Event planning is no longer left to the mediocre. Anyone who wants a great event must reckon with event planners today. You give them your rough idea and they package it in the most creative way that giggles at your imagination. Wouldn’t it have been a great idea if God engaged an event planner for His intervention? Or was that John the Baptist’s role after all?
Following on from last week’s piece, we saw how Luke gave us a clip of the reign of no less a king than Herod the Great. He then hurriedly zooms in on a rather obscure priest: Zechariah. In that encounter of the Priest with Angel Gabriel, we caught a preview of Heaven’s event planner. It was a portrait of John the Baptist: “for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”” (Luke 1:15–17, ESV)
Was this event planner likely to fly? Many things were unusual about this. Were we to predict the prospects, the score would be low. Surely, God’s intervention must reckon with the ‘who is who’ of the day, and securing the political platform would be the best guarantee for impact. But no, God’s messenger went to the Temple. The greatness of John that the angel spoke about did not have a definition in human lexicon: John’s life was anything but! Check out his location, his attire, his diet, his mannerism, his doubts, his death. Where is the greatness? We would need the angelic lexicon. Ah, he had said “he will be great before the Lord.” Disappointing meaning, we would say! Sure enough, it won Heaven’s applause. That is instructive – preparing God’s way might mean rediscovering Heaven’s idea of greatness, and there’s no better time than now for the Church to go back to class.
The angel Gabriel had also said, among other things, “he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God,… to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” Heaven was fully in charge here. Zechariah also left a prophecy for his son to pick up: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins,” (Luke 1:76–77).
Advent takes us on a journey back in time. It invites us to sit under John the Baptist’s preaching on the banks of the River Jordan. Luke 3:1-2 tell us about the great men and the high priests in the saddle, but he also tells us, “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” (Luke 3:2). Making ready a people prepared for the Lord takes more than powerful kings on the throne or a religious establishment that has lost focus. So too in our day. It takes more than political manifestoes that hardly survive the campaign seasons, or a religious establishment that has become irrelevant to Heaven. That is why the Church and its leaders must reassess the fashionable parleying and salivating around the kings’ banquets. That might not always be God’s route. Ask the wise men who saw the star and stopped over to tell Herod.
John dared to tell the people of God to repent and be baptized! Oh, he said more as he described himself with the words of Isaiah’s prophecy: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”(Luke 3:4–6). There were indeed many valleys, and mountains, and crooked paths and rough places calling for attention. That is the scrupulous attention that Advent calls for – nothing goes under the carpet. Then, and only then, shall God’s intervention be assured.
John spared no one as he preached about judgment and love. How favoured he was that many of the religious elite cared to travel the long distance to the wilderness to hear him (Matthew 3:7-10). We would wonder if he managed it well, for he was quite surgical in his approach: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Offensive preaching? Not for people who want to do something about their spiritual condition. Much of the crowd stayed on to hear more. These are days when sound teaching is endangered, and respectable people with itching ears are funding the enterprise of charlatans and soothsayers – “teachers to suit their own passions” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). Those who want God to wound and heal them will behave like the crowds who listened to John: “And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”” (Luke 3:7–14).
This second week in Advent calls us back to the Bible, “to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” as the collect in the Book of Common Prayer puts it. Lord, we wait, willingly.