With the coming of Advent, our lectionary presents us, every year, with the image of John the Baptist, the foremost messenger of the coming of Jesus into the world. Luke describes John's appearance on the scene with a quotation from that familiar and dramatic passage from Isaiah: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God ' ”. “Prepare the way of the Lord...” In Advent, we prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ, trying to be attentive to the great mystery of the Incarnation in our own lives, but there's more to it than that. Luke situates John very firmly in a historical context, reminding us that this mystery is revealed not only spiritually, but in the broader, messier world around us.
I suspect that we don't often analyse this passage, with its grand metaphors of divine landscaping, very closely: we're not meant, I think, to picture God's coming into the world as a levelling which will transform the physical, or even spiritual, vistas of our earth into a vast and undifferentiated plain, eliminating diversity and gradation, but rather, I believe, to imagine a transformation and reclamation of the human landscape on the principles of God's justice. We know, when we stop to consider, that many, many people in our society are trapped in dark vales of poverty and despair which they are powerless to escape unaided, faced with sheer cliffs of marginalisation and prejudice and indifference which they cannot scale alone; the paths before their feet are strewn with obstacles of illness, malnutrition, and bureaucratic delay. To fill the valleys to a level from which people can actually emerge safely, to make the heights passable, and to sweep away the jagged stones which cause our brothers and sisters to stumble, is to prepare the way of the Lord. To make straight the highway, to render it both just and true, is a work which can begin in charity, in small efforts of mending and realignment, but it is ultimately and inescapably a work of prophecy, of advocacy and exhortation.
This is a work to which we are called as a church, to advocate for the oppressed and the vulnerable, to name injustice and to strive for transformation, and it's very concrete. For example, parishes in this diocese are being asked, at their vestries this year, to adopt a motion which addresses the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, committing themselves to education on First Nations issues, calling on the federal government to establish an inquiry into the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and asking the provincial government, in consultation with First Nations peoples, residential school survivors, and the churches, to develop mandatory curriculum on residential schools and the contributions of Aboriginal peoples to Canada. This is, admittedly, more prosaic language than that of Isaiah and Luke, but it is the same message: when we can overcome our genteel reluctance to let the spirit of our faith become incarnate in the flesh of the body politic, we may know ourselves to be participants in preparing the way of the Lord.
We do not labour at our prophetic tasks in preparation for the arrival of a God who is absent from us. The God in whose name we exercise justice and strive for equity is with us, a light the darkness cannot overcome, working in us – in our hearts, our minds, and our bodies – to achieve the purposes of the kingdom. John the Baptist, who would never know – in this life – of the saving death and resurrection of Jesus, was given the prophetic gift to name him as the Son of God. John came, we are told, that all might believe through him: prophecy demands transparency to the light of God, an effacement of self, and a clear sense of one's own identity in relation to God. When he is asked to identify himself, John's first response is “I am not the Christ” – the prophet knows him- or herself to stand over against God, and points always away from him- or herself and toward God. John gives way to the One who comes after him, and admits his own ignorance and doubt: twice he says “I myself did not know him, but...” Prophecy is an unfolding process of attention, obedience, declaration, and self-effacement. It is also a process – and here John is a very explicit example – in which we understand that we ourselves may not see the fulfillment of the promises we proclaim, or the full realisation of the work which God commands to and through us. This is something crucial to the work of justice and advocacy: however gratifying it may be to see a result from our efforts, the virtue of prophecy is measured on a far larger scale than our own quest for visible “success”. The task of proclaiming and preparing God's kingdom is in itself a gift, part of our invitation to enter into the life of God, the invitation which comes in the Incarnation. Christ comes to us, every moment of every day, calling us to live and love and work in him, surrendering ourselves and our preconceptions and our fears in harmony with his perfect self-offering and glorious resurrection. Let our Advent prayer today be for the gifts of the prophet – attentive discernment, humble obedience, fearless proclamation, and true self-effacement – that our lives may bear witness to the light, and manifest God's presence and love and justice in the world which waits for the coming of the kingdom.