One of the things I most like about Advent is that we get to encounter some of Scripture’s most vivid portrait painters; the likes of Isaiah and John the Baptist.
Isaiah is of course a mega prophet and John the Baptist, for someone who only makes one or two brief appearances in the gospels punches well above his weight. John the Baptist is in many ways the wild man of the gospels. He dresses unusually, eats a very odd diet and, ultimately dies a rather horrific and bizarre death. He comes across as a bit odd and unusual, even a bit course and rude. He shocks with both his image and his use of language. Isaiah on the other hand is refined in his use of language he is one of the Old Testament’s best poets. But, what I would want to suggest to us is that both paint a new and critical picture of what religion, at its best, is all about.
John the Baptist has no real right to point us in a new direction, unlike Isaiah he is a self trained portrait painter. He literally cries out from the wilderness. The religious classes must have found him extremely irksome. Where Isaiah is all prose, he is all energy and, his energy is driven by his conviction that what is needed above all else is the requirement to repent. The religious elite have impressed on folk that the way to gain favour with God is through strenuous effort and sacrifice. Balderdash says John, ‘it’s all about repentance.’
But, we need to be careful with the word repentance for it doesn’t just mean feeling, or even saying, sorrow. The modern word repentance is actually derived from the Greek metanoia which means spiritual conversion, or revolution. The sort of repentance John the Baptist is speaking of means rejecting the accepted orthodoxy that the way to God is through sacrifice. John stresses forgiveness over and above sacrifice. He is able to do so because he knows that this is what God requires, he knows what his cousin is all about and, he is aware of the Divine picture painted through the words of prophets such as Isaiah.
So what is this picture that John wants us to inhabit?
It is the picture painted by Isaiah the prophet who dares suggest that the Messiah, Jesus, cares for the poor and, the meek of the earth. It is the portrait that suggests that the lion shall lie down with the lamb and that the cow and the bear shall graze together. In other words it is a picture of harmony within diversity. It is a picture of reconciliation and integration. It is a picture where seemingly natural foes find friendship and security in each other’s company. It is a picture of compassion, mutual respect, righteous relationship and due dignity. It is a picture of Eden. It is a picture of a garden where all are welcome and no one is hurt or destroyed.
Alongside John and Isaiah we too need to become artists painting this form of picture and then populating it. That put bluntly is our mission. If we, like John, want to be evangelists for the kingdom we need to ensure that our lives are correctly orientated so that we can invite others to go on that same journey of metanoia, reorientation and, spiritual conversion. We need to take our stand against hypocrisy, especially dare I say it religious hypocrisy and, we need to live out the image created by Isaiah. If we do this we will be an authentically evangelical church; one which will grow in both number and holiness, Amen.
Rev’d Andrew Lightbown