Second Sunday in Advent: 4 December, 2011
Fr Tom Brown
Associate Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Every year in Advent St John the Baptist makes his appearance in the gospel readings. This year we read St Mark's account, in which we're told that John 'was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist'(Mark 1:6), a description which seems intended to make us think of the Old Testament prophets, and Elijah in particular, who was similarly dressed. Like Elijah, John the Baptist came as a prophet, the last in a long series of prophets running through the history of Israel.
What is a prophet? In popular thought prophets are people who predict the future. But for the Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament, this was not their main purpose. They were people who'd been given a special insight by God to see more clearly. Their task was not so much to foretell, as to 'forth-tell': to tell forth God's will for his people, to perceive the signs of the times, to speak on behalf of God. So the prophets repeatedly warned the people about the consequences of the way they were living, of their wicked ways, of their unjust behaviour, in particular, towards the poor and helpless. They warned people to change their lives, to live as God wanted them to, and warning them also of the consequences of their behaviour if they didn't change.
But as well as warning God's people, the prophets also spoke words of encouragement, especially in times of difficulty, when everything seemed to have gone wrong, when they were tempted to think that God had abandoned them. And so it is in today's first reading, taken from the fortieth chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah, written to the Jews who had been conquered, and exiled to Babylon. How could God have let this happen to his chosen people? And so the prophet reassures: "Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid ... The Lord will feed his flock like a shepherd; gather the lambs in his arms."(Isaiah 40:1,2,11) God is faithful and loving; he'll restore his exiled people and bring them back to their homeland. Don't be downcast, don't give up hope: God is faithful and will not let you down.
To warn and to encourage: two functions of the prophet. And this is what John the Baptist came to do. He warns: he calls for repentance. In Matthew and Luke he warns specifically of God's coming judgement. John came also to encourage, with the promise of God's salvation. He is 'the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord ... all shall see the salvation of God."'(Mark 1:3) The one so long expected, the Messiah, the Christ, is about to come. The long wait is over. God is faithful; he has not abandoned his people.
With the coming of Jesus, in a sense the work of the Old Testament prophets was over and done with. John the Baptist was the last of these prophets in the Old Testament tradition. But in another sense the work of the prophet continues in the church, both warning and encouraging. And so it's the task of the preacher to be something of a prophet, to warn and to encourage, as John the Baptist did, to prepare people for the coming of Christ in their lives day by day. It's a task of the preacher to discern the signs of the times, to bring an understanding of God's will, not just for people's spiritual lives, but also to help interpret contemporary events, movements, happenings in the world. This is not an easy task, and if it's to be done it requires on the part of the preacher disciplined prayer, study and reflection. It will not happen if the preacher is expected to be always busy with day to day activities. It's important to remember that we pay clergy a stipend, not so that they can be constantly caught up in busyness, doing things, keeping the parish going; not so that they can be always on the run, but so that they will have the time to read, to study, to think and to pray.
Of course people don't always want to hear what prophets have to say. They're happy enough to be encouraged, but not always happy about being warned. And the preacher may be tempted to take easy options: to preach so as to give people what they want to hear, to comfort the comfortable, to confirm the complacent in their complacency. Old Testament prophets sometimes ended up in prison, or even killed for criticising kings and rulers, for criticising injustice. John the Baptist had his head chopped off for criticising King Herod. In our time a common response from politicians and others in public life, when they disagree with what the church says, is to dismiss it by saying that religion should be kept out of politics. But it's a great mistake to think that God is chiefly concerned with our being religious. This is God's world and all that happens in the world is God's concern, and not just the parts dealing with religion.
And there are many areas where a prophetic voice, I believe, is needed. For example, what does it say about Australian society that people are apparently more concerned about a teenager recently arrested for a drug offence in Bali having to spend a short time in prison in Indonesia than about the thousands of asylum seekers in Australian detention for long periods, including hundreds of children.
Or again, in recent years the financial system in general, and the greed and outrageous behaviour of bankers and traders and others in the finance industry in particular, has led to our society becoming more and more unequal. The 'Occupy' movements around the world are perhaps speaking more prophetically, certainly more loudly than we seem to hear from the church. When peaceful protesters of Occupy Melbourne set up in the city square recently, the Lord Mayor sent in the police to remove them forcibly. Peaceful protest is applauded in Syria, but is it in Melbourne?
Social justice was a major concern of the Old Testament prophets. The prophet Isaiah for example: 'Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.'(Isaiah 1:17) We're probably all aware of how important a concern about social justice has been historically for Catholic Anglicans. Perhaps more than anything else it was an active concern for social justice, caring for the poor, the disadvantaged, the marginalised, which gave credibility to churches arising from the Oxford Movement; which convinced people that Anglo-Catholics were not just concerned about trivialities, dressing up, bells and smells.
What about us at St Peter's? We take pride in our breakfast program for homeless people here every morning of the year. It is very worthwhile, and it's generous of St Peter's to host it. But apart from providing a place for it, it has to be said that St Peter's direct involvement in the breakfast program is minimal. There are only 3 or 4 people associated with the parish who are volunteers. Of course many of you are not in a position to help in this particular way, and no doubt many of you find other ways of helping the needy. In the gospel two Sundays ago we heard the parable of the last judgement, the sheep and the goats.(Matt. 25:31-40) We can see this parable as reminding us here at St Peter's that God is more concerned about how we — each one of us — help and care for the disadvantaged, the sick, the prisoner, the hungry, than he is about how perfectly we perform a high mass, how faithfully we maintain the liturgical tradition of St Peter's. The people of Jerusalem were condemned by the prophet Isaiah for their lack of justice. But they felt secure because they continued faithfully with their worship of God in the Temple; they felt secure because they were keeping exactly to the rubrics: offering sacrifices, burning incense, observing festivals. But, warns the prophet, this is not sufficient. 'I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams,' God says to the people; 'I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats ... Incense is an abomination to me ... your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates.'(Isaiah 1:11-14) Isaiah warns the people: practising their religion is not enough, and goes on to tell them that they must 'seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.' And so for us. Unless our worship here at St Peter's helps us to do this more effectively — to seek justice, care for the needy, and so on — then we have to question whether it's worth doing at all.
John the Baptist came as the forerunner, proclaiming that Israel's hopes were about to be fulfilled with the coming of Jesus, that God had not abandoned his people, that he would come to them. And the message of John, the message of the prophets, continues in the church: to encourage us, to maintain our hope, our confidence in God; but also to warn us: seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
Views is a
St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.