This morning we are thinking of prophets in our Advent preparations. And the gospel reading gives us John the Baptist, this iconic wild man in the wilderness. John stands in a long tradition of Jewish prophetic voices- voices that are calling for things to be different- calling for a society and a world that is better, more fair, more just and more equal.
These prophetic voices usually come from THE WILDERNESS. And that’s an interesting thing. God’s people started their life in the wilderness, so it is a special and important place in their- and our- theological imagination. The wilderness is the place where God gave the law to Moses and the people, it’s the place where God led the people in a pillar of cloud and fire. The wilderness is a place where God’s people know where they- we- stand with God, and we know what God wants of us. In our dealings with God, morality and life, the wilderness is a place of clarity and vision, of black and white.
But when God’s people enter their promised land, they stop wandering and build a civilisation. Their economic and social life changes, and their symbol becomes a vineyard (eg. Psalm 80) rather than a wandering nomad. A vineyard is structured and organised, and it’s a far less simple place than the wilderness. With a vineyard, you have to be productive, which means dabbling with wealth and power structures- you have to make compromises and choose between two evils, and morally there’s much more grey than black and white.
Things go wrong for our vineyard Israel. They’re surrounded by huge powerful empires in Egypt Assyria and Babylon, and they are seduced by the trappings of power as they set up their little nation. As they start running after power and wealth, they effectively turn away from God’s blueprint for their society, which is all about ‘Jubilee’ (Leviticus 25, Deuteronomy 15, Luke 4, Acts 2:42-47) – equality and generosity. Turning away from equality means oppressing the poor and hungry in their society. And whenever that happens in the vineyard, God sends them prophets- in the wilderness- to speak truth to power, to remind them who God is and what God requires of them.
And so Isaiah, Micah, Amos, John the Baptist and Jesus all use very colourful ‘wilderness’ language to remind the vineyard people that God requires them to ‘Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God’ (Micah 6:8). And that means they have to look after the people who are poor and hungry and marginalised in their society, and it means they have to stop chasing after the false gods of power and money. The wilderness voices call them to return to the way of life they were given in the Torah- in the wilderness- which means loving neighbours and a society of equality and Jubilee.
This equality is described in some wonderful ways. From our readings this morning and Handel’s Messiah: every valley shall be exalted, the rough places made smooth and the hills brought down… To prepare the way of the Lord.
This is not just geological talk. This is the same language we know from the Magnificat, where Mary rejoices that God casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly, God fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty – this is about the levelling of society.
And this is a good thing for us to hear from the wilderness this morning. Advent invites us, as God’s people, to do some self-evaluation and soul-searching. Here at the church of the Ascension, we are often ‘wilderness voices’ within the wider church, as we call for equality and a better society and world. But at the same time, here in Blackheath we are very firmly in the vineyard. We are settled and comfortable, and we’re bought in to the structures of society- which means that to some extent we dabble with the gods of power and wealth.
So what do the voices from the wilderness have to say to us this morning? The same thing they’ve always said. They call for a society and world which is fairer and more equal- more level. They call for a society where everyone has enough; where no one has too much, forcing others to go without food, electricity, etc. Equality and justice is a HIGHLY relevant message for our unequal, divided society, and for us within it.
Prepare the way of the Lord this Advent. That means levelling society. God wants to bring down the mighty from their thrones and thereby raise up the lowly. The mighty is US! We have too much, and so God invites us to humble ourselves so that others can be raised up and have enough.
‘Comfort, O comfort my people’ is the wilderness message of Isaiah this morning. How about making that our message this Christmas…
How do we do that? With our Christmas presents! How about buying and giving Christmas presents in a way that doesn’t just benefit people who already have a lot. How about buying and giving Christmas presents in a way that shares our over-abundance with our brothers and sisters who have too little to live on.
In this way, we ‘prepare the way for the Lord’ – we level the mountains and valleys, we equalise the inequality in society, and we bring comfort to God’s people.