17 December 2023

We continue to journey with John the Baptiser this week – with a focus on John’s Gospel. The emphasis here is on John’s message and his refusal to allow himself to become the focus, while calling people to prepare for God’s restoration. Add to this, the themes of liberation and deliverance that are proclaimed in the other readings, and the third week of Advent becomes a wonderful opportunity to recognise God’s presence and activity in our world.

May we be challenged to hear, to prepare our hearts and to participate in God’s liberating work as we worship this week.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11: God’s Spirit is on God’s servant to proclaim freedom, healing and liberation. God’s loves justice, and God’s servant is filled with joy, like a bridegroom dressed in his suit, for God will reward God’s people and make a covenant with them.

Psalm 126: Joy at God’s restoration of God’s people to Jerusalem, and a plea for God to prosper God’s people, with hope for the joy that will come.
OR Luke 1:47-55: Mary’s Magnificat, celebrating God’s grace and justice, and the way God has fulfilled God’s promise to the ancestors of God’s people, raising up the lowly, and bringing down the powerful.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24: An exhortation to live with joy, prayer and integrity until Christ returns.

John 1:6-8, 19-28: John, the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy of the voice in the wilderness, promises that he is not the Messiah, but that the Messiah is right there and about to appear.

John the Baptiser’s message is in focus this week, and some of the prophetic foundations for his ministry, and that of Jesus, are coupled with the story of his preaching, and his refusal to really identify himself. For John, he was unimportant – it was his message that mattered, and it is a message of restoration and of empowerment, both internally and externally. John proclaims that One is coming who will baptise in the Holy Spirit – moving the ‘law’ into the heart (as Jeremiah prophesied). In the letter to the Thessalonians, the believers are encouraged to live as true followers of Christ, with Spirits, souls and bodies enlivened by God’s Spirit. In a similar way, Isaiah’s prophecy speaks of restoration, particularly of the marginalised, poor and suffering ones, in the power of God’s Spirit. Finally, in the Psalm for this week, the experience of being restored by God is described, and it is not just an outward reality, but an experience that changes God’s people inwardly too, creating joy and strength. God’s saving restoring work must always embrace our entire lives, our entire experience and our entire being. This means that, as much as our hearts need to be changed, so to do our structures and systems. As much as we need to rebuild broken cities, homes and nations, so too do we need to rebuild broken hearts, broken relationships and broken spirits. It is God who does the work of restoration – this is the Good News of Advent – but we are invited, even as John was, to be voices proclaiming God’s coming, and participants in God’s saving work.

GLOBAL APPLICATION: Restoration is a huge concern in our world right now. There is the restoration of the nations where dictators have been overthrown this year, and rebuilding must happen. There is the restoration of our economic system that has still not recovered from the global crisis. There is the ongoing debate around the restoration of our damaged planet and its creatures. On other levels there are issues around the restoration of families, communities, and, particularly, the Christian faith. In so many of these conversations, the nature of restoration is polarised between internal and external facets. Those who work for restoration may even be categorised or stereotyped in terms of the whether their focus is on changing hearts and people or changing systems and structures. But these are false dichotomies. We cannot hope to address the great challenges of our time without a deep, revolutionary change of our hearts, minds and attitudes. But, equally, we cannot hope to find answers if we keep the same systems and structures and actions that have created our crises in the first place. As followers of Christ we are called to deal with both realities – the internal and the external. As John the Baptiser challenged people to live differently, to change not just themselves but their world, so too did he invite people to prepare for a “Baptism in the Spirit” which would radically change them from the inside out. And so as we work for peace and justice, may we also embrace the call to work for love, compassion and connectedness with God for those with whom we work. And may we continue to pray that God will continue to come to us and bring God’s reign into visible manifestation among us and through us.

LOCAL APPLICATION: It is a shame that the church is sometimes seen to be concerned only with the hearts and minds of people. We have created a split between the spiritual and the physical which is neither helpful nor biblical. But, it shapes our work and causes some to view the work of the church to be purely “spiritual” calling for conversions, and seeking to change people’s hearts and minds to embrace a “biblical worldview”. It also results in some leaders preaching that social justice is not the work of the church. What a pity this is. In every church and every neighbourhood and every city there are people who need both a change of heart and a change of circumstance. There are those who need to encounter Christ both in an experience of God’s Spirit, God’s healing and God’s forgiveness, and in an experience of God’s comfort, provision, protection and care through the physical hands and voices of people. As such, we proclaim Christ’s coming not just through our preaching and singing, but also through our feeding of the poor and visiting of prisoners and shut-ins. We demonstrate God’s Reign not just through evangelical campaigns or calling people to repentance, but also through living as citizens of God’s Reign by our acts of care, advocacy and service. And our message is proclaimed and heard most effectively in those places where God’s presence is most hidden. When we enable people to recognise God’s coming to them, even when they don’t expect it or don’t feel they deserve it, we have revealed God’s Reign. When we have touched people with God’s love and grace through our actions and words, we have made straight paths for God’s coming, and have prepared the way for people to open themselves to God’s transforming presence. Like John the Baptiser our task is both internal and external, and it enables both people and the communities they live in slowly, but surely, to become more just and peaceful and compassionate.

Painting By Numbers
A New World
God Of Restoration
New Days

Hymn Suggestions:
O Little Town Of Bethlehem
Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
God Is Coming
Praise The God Of Grace And Glory
My Soul Magnifies The Lord

A Liturgy for Advent and Christmas

Video Suggestions:
Christmas: Advent