In the Gospel reading for today, taken from Luke 3: 1 – 6, the evangelist places the message of John the baptizer, within historical and social contexts, that make both message and messenger, worthy of our pondering. There is no mistaking the fact that there were big-wigs at the time, who wielded the kind of political influence that could not be considered ordinary, yet even they had no control over the new thing God was about to do. Their overinflated sense of importance might have placed them in the category of the privileged but the message that John proclaimed, served to highlight the fact that as far as God was concerned, they were just as if not more pitiful than those they sought to subjugate. They ruled in ways that served to maintain the status quo, yet the people kept hope, they longed for an experience like that of their forebears, of genuine liberation.
God’s choice of Jesus’ enigmatic cousin John therefore, to proclaim the imminence of that which the prophet Isaiah had foretold regarding the Savior of the world, demonstrated not only perfect timing; it gave some insight into the divine sense…of humour. Here was a man whose primary qualification to proclaim was the fact that his was a lifestyle in contradistinction to that of the rulers of his day; an example of God’s preferred teaching method of divine reversal. John’s ability to proclaim God’s message within the kind of tense socio-political climate as that hinted at by Luke, was anchored in the fact that having nothing to lose, he was able to speak truth to so-called power, in telling forth the ramifications of the coming liberator, whose very character had already begun to pose an undeniable threat to the rulers of the day.
In other words then, God chose a desert dweller, not given to partisan political leanings and totally bereft of any scruples with respect to what others thought about him, to deliver a life-changing message to a people and world, teetering on the brink of destruction. His mission was to let them know they had reason to hope…in the person of Jesus the anointed one and in that regard, his message was and remains timeless!
The Advent song I am contemplating today is another of those loaded seventeenth-century hymns; this one, On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry… which was written by Charles Coffin, provides something of an exposition on verses three and four of the Gospel reading. Through its verses, the hymn offers deep and far-reaching challenges with respect to everyday spirituality, and especially at Advent-tide, underscores the need in our singing, to not simply mouth words but to hear the message they bring and, allowing their meaning to echo deep in our souls, offer that which they affirm in loving devotion to the Lord of our lives and God of our salvation.
With this hymn, you and I will be better served I believe, taking in small doses. Today then, I will share with you my thoughts on the first two verses, leaving verses three and four for next Sunday and the doxology for the fourth Sunday of Advent…just before Christmas.
I can’t help but feel that John must have been a bit peeved at being called from the seclusion of his desert dwelling to deliver a message to people, given to a way of life from which he had himself fled [cf. Matthew 3:4] and towards whom he might not have felt particularly magnanimous. I don’t think it would be stealing the thunder from next week’s Gospel reading if, to get a better sense of John’s temperament, you took a sneak peek at it [see Luke 3:7 – 18]. His decision to embrace the way of solitude and contemplation, [a way revealed generations later to desert Father, Abba Arsenius, who heard in response to his question to God regarding the way of salvation, the words…flee, be silent, pray] is instructive for us as we engage the wonder-filled peculiarities of Advent.
The first verse of this wonderful hymn therefore, beckons us beyond words to a lifestyle: one that enjoins the disciplines of simplicity, stillness and communion…with the divine. If you and I take time to note in scripture, the many times Jesus went off by himself to pray [see for example Mark 1:35 cf. Matthew 26: 36 – 46] we would conclude that the lifestyle being advocated is one that affirms the presence and nearness of God, resulting from the desire and more than the desire, the willingness to flee, be silent and pray.
The act of fleeing, I have come to appreciate, whether literally or figuratively, creates space for and allows God to enter the human heart without hindrance; silence it makes for the interior stillness that signals readiness of heart, mind and will, to listen to, hear and respond to that which God chooses to impart, which is ultimately…Good News.
But wait, these disciplines of fleeing, silence and prayer also imply a willingness to undergo the necessary purging that prepares the heart to embrace the divine will and as a consequence submit to divine rulership.
So then, the clarion call of the enigmatic John is as much to you and me today as it was to those who heard him on the banks of the Jordan. It is a call to simplicity, as we seek first God’s Kingdom; to stillness, as we make of our hearts a temple, ready to embrace His divine Word and to communion as we share sweet fellowship with Him, who is able to do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine [Eph. 3:20]
I pray that today and throughout this season, you and I will sing these verses lustily, as a testimony of our readiness to experience God’s Advent into our hearts more and more; that our lives may reflect His glory.