Sunday Reflection for the Third Sunday in Advent from our Lay Reader, Christina Heath

John 1: 6-8 and 19-28

Until recently one thing we Brits have been best in the world at is self-deprecation. No one is better than us at the modest demure: “No, no it took me no time at all, I love producing a three-course meal for 12, OR an analysis of trading figures under time pressure OR winning the school’s egg and spoon race. Of course, what you don’t need at that point as you modestly shuffle your feet, is your six-year-old to remark that “You’ve been training in the back garden since half term because you said you’d be blowed if you were going to be beaten by Freddy’s Mum again this year!” What we expect from our self- deprecation is lavish praise not agreement.

Someone who was truly self-deprecating was John the Baptist about whom we heard today. He was not falsely modest about who he was, he did not expect praise. He had instead acquired a degree of self-knowledge that we should all strive for.

          No one, however, should underestimate John. He was born unexpectedly to very devout and elderly parents and had obviously studied the Jewish scriptures in great depth. He was an enormously successful preacher with a following who, having undergone baptism in the Jordan, often remained loyal through persecution. There is some evidence that his followers continued his teachings for years after his death and that of Christ’s. He was also a strong man who isolated himself in the desert beyond the Jordan not because of his contempt for people but to devote the time needed to contemplation of what God had done for the Jews and what his own part in this grand story was to be.

          There is an instant lesson here for us. At this season we busy ourselves with the stuff of Christmas. That is forgivable in part – it has been a bleak year and we have been deprived of human contact because of the pandemic. However, what have we filled our time with? Surveys seem to suggest we have watched an awful lot of television and perhaps hit the bottle a little too enthusiastically. Now we are busy ordering presents on-line, buying too much food, organising the decorations and so forth. Not that there is anything wrong with that in itself; however, it absorbs the time and attention we could be using to study, to think and to change.

          John’s quiet and austere lifestyle permitted him the peace to understand not only himself, but also how God had revealed Himself in history and the part he, John, could play in God’s plans. Furthermore, his musings allowed him to understand who he was and who he was not. He was not the Messiah, nor was he Elijah, the famous prophet whose return was expected at the end of time. He was not interested in fame and a place in history. He was simply a man with a voice. His eloquence led to success as a preacher which had attracted the attention of the Jewish authorities who sent representatives out to question him. The first century was a febrile time, not unlike now when cults and itinerant preachers hailed the coming of the Messiah and the end of days. The Pharisees, suspicious and controlling as always, did not want power slipping from their own hands and the common people being swayed by emotive messages.

          As tricky as any modern reporters, the Pharisees tried to trap John into claiming himself to be more than he was. They must have been disappointed in his answers: he was merely a voice crying in the wilderness and nothing more. However, that is still a potent force. John the gospel writer was linking the Word of God, described so eloquently earlier in the chapter, with all us men and women who have voices and use them for God’s purpose. Jesus, the Word, and Utterance of God has existed before time itself but all of us like the Baptist play our own part in speaking forth what is true and honest and loving. We are, or could be, voices for God.

John used his voice to prepare the way for the man, but more than man who he knew was coming after him.  God’s Anointed One. He was to make the road clear for Him, to sweep away all the leaves and stones and detritus on the road which hampers His progress into our hearts and lives.

John’s chosen way to prepare us for Christ’s arrival was to call for repentance. Repentance is a common theme in the New Testament for good reason. It is a time-consuming but necessary self-examination of what we believe, think, and do. It is an analysis of our lives and then a revolution in them. Repentance is never a single event. It is an ongoing process by which we seek self- knowledge and turn to God again. It takes courage because when we realise who we are, we are vulnerable, but the light shone by Christ into our inner most beings gives us hope and resolve to face whatever we find. It lights our way forward on the path before us.

          Advent, which is traditionally a time of watchfulness and prayer, is an ideal opportunity to emulate the Baptist and to take stock of our lives. Rather than getting stuck into the Christmas festivities too early, it would do us all a power of good to take the time to review what we have done this momentous year and ask ourselves the simple questions “Could I have done better for God?” “Could I have done better for other people?” John achieved what we should all aspire to: a thorough knowledge of who he was and what he should do. How many great novelists and writers have held up that as the standard of a virtuous man or woman? Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse and Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov both came to understand themselves and changed their lives in consequence. Even little Max in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are realised that stomping around in a temper would not ultimately help him or anyone else. Obviously, understanding ourselves is not enough without taking the extra step; the difficult resolution to change for the better. The Baptist’s call is to repent and change in response to what we find. One of the reasons he used total immersion baptism in the Jordan after repentance was to symbolise the dying of our old selves and the rebirth of the new.

John was aware that newly changed, people are enabled to prepare for the gift God was bestowing on humanity. Advent looks forward to the incarnation: The Word of God made flesh in the form of a baby. It also looks forward to His second coming as Christ in glory. Preparing ourselves for these momentous events is a task we should be finding time for this Advent. Before we indulge in any more mince pies or wrap any more Christmas presents, we should find the peace and quiet to shine Christ’s light into our unwrapped lives and resolve to prepare for His coming.