Over 10 years ago now, I was in the country of Jordan for a couple of weeks. I was working, so I didn’t get to do a lot of the traditional touristy things. But one thing I did manage to do was to visit the traditional site of the baptism of Jesus. The site where traditionally John the Baptist preached the words we heard this morning. As I wasn’t there with an organised tour group, I had the place largely to myself, as I walked up the dusty road to the slightly muddy, marshy bank of the Jordan River. Largely to myself apart from the land rover with four armed police in who panicked slightly that there was a Westerner there by himself and so followed me around the site.
It wasn’t the most inspiring place, and I was a little distracted by my bodyguard, but actually it gave a good sense of still being in the wilderness, still being a place that you’d have to make an effort to go and see, and perhaps not the sort of place that you’d want to go and see unless there was a really good reason.
Nowadays, the state of Israel has built a baptism site on the other bank of the River Jordan, with places for people to be baptised in the river. And Jordan has followed suit, with shelters and steps down to the river. All of which is a lot more convenient for tourists and pilgrims, and so rather misses the point!
People had to go to some lengths to track down this strange prophet who was literally crying in the wilderness, as well as crying into the wilderness of people’s lives, and the lives of their nation. John didn’t make it easy. He was out in the desert, he wasn’t dressed to impress, he wasn’t preaching an easy message. But, people flocked because of the hope that he brought. It wasn’t an easy hope. It was a challenge and a call to change. But, it was full of hope. It was full of hope because John was saying that the future wasn’t simply going to be shaped by the past.
John pointed out the ways in which people had messed up, fallen short, wandered away. And he told them that this wasn’t the end of the story. And that’s the same message that the prophet Isaiah had, as we heard in our first reading.
The prophet Isaiah spoke hundreds of years before Jesus was born. He spoke of the promised one who God will send to bring his kingdom to earth. And Isaiah spoke of God’s promised one during a time of chaos and confusion, of power struggles and superpowers fighting for supremacy. And right in the middle of this was Israel, whose power dwindled as she turned away from God. Isaiah’s prophecy was an attempt to turn Israel back to the worship of God. It gave people hope that whatever had gone wrong in the past, and however bad things were in the present, that the future could be different.
Prophecy isn’t really about telling the future, it’s really about telling how God sees things. The prophecies that we hear in the Bible often include glimpses of the future because that’s part of giving us hope, hope that the present isn’t the whole story, hope that there is more to look forward to, hope that what we do now has the potential to make a difference.
Hope is also what shines through both the passages that we heard read. Hope that God was at work, hope that God would send his Holy Spirit through his Promised One. Isaiah spoke about what the promised one, the Messiah, would look like. He would have the Spirit working in him, he would bring justice and righteousness and would call all people back to God.
And John’s message was also one of hope. It was the hope that this Promised One was now coming, and that the people could be part of God’s people. It wasn’t an easy message, because that involved turning back to God, getting rid of the things that had gone wrong or been distorted. But, despite all that, they could come back to God.
It was a message that fitted in with its surroundings, the hot and dusty desert being watered and transformed by the River Jordan running through it. And another place that reminds me a bit of the baptism site by the River Jordan is the prison on Rodden Island where Nelson Mandela spent so long. I haven’t been there, but it looks like it’s the sort of place you go, not because in itself it’s particularly inspiring, but because what happened there was inspiring, was important.
In his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom”, Mandela said: “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
In 1994, the year he became president, Mandela spoke at a major Church conference over Easter. He spoke about:
The Good News borne by our risen Messiah who chose not one race, who chose not one country, who chose not one language, who chose not one tribe, who chose all of humankind!
Our Messiah, born like an outcast in a stable, and executed like criminal on the cross.
Our Messiah, whose life bears testimony to the truth that there is no shame in poverty: Those who should be ashamed are they who impoverish others.
Whose life testifies to the truth that there is no shame in being persecuted: Those who should be ashamed are they who persecute others.
Whose life proclaims the truth that there is no shame in being conquered: Those who should be ashamed are they who conquer others.
Whose life testifies to the truth that there is no shame in being dispossessed: Those who should be ashamed are they who dispossess others.
Whose life testifies to the truth that there is no shame in being oppressed: Those who should be ashamed are they who oppress others.
Mandela’s life was prophetic, it gave the light of God’s hope to so many people.
As a church you are currently in a vacancy, currently between vicars. It’s been a difficult and unsettling year. It’s meant that people have had more responsibility placed on them, that people have been even busier than they were, and perhaps that people have even discovered new talents and new abilities that they didn’t realise they had. It’s a good time for people to be seeking what God wants next for you as individuals, and you as a church. It’s a good time to be praying for the future, as well as praying for people in the present.
And that’s particularly true during Advent, the time in the church’s year when we look back over our history of faith, so that we can look forward with fresh hope to God’s future. The powerful and challenging message of John the Baptist asks us questions. Questions as individuals, as a church, and questions for the wider community as well. John the Baptist and Isaiah the prophet ask us:
How can we get ready? Where do the roads need straightening? What fires need to be lit to burn away the rubbish? What needs to be cut down? Who should be summoned to repent?
But we’re promised that God baptises with fire and the Holy Spirit. Fire to get rid of the stuff that is holding is back, is distorting us, is damaging us and the people around us. And the Holy Spirit to give us fresh hope and a new direction. The Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, counsel and of might, knowledge and fear of the Lord.
We are not the prophet Isaiah, or John the Baptist, or Nelson Mandela. But we are called to be prophets, called to tell others about how God really sees things. We’re called to act as John the Baptist here in Gresley, here in our communities. We’re called to shine the light of God’s hope as a church.
Advent is a season when we look backwards. Backwards over our own lives and our shared life together so that we can look forwards with renewed hope. Hope that God is with us, hope that God is calling us on to new things, hope that God has plans for us, hope that God will bring his kingdom, hope that God is bringing his kingdom in our lives, into our town, into our world. Hope that he is doing this through us his church. And hope that he sends his Holy Spirit on us so that this is possible. This Advent let us seek God with renewed hope, let us be changed by that hope and let us look forward in hope to the future that God is calling us to. Amen.