At the beginning of today’s Gospel reading, St Luke positions the activity of John the Baptist rather labouriously within the history of the Roman empire before going on to relay his quotation of Isaiah that “All shall see the Salvation of our God”.
It is interesting that in each year of the 3 year reading cycles, the Advent story concentrates on John at the Jordan, which of course occurred some 30 years after Jesus’s birth as if to emphasise what Jesus was born to do: to preach his revelatory message before the showdown of Calvary. This reminds us, that the birth story can be seen as a necessary preliminary to the serious revelation contained in Jesus’s three years of preaching.
Why is it I wonder that in this 21st century, in our supposedly secular culture, in spite of so much negative news, extremism and even religiously inspired terrorism, things of the spirit retain a compulsive fascination for a high proportion of the population and continue to fill large sections of Waterstones with books ranging from spiritualism and the weirdly occult, through the rich vein of the spoof and the spurious to the serious mainstream religions in general and Christianity in particular with the Bible still ranking as the world’s number one best seller. To answer my question we might usefully start with today’s gospel about John the Baptist, and ask why people flocked to hear him preach repentance and baptism and the corning of one greater than himself.
Christians often say that in John’s time, which was also Jesus’s time, his Jewish hearers had become bogged down in a rule-dominated religion centred on an already outmoded and rather primitive tradition of messy animal sacrifices: but this was only partially true. Judaism was still at that time a religion based on a serious intellectual theology and they were not unaware of the relatively sophisticated civilizations of Greece and Rome between which they had become squeezed. On one point, however, they were light years ahead of their pagan neighbours: they had resolutely grasped the concept of One God, a single, benevolent, even loving, being. Almost alone in the known world of their day, they had developed a monotheistic religion of the spirit. It was thus a good time for a major religious rejuvenation and by all accounts, John the Baptist’s call to repentance and conversion struck a chord with his hearers.
What John was telling them was to clear their minds, to shred old superstitions, and straighten up the path or ‘highway’, as Isaiah calls it, of their lives so that when the eagerly expected Redeemer came they would be receptive to his word. John sensed that it was his function to be a forerunner for someone – he probably didn’t know who – who would follow him and be so much greater that he felt unworthy even to tie his sandals. And he preached absolutely in the tradition of his predecessors the prophets: do not focus on the sacrifices and observances but rather love God as your creator and others as your fellow created beings. None of them, perhaps, had put it more poignantly than their own prophet Micah when he said: “the Lord requires no more of you than this: to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Today that situation is in many respects repeated among us. We too are confronted by tired institutions which often frustrate the purpose of their being. We too sense both the difficulty and yet the possibility of creating an era of worldwide justice love and peace which for the first time in history just might come about if only we and our politicians can get our act together. We have now the wealth, the resources and the technology to ‘make poverty history’ and nearly enough mobiles to make the world a single community. And yet there is so much more to it than that. When I mentioned that spiritual books are in greater demand than ever, I did not mean books about social agendas and political philosophy. I meant the metaphysical, the beyond-experimental, aspect of our consciousness which all of us have in some degree. And as Christians we can claim something more: we can see how well it fits with the revelation that started with John the Baptist and all that flowed from it. We can claim like St Paul to have ‘the Mind of Christ’, and having that mind we can make an act of faith -and worship God with confidence.