of God. This is God’s will for us and how we should live.
Through our prayer, our relationship with God, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are sanctified by God. We are made holy so that we can grow in love towards God and each other. Through encountering God in prayer and Scripture, and the Eucharist, we are drawn ever closer into the relationship of love which characterises the life of God. God does this so that we can be prepared to meet Christ who will come again as our Saviour and our Judge. We can trust in this because as St Paul writes:
He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. (1Thess 5:24)
We can trust in God because He keeps his promise. In our first reading this morning, from the prophet Isaiah, we see the promises that the Messiah will fulfil as the demonstration of the Kingdom of God. This is a kingdom of love and freedom, a place of good news for the oppressed, where healing love binds up the broken-hearted. A realm of healing and of renewal, which proclaims liberty, and releases prisoners. God’s kingdom turns the world on its head, and offers something completely different. It is a place where we are clothed in a mantle of praise, a garment of joy and salvation, a robe of righteousness which we put on in our baptism. This is a radical, world-changing vision, which offers the possibility of real transformation to people in each and every age. This prophecy is the one read by Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth at the start of his public ministry. After quoting the words of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus says:
“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21)
In, and through Jesus, prophecy is fulfilled. People can have true hope for the future, in the certain knowledge that God loves us, and will heal our wounds, and calm our fears.
In this morning’s Gospel we pick up from last Sunday with John the Baptist preaching a baptism of repentance, a turning away from sin towards the arms of a loving God. He has been stark and uncompromising in his message, as a prophet should be. The people drawn to John’s teaching find themselves in an awkward situation. They can’t quite understand what’s going on: Is John the Messiah? If he isn’t, who then is he? He calls people to the baptism of repentance in the knowledge that Christ is coming, with His gift of the Spirit. John is preparing for the Kingdom of God to be a reality in people’s hearts, and minds, and lives.
We are told thatJohn the Baptist is near the Dead sea, by the River Jordan where the road from Jerusalem to Jericho crosses a major trade route to the East. This is a major crossroads, an ideal place to meet people. He has been successful; many people have listened to his message and have been baptised by him. This leads the priests and Levites (sent by the Pharisees) to come up from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ John replies that he is not the Messiah, so they ask him, ‘What are you then, are you Elijah?’ They are trying to understand who John is, and what he is doing. They know that Elijah, the greatest Jewish prophet, was taken up into heaven. They are expecting him to return to pave the way for the Messiah. This is what John is doing, anticipating the arrival of Jesus the Messiah. John’s Gospel tells us that:
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. (John 1:6-8)
John the Baptist bears witness to who Jesus Christ is. He points to the Messiah, the salvation of the World. He points to one who has come so that we might believe. John is the first person to recognise Jesus, and he does so in the womb. Before he is born, when the Blessed Virgin Mary visits her cousin, Elizabeth, John leaps for joy. His whole life is a proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom of God, and His Son, Jesus Christ. John is an example for us all to live lives of joy, proclaiming to the world the need to repent and follow Christ, the light of the World.
John the Baptist is also a great example of humility: he does not claim a position that is not his own. He is the exact opposite of the culture of the world around us. The priests and Levites are still confused and so they ask him:
“Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” (Jn 1:25-27)
John says that he is not worthy to untie the sandal. This is because he is not the one doing the redeeming. The Book of Ruth explains the custom of taking off a sandal:
Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, one drew off his sandal and gave it to the other, and this was the manner of attesting in Israel.(Ruth 4:7)
Redemption is the work of Christ. He is born of the House of David, who was the great-grandson of Ruth, to redeem humanity by dying for them on the Cross. John recognises this, and understands that the transaction represented by the removal of a sandal has not yet taken place. It will take place on Calvary. The very beginning of John’s public ministry points to the Cross, where salvation and freedom will be offered to all who turn to Christ. May we be humble and joyful like John, and proclaim the Saviour who takes away our sins, and sets us free to sing the praises of 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. Amen