HOMILY at the 10h30 MASS for the THIRD SUNDAY of ADVENT (C) 2018
I rather suppose that John the Baptist must have been a little bit of a disappointment to his parents. After all, they had waited a long time for his birth and Zachary his father might well have expected John to follow him into the service of the Temple. But it wasn’t to be – John opted for a life of protest. Maybe he had initially joined the community of Essenes – the Qumran community of ascetics whose extensive library (the Dead Sea Scrolls) was found around Qumran in the late 1940s and early 1950s and has given us so much information about early Christianity and its relations with the Judaism of the time. But if he was influenced by this exclusivist sect, by the time of his ministry he obviously was no longer part of it – since we think that they did not concern themselves so much with the wider community. They were more interested in protesting against the corrupt Jerusalem Temple staff rather than preaching to a wider audience, as we see that John was.
Although, having said that, he can’t have endeared himself greatly to those who came to listen to him. These days, the preacher who addresses his congregation with the greeting you brood of vipers is unlikely to survive for very long!
Though actually, it is very difficult to discover much about John. So much of his ‘reported speech’ is in fact quotation from the Old Testament prophets, like that remark about brood of vipers which comes from Isaiah. Even the clothing that he was reputed to wear – camel skins with a leather belt – is the standard uniform for a prophet, according to Zechariah!
But there was a difference. Josephus, the Jewish historian, writes about John’s ministry and this complements what we know of him from the Gospels. Josephus affirms John’s importance in the political and religious life of the nation, and how he was a good man whose teaching was the practice of justice, humility and neighbourly love. And, although something like a ritual of baptism had been celebrated in the community of the Essenes, it was John’s specific and unique contribution to practice it as a sign of repentance or a cleansing from sin. That certainly made John different.
John encouraged people to bear fruit in their lives in practical ways – responding to the crowd’s questions about what they should do, he gave straightforward advice to everyone – tax collectors, soldiers, whoever. They were to pursue justice – why? Because the day of God’s judgement was coming, was very close.
All of the readings today speak of the nearness of God. The reading from Zephaniah is about the enthronement of God as King, and yet he is not a King far off, away from ordinary human lives. He is very close – in our midst. It’s a theme that Paul takes up in the reading from the letter to the Church at Philippi, too (we have that reading in the shape of today’s Anthem) and it is cause for rejoicing not sadness.
Yet the thought of God’s judgement is one that is inclined to fill us with the opposite emotions – fear and trembling, rather than joy and gladness as on a day of festival. Why should this be?
Well at one level our ideas of judgement are all tied up with ideas of law courts and the retributive punishment they impose. And secondly, we tend to think of God’s judgement also as a future event rather than a present reality.
What is God’s judgement of the world? The whole New Testament tells us about it – not just the lurid parts of the Apocalypse. God judges the world to be worthy of his love and worthy of his work of redemption in and through his Son. That’s God’s judgement of the world. And when we accept that, when we realise what God’s judgement of us and our world truly is, then we shall want God to be the King of our world and of our lives, we shall want God’s justice to be the force behind our actions. In other words, we shall want to act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly because that is the way God is.
John’s message was one of just action, tender love and humble living. All in preparation for meeting the God who is indeed close at hand. Then and now. John prepares the Way for the remaking of our lives by the Messiah, God’s anointed Son who comes to make us like himself. For God’s judgement of the world and the humans who inhabit it is that of ourselves we shall fail. So he does not leave us to ourselves. And the joy is that he is indeed close at hand. Advent reminds us that the Word of God made flesh in Christ is very close indeed at all times. We have but to open our eyes and our hearts to him.