Fourth Sunday in Advent
Today is the Fourth Sunday in Advent and so the last of the Sundays in preparation before the great feast of Christmas. The Gospel from St. Luke concerns the witness of St. John the Baptist, the forerunner of him who was to come. And the Word of the Lord came to John the son of Zechariah to preach a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins before the coming judgement (Luke 3:2-3). John stood in the tradition of the great Hebrew prophets, of whom Jesus said, he was the last and the greatest.
The prophets were those who preached truth to power. Whereas the kings exercised power, the prophets preached righteousness, calling the nation to repent and return to God. The Israelites had pledged themselves to be bound to their covenant with God on Mount Sinai, but they often fell away from God so prophets arose to call them to repent. The prophet Nathan had denounced King David for his adultery with Bathsheba. The prophet Elijah had denounced King Ahab for seizing Naboth’s vineyard. The role of the prophet was to proclaim the truth, whether they will hear or whether they will forbear, as Ezekiel put it. They looked forward to a future messianic age in which God and man would be reconciled and the wolf would dwell with the lamb.
John the Baptist proclaimed that this time was at last on the verge of fulfilment. He called the people to repent and be baptised before the coming judgement. In appearance he resembled Elijah, in message Amos, a blunt, outspoken, fearless man. He was a voice crying in the wilderness, calling the nation to repent. “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come” (Luke 3:7). He said that he who hath two coats should give to him who hath none, the tax collectors must not extort and the soldiers must not accuse any falsely and be content with their wages. The people should not presume on God’s favour by saying, “We have Abraham as our father”, for God was able to raise up from these stones children of Abraham. Even now the axe was laid at the fruit of the trees and every tree that doth not bring forth good fruit must be cut down and thrown into the fire. His baptism with water was but a preparation for the coming one, who would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Luke 3: 8-17). Unsurprisingly, his message was unpopular with the powerful. He was, as Jesus said, no shaking reed, no soft courtier. John was imprisoned and subsequently executed by Herod Antipas, one of the local princelings, whose irregular marital arrangements John had criticised.
John the Baptist called the nation to repent and spoke truth to power, and he suffered for it. We are called to do the same in our own time. What message can we take from his life and work for our own time?
We live in an age in which those who govern us use every possible opportunity to assemble more power for themselves. They claim that they know best and are acting in the public interest. Many of their measures have gained popular support, though there are some signs that the cost of living crisis is causing this to recede. They claim absolute power to control us, but they exercise their power without responsibility. They are technocrats who bind heavy burdens grievous to be borne, yet they do not apply their own policies to themselves. While the Chinese state is the most extreme example of this tendency, western societies in general seem to be moving in the same totalitarian direction. On the other side are unprincipled populists who appeal to the idea of a strong leader who will sort out all our problems and who will stand up for the people against the technocrats. They may achieve some things in the short term, but in the long term the self styled strong leader is inevitably found to have feet of clay and to have as little real concern for the people as the technocrats themselves. The result is a stalemate. The technocrats are leading our society to destruction, but the populists are only primarily interested in themselves and do not provide any lasting solutions. It is indeed the case that all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
The truth of the matter is that there is an inbuilt bias to evil within all of us. For whereas we ought to put God first, others second and ourselves last, we tend to put ourselves first, others second and God last. This is now an age that is post-truth and “after virtue” (as one philosopher has put it). People are encouraged to create their own virtual reality and to believe in themselves rather than in God. Perhaps it is therefore fitting that this generation should vote for politicians who also only seem to believe in themselves.
T. S. Eliot warned about this in the last century. “Do you need to be told that all those modest attainments that you may boast of by way of polite society will hardly survive the loss of the faith to which they owe their significance.” In other words, a society cannot let go of the Christian faith and expect things to remain the same and people to still uphold some form of the golden rule “do as you would be done by”. Once people let go of the Christian faith they believe, not in nothing but in anything.
The early Church faced a world in which the fastest growing religion was the cult of the Emperor. The Emperor was seen as bringing peace to a disordered society and bread and circuses for the multitudes. Christians were persecuted because they gave allegiance to another King, one called Jesus.
Since all of us are fallen and sinful, every man is my neighbour. Caesar (that is the civil power) must abandon his pretensions and submit to Christ. That was the message of the Church then, and it must be the same now. What matters is not what is fashionable, but what is true. As we prepare for the coming of the true Prince of Peace in great humility at Christmas, we also look forward to his coming in glorious majesty on the last day, in that new heaven and new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness.
Stir up, O Lord, we pray thee, thy power and come among us, and with great might succour us, that whereas through our sins and wickedness we are sore let and hindered, thy bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us.
On Jordan’s bank the baptist’s cry
Announces that the Lord is nigh;
Awake, and hearken, for he brings
Glad tidings of the King of Kings.
Then cleansed be every breast from sin
Make straight the way for God within;
Prepare we in our hearts a home,
Where such a mighty guest may come.
For thou art our salvation, Lord,
Our refuge, and our great reward;
Without thy grace we waste away,
Like flowers that wither and decay.
To heal the sick stretch out thine hand,
And bid the fallen sinner stand;
Shine forth and let thy light restore
Earth’s own true loveliness once more.
All praise, Eternal Son, to thee,
Whose Advent doth thy people free
Who with the Father we adore
And Holy Ghost for evermore.