Be transformed, for the kingdom of heaven has come near! (Advent 2A)
Sunday 8 December 2019 | The Rev’d Clare Barrie
Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Rom 15:4-13, Matt 3:1-12
In his farewell sermon to the diocese last Sunday, Bishop Jim reminded his listeners that the four traditional themes of Advent are not hope, peace, joy and love, as our Christmas cards and Advent wreath candles would have us believe. The traditional themes for evening prayer or evensong through the season of Advent are death, judgement, heaven and hell.
John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of the desert in Judea, brings these themes into sharp focus. He is a strange and disturbing figure. He gained such a huge following of his own disciples that Herod saw him as a political threat and had him executed – he never became a disciple of Jesus, though he is portrayed as announcing Jesus’ ministry.
Matthew paints a picture of John the Baptist as a prophet, and it is this image of prophet that has caught my imagination this week because being prophetic is so vital for the church and for our world today.
What is it to be a prophet? ….Some would say it’s about foretelling the future. Others would say it’s about speaking for judgment, for justice. There may be elements of these things in a prophet’s message, but being a prophet – if we examine biblical figures such as Isaiah and Jeremiah and Elijah – seems to be more about knowing God’s character, and being able to see extraordinary possibilities in a given situation, and speaking truth to power. Prophets are not saints; they are not easy, comfortable, content people… they don’t see the world the way the rest of us do. They want to change the world, and they want to change us.
John is a wild man in the desert; he is dressed like Elijah the prophet, one of the most important prophets in Israel’s tradition. And he preaches in the wilderness of Judea, a geographically marginal place, far from the cities and social power…
…and of course the ‘wilderness’ evokes the Exodus journey, the long wandering where God led his people and made covenant with them, a symbolic place of testing, redemption, struggle, and revelation… A place of beginnings. A place of finding identity. John eats locusts and wild honey – the food of the desert, the food of the poor.
So John is a man on the margins, a man who resists social power and a comfortable life, and yet whose words obviously have tremendous power because crowds and crowds of people are traveling out into the desert to find him and to hear him preach and to ask for his baptism. His appearance and lifestyle and actions all show us that he is a man of God, a prophet like those of old, some one standing outside the systems of social and religious power and calling for transformation, for change.
And what does he preach? “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” Turn around, change your lives, live in a new way… because God’s reign, God’s saving presence, is very close to you…
The language for God’s reign in Matthew’s gospel is highly radical – it is highly political. The Greek word we often translate as ‘kingdom’ in Matthew’s gospel is basileia. And basileia, in Matthew’s time, was also the word for empire. The basileia was of course the Roman Empire, the oppressive, violent power that ruled over every aspect of daily life for Matthew’s community… Roman soldiers walked their streets, monuments to Roman victories dominated town squares, and the coins they used to buy bread and pay taxes were stamped with images such as Judea as a bound woman.
And so here John the Baptist is announcing, in direct opposition to Rome, some other kind of empire… an alternative empire of God/heaven. And this is a social and political challenge – not simply a personal/private matter. This is speaking God’s truth to the world’s power.
John sees something that perhaps no one else has seen yet… his vision is different – it is prophetic, in the sense that to be prophetic means to re-imagine the world and human life in the light of God’s reality and involvement and love. John sees an alternative to the power that dominates all of life, the basileia of Rome – he sees the basileia of God, he sees the huge potential of God’s promises and humanity’s goodness, and is unafraid to speak out… “Repent, change, for the basileia of heaven has come near!”
The kingdom of heaven is a mysterious image, and John’s preaching is disturbing, frightening. We struggle with his violent words – he’s a prophet, not a saint. But they were directed particularly at those who could not see what he saw – the religious elite who tried to protect their own power and who had become blinded to the presence of God they were meant to be serving. They had forgotten their own identity as God’s people, and worse, they cut others off from God’s grace.
Advent is a time when we prepare for the long view. It is a time for practicing alternative vision – a time for learning to see prophetically. The world around is of course going completely nutty over Christmas shopping and Christmas parties and big men in red suits with white beards.
But we are preparing for an alternative Christmas: Christ’s Mass, the celebration of Jesus the Christ being born among ordinary human life, with all the pains and uncertainties and joys we know so well. John the Baptist challenged his followers to ‘bear fruit worthy of their transformation’ – and so we might ask, what kind of world do we want to live in this Christmas, and beyond? And then… what small changes might we make in our homes, among our family and friends, in our community, our city? This Christmas, and beyond? And more besides – what kind of church, what kind of community is God calling us to become?
Who are the contemporary prophets whose voices and vision we can learn from – who call for deep change to the systems and complacencies which bind us, who speak truth to the powers of our world, who preach discomfort and possibility, peace – but not at any cost, and hope for a different way?
I think of prophets like Greta Thunberg, implacably calling out the world’s failure to face the climate crisis. The Iranian-Kurdish journalist and poet Behrouz Boochani, voice of the Manus Island refugees, who wrote of his experience of incarceration by the Australian government, text by text. The young leaders of the pro-democracy protest movement in Hong Kong.
All of them refuse to accept that this is the way things are – they all hope for change, for a better world, a world so different from what we know that Isaiah’s long ago upside-down vision makes sense: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”
Advent means learning to see the world differently, learning to see it as the prophets did – to pray for and believe in God coming among us and acting among us and through us in a new way. Advent is a time when each of us can learn something about being prophetic people. Walking in the way of John the Baptist, our lives and our words show that we have an alternative vision of the world – living out of the reign, the basileia of heaven, we bear fruit worthy of transformation.
We see and work for a world in which God’s grace matters, where everyone stands equal in God’s eyes, where change – transformation – is always possible, against all odds.
‘Be transformed, for the basileia of heaven has come near!’