Have you started thinking about your New Year’s resolutions yet? I know it’s early, and we haven’t even got through Christmas yet, but the question is important because if we don’t get the message of Advent, whatever changes we may try to create on the 31st of December will be short lived and insignificant.
We like to think of Advent as a time of preparation for Christmas. It’s far less threatening this way. When all we’re doing is waiting for a baby, that’s easy. We do it all the time when friends or family members await a new addition to their families. We wait, we celebrate and then, when the happy event is over, we go back to our lives as per normal. Even if the baby we wait for is divine, even if the man the baby becomes is “God With Us,” it requires little from us. God walking on earth is nothing more than a curious phenomenon if all it asks of us is to accept a miraculous idea.
But, John the Baptiser, who is the focus of this week’s Gospel reading in the Lectionary, does not allow us this safe distance. He calls people to prepare, yes. He calls them to repent, yes. But, then he asks them to do something that will open them to something new and radical and deeply transformative. He asks them to be baptised. Now, going under water as a religious ritual doesn’t mean much if that’s all it is, but John makes it clear that he is using this act to point to something more – to the One who will come and baptise people with God’s Spirit.
Suddenly what he’s calling for is not just a new ritual or a new way of thinking. He’s inviting people to allow themselves to be completely remade from the inside out. He’s calling them to get ready for a completely reality within. To use the language of the Old Testament, the law will no longer be something written on tablets and obeyed by outward action alone. No, now the law will be carved into hearts, made a part of our being and obeyed by a complete overhaul of our values, ethics, attitudes, perspectives and ways of being and interacting.
This is not just cosmetic, “New Year’s Resolution” change. This is not just “God With Us” change. This is “God Within Us” change. This is the kind of change that stops us in our tracks and makes it impossible for us to live the same way anymore. This is the kind of change that makes us mavericks and outcasts because we will no longer co-operate with systems and practices that violate God’s justice. This is the kind of change that makes paths straight and lays mountains low – it reshapes the very foundations of our world – because we know that, whatever may be going on in the world around us, we have become part of a different reality, a radically just, compassionate and gracious reality, that exists within the shell of this unjust world, and that will ultimately replace it from the inside out.
Advent is not just about waiting for a baby. It’s about waiting for a whole new reality which takes hold of us by first taking our hearts and souls hostage to its justice and grace. And then, because we cannot help but live by its magnetic force, it lays its claim on the whole world through us.
“I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit,” said John. Are you ready for this? Are you willing to become ready?