Of the four Gospels, the books about the life of Jesus, only two, Matthew and Luke, tell us of the story we celebrate at Christmas. Matthew tells us of the wise men and how ancient prophecy was fulfilled when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Matthew alone starts his story with the subject of Jesus himself.
Mark, Luke and John all start with the story of John the Baptist. Luke in particular looks at his birth, a tale of two babies and an angel. John was the first of the babies to be born, the child of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Like Abraham and Sarah who had waited so long for Isaac's birth, Zechariah and Elizabeth had waited a long time before God blessed them with a child. Like Abraham and Sarah, 'both were worthy in the sight of the Lord', trying to live their lives as they believed God wanted them to. Just as Sarah had laughed in disbelief when their angelic visitors delivered the message about Isaac, Zechariah was incredulous when Gabriel told him of his own son. It cost him his voice for a few months. Gabriel went on of course to speak to Mary about her baby. When Mary, Elizabeth's cousin, comes to visit Elizabeth in her confinement John's first actions are recorded as happening before birth. 'As soon as Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting the child leapt in her womb.'
John's role was to prepare the way of the Lord. To go before him, as Gabriel had told his father, in the spirit of Elijah to 'turn the hearts of fathers towards their children and the disobedient back to the wisdom the virtuous have, preparing for the Lord a people fit for him. Malachi, in foretelling John's role compares his task to a refiner purifying silver and gold in a fire to make them fit for their purpose as offerings to the Lord. Advent, the time we wait for the coming of the Lord, celebrating the first coming and anticipating the second, is a good time to consider the preparation that John suggests, preparing and purifying our hearts to receive his message and his spirit, to be fit for his service.
A work colleague, not a churchgoer, recently commented that she had little time for 'Church going folk'. 'They tell us how to behave, but at the same time their lives show they don't listen too much to their own advice'. Once, at midnight mass, she said she had to listen to a sermon where they were all told how bad they were for not coming regularly. Many people do visit church at festival times, particularly at Christmas. How, I wonder, do we prepare them for the possibility of encountering Christ in that experience? Do we, by our behaviour, close off their minds, confirming such stereotypes, so that they look no further than the blemishes and impurities we ourselves display and miss the message of the season? Are we like that 'brood of vipers' the Pharisees? John's message to them was plain. 'If you are repentant - produce the appropriate fruit!' Do we show the fruits of the spirit outlined by Paul in his letter to the Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, self control to welcome our seasonal visitors and make them want to find out more, to move on on the path that may lead them to a fresh encounter with what Jesus means to them? Or will we appear to them like the Pharisee praying 'Thank God I'm not like him!' (Luke 18.11) 'Him' being a tax collector who had no delusions about his own faults and asked for mercy.
'John came, sent by God, as a witness to the light so that everyone may believe through him. He was not the light, only a witness to speak for the light. (John 1. 6-8). The passage from today's reading, which Luke quotes from Isaiah 40 3-5, speaks of raising the valleys and laying low the mountains, levelling out the ground for a highway for our God. This idea is reflected in the words of Mary on hearing of her God given task. 'He has put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble sand meek.' (Luke 1.52) John led a simple life in the wilderness, in the spirit of Elijah, dressed in camel hair, renouncing belongings, eating locusts and wild honey, not drinking and inviting all to think carefully about their relationship with God and to start again washed in the waters of the river Jordan, refining or purifying themselves for life in the Kingdom of God. Malachi's refining process is a good analogy. Scrap metals, some a little impure, some riddled with impurities, are all mixed together in the same melting pot, their impurities removed and transformed into the refined precious metals that they once were.
Once upon a time there were three teaspoons, lovingly crafted from solid silver. They had been a present from a rich relation, a favourite old uncle, long gone. Over the years the teaspoons became separated. One was left in the box, velvet lined and left in a drawer where the spoon remained shiny and new, special but unused. The second was always in the kitchen. The householder had put him with the coffee jar. This one, used all the time, felt very proud of himself but had become a little tarnished through not being washed up or polished as much as it should, and a little bent from trying to open a stubborn tin lid. The third was lying somewhere at the bottom of the garden, having doubled up as a spade for a leprechaun in some child's game.
One day the householder was looking through some old diaries, reminiscing, when he discovered it had been the old uncle's birthday. He remembered the teaspoons and found the box in the drawer. Disappointed only to find one in the box, he rummaged through the kitchen drawer and found the second teaspoon. Despite a thorough search he was unable to find the third and was upset that the set was not complete. Then he had an idea. He would use the silver in the teaspoons to make something special that would be a constant reminder of the old uncle. He gathered the two teaspoons and some other old silverware that had turned up during the hunt and put them into a box to take them to a jeweller he knew. Just as he was about to leave the house the dog, which had been digging for bones, brought in a twisted piece of grotty, dirty old metal that was just about recognisable as the third spoon. The householder smiled; very glad to see it had turned up at the last possible minute. Two weeks later a brand new silver candle stand stood on the mantelpiece. It was shiny and new, made up of the refined silver from all that the householder had collected.
The refiner's pot. It doesn't matter if you enter that fire as a discarded trinket, a gold ring or silver teapot, or just a lump of nondescript precious metal dug up at the bottom of the garden. The process is the same, and the result will also be the same. There is no first, second or third class route through that fire. The same step is taken, whether Pharisee or tax collector, saint or sinner. As 'church going' folk we can no more expect preferential treatment than the Pharisees that John addressed. He told them 'It's no use telling me 'We have Abraham for our Father' God can make children for Abraham out of these stones!' It's no good saying 'We're from St Mary's. We say our prayers, we worship every Sunday, well nearly every Sunday, and do we have to go through all that repentance stuff?
Let us then heed the invitation of John and use this season of Advent to refresh our baptismal promises, to assay or evaluate our own individual faith and service. Let us also consider how our own church family is preparing that highway for others to join us, the seasonal visitor whether holidaymakers or people who only come to church at Christmas, or young people forming their first impressions of our community and our faith and beginning to seek for themselves the truth about life the universe and everything. Does our witness to the light, the fruits of our faith in the spirit encourage them to say 'These people have really got something, I must find out for myself what it is.' or will they walk away saying 'Thank God I'm not like them!'
Finally a passage from Philippians, today’s appointed epistle:
'My prayer is that your love for each other may increase more and more, and never stop improving your knowledge and deepening your perception so that you can always see what is best. This will help you to become pure and blameless and prepare you for the day of Christ when you will reach the perfect goodness which Christ Jesus produces in us for the Glory and praise of God.' (Philippians 1.9-11)