We live in a world where papering over the cracks has been elevated to an art form. Far from self assessment, getting ready for Christmas has come to mean responding to advertising, putting up shiny decorations, twinkling lights and listening to Christmas mood music in the malls. And yes there are some most impressive light displays being installed to transform houses, but it seems to me that in a community where we haven’t got on top of family violence, where we have drunk and stoned young folk on the streets of our major cities on a Saturday night, and where the gap between the rich and the poor is ever widening we are not quite at the point where we are ready to welcome the Messiah secure in the knowledge that we are doing all in our power to prepare his way .
When I opened my current favourite News Website “Stuff” last Tuesday morning and saw the items from the New Zealand provinces with the stories of family violence, arson in our schools, out of control teenagers stealing and crashing cars and an adult recently out of prison punching a three year-old in the head, I reflected on how this fitted with the stories of the seasonal Christmas parades.
From the US you probably noticed the unedifying TV news item about the President’s victory in reducing what he calls a tax burden on the rich and middle classes. Of course the other way of looking at taxes is as contributions to a community pool for helping deliver services including welfare, security health and education. But rejoicing that those who can afford to give will now give less is not unique to the US and I seem to remember a similar election promise in this country. But the question for Church goers might be does tax reduction represent the finest ideal for followers of the Christ. We can (and perhaps should) criticise the US for closing borders to immigrants from six countries. But the real question is – do we do better?
I know the standard concern of retailers in December is the question of how many dollars will be taken this Christmas in the shopping rush. Do you share my niggling suspicion that this may not be the number one concern that a modern day prophet might want to draw to our attention as a so-called Christian community this coming Christmas. And more to the point, what might that same prophet want to say to me?
Back in those pre-Christian days what was it that Isaiah said? Prepare Ye the way of the Lord.
Even with literal roads the quick fix doesn’t always solve the most serious problems. Again with Christchurch as an example, the earthquake of 2011 left some of the inner city roads buckled and twisted beyond belief. Certainly bulldozers and rollers were able to restore some superficial road surfaces relatively quickly but as the engineers pointed out, with the broken pipes and underground services it was going to take more than first aid to restore what really counted. Last week I saw for myself they are still working on those problems.
In the days of Isaiah it wasn’t quite so easy. A road through the desert or wilderness would be bad at the best of times, but with constant erosion, shifting dust and sand, floods and slips – poorly built bridges that were easily broken or washed away – and nothing but primitive tools to repair or cut new paths, travel would be hazardous at the best of times.
In those days, when they knew the ruler was about to visit the far reaches of the kingdom, the cry would go out. Fix the roads….make them straight… or at least passable.
But what Isaiah is saying here takes it much further. Fill in whole valleys, remove mountains. Do the job properly.
What of course he was really saying in poetic form is that the Christ child would face more serious problems. To make the way of Jesus passable different works are needed – and certainly not just on the potholes and curbs of the road – but a proper reconstruction of everything that is wrong with the very being. The nasty kinks of character, the hate and the revenge that gnaws at the very soul …of people like you and me….. the selfishness that bedevils so many – the hardness of heart, because it is these things that prevent us being ready for the Lord…… at least in a metaphorical sense.
Isaiah was a magnificent poet and prophet… and of course there were rumours and stories about him as a consequence. One story was that Elijah didn’t actually die. Instead he was swept up to heaven in a chariot of fire. At the end of the Book of Malachi, Malachi warns us that before the end of time Elijah will return. Malachi finishes the Old Testament with Elijah and what could be more appropriate than choosing the Gospel of Mark which starts with Elijah returning as John the Baptist.
John the Baptist had enough in common with Elijah to be recognized in the same light. A latter day Isaiah, and like Isaiah he spent a good deal of time in the wilderness. And a properly dressed, refined churchman who went quietly to worship one a week he wasn’t. As John Spong pointed out “When [Mark] introduces John the Baptist for the first time it is clear that John has already been interpreted as the Old Testament figure of Elijah, who in the expectations of the Jews had to precede the coming of the messiah. John is clothed… in the raiment of Elijah, camel’s hair and a girdle around his waist. He is placed in the desert where Elijah was said to dwell. He was given the diet of locusts and wild honey that the Hebrew Scriptures said was the diet that Elijah ate” (J S Spong Newsletter, 1/4/2010).
Nor was Mark one to muck about with his message.
That line when he says “I send my messenger before you and he will prepare your road for you”. This actually comes from Malachi 3:1 When Malachi used this he was actually making a threat. In Malachi’s day the service at the Temple was being done automatically – almost without feeling – half hearted attempts at sacrifice and prayers in a time when society was apparently breaking down and the messenger came to get them to clean up their act.
John the Baptist was direct enough to call it as he saw it. I sometimes wonder why they didn’t simply call him a prophet – because like the Old Testament prophets he didn’t so much spend time telling the future – but like the prophets of old he certainly told people how he saw them and didn’t seem to care if that did upset a few. Leaving aside the claims of magical power sometimes attributed to the prophets there is always a place for those brave enough to point out what needs fixing. As an aside perhaps I might mention that I had a whistle blower in a previous congregation who fled his Island home nation as a refugee after discovering and reporting that a previous prime minister had been avoiding paying his taxes. In my book this qualifies him as at least a minor prophet in the Biblical sense.
And yes there have been times where whole cities appear to go bad – and their only hope is complete reform. It has been that way for thousands of years. Seneca called Rome a Cesspool of Iniquity …. And I guess we would not have to look too far today before we encountered something similar.
When people do reform the results can be dramatic. When I was growing up Billy Graham was making his mark in many cities round the world. Although I personally now have some reservations about old style revival rallies I admit that recently I read of a Billy Graham crusade where he preached in a city called Shreveport, and liquor sales decreased by 30% – and Bible sales increased by 300%. Repentance can and does make a difference.
But more to the point, whose repentance would the modern prophet be calling for? Remember if the message is directed to us, we are not being called upon to find fault with others. It is not racism and stupid gun laws in the distant US that count for us, any more than we should focus on distant acts of horror in the Middle East. It is our own actions which require scrutiny. It is somewhat easier to talk glibly of Christian values and of good will to all if we don’t look squarely at our actions and ask ourselves how others might see us.
In the recent election campaigns it is intriguing that no-one seem to be interested in asking why this nation’s overseas aid had steadily been dropping over the last few years, because this aid is one measure of how much we genuinely care. By the end of the Christmas season who will have noticed we genuinely care about them? Will our giving to Christian World service and to the food bank be serious or token? Of course we can’t help many – but are we intending to genuinely help any? If not maybe even we might be in need of repentance. Surely repentance is rather more than a mumbled line in the Lord’s Prayer.
If John is described correctly by Mark, he was a man who insisted on repentance – and didn’t care who knew it. He even criticised Herod – and of course paid the price. But there was another way John was giving offence. At the time he was doing his Baptism, baptism was virtually unknown amongst the Jews. The scholars say that this would have been offensive – not just because he was baptising everyone the same way regardless of their position or status – but because they were in effect demeaning themselves in front of this wild and strange man.
Yet Advent is a time when the prophets, whether they be types like Isaiah, like John the Baptist or some other unexpected prophet, call us to see if we are prepared to demean ourselves to put the Christ child first in the sense that we accept what he stood for.
It is well to remind ourselves of the wilderness setting of that first Advent because our comfort and relative wealth can insulate us from noticing the relationships and self examination which need our attention. No matter how twinkly the lights on those house might appear – no matter how decorated those shops might be and no matter how nicely the carols are sung – if we do not find room in our hearts for love we too might find our time has run out and we will be left with emptiness.
The prophets bring a timely message. We must be ready. To use Isaiah’s analogy we are but as grass and the time is short.