Advent 3B, 2008
John 1: 6-8, 19-23

A Liturgy is also available


Of all the gospels in our religious tradition, Mark’s gospel
is seen by several scholars as the most confrontational.

It is full of questions which demands the reader decide.
        Who we stand with.
        What we believe in.
        How we will act.

But since it is such a short gospel, the church throughout Year B in the Lectionary
(the church year we are now in) often borrows from John’s gospel
- similarly aggressive and sure in its tone - 
not about the Jesus of history , but about the Christ of faith.

And that is a very big difference.

Whereas Mark’s writing was the earliest gospel to be written,
it tends to be sharp, to the point,
        in its talk about Jesus and his teachings...

John’s writing on the other hand,
comes after many years of deep theological reflection.

The sentences are longer and the images more contrived.
        And the ‘cosmic’ post-Easter Christ
        rather than the ‘earthy’ pre-Easter Jesus, seems all important to him.

That is a really different theology!

Now I mention all this because, just when we were starting
to get into the swing of Mark’s stuff in this new church year,
        we now leave all that behind.
                Indeed we won’t have another reading/story from Mark until early January.
                So if you’re a bit confused, join the clan!

OK.  Let’s see if we can make something of today’s story.
And where all this might touch on the season called Advent.
        Because Advent needs all the encouragement and attention it can get,
        because of the many counter claims for attention 
                    operative in our community at this time.


John the 'bather', or ‘dipper’' comes out of the desert wilderness
and starts to call people to take a long, hard look at themselves.
        Indeed his voice is so dominate this young local bloke
        is regarded by many as a ‘prophet of doom’.

Still, the people of his day seem to take hold of what he has to say.
And as you will remember from last week’s story from Mark,
        they go out - some 25 miles at least over several days - to listen to him

And I reckon these people
- read: the poor, the powerless ones, those on the edges of society - 
hear something in his message which we might call ‘hope’.

For theirs was a situation that needed a word of ‘hope’.
• Rural land was being taken over by the big ‘out-of-town’ farmers.
• Mounting debt, payable to both Roman officials and priestly aristocracy,
meant the crisis of debt and dispossession grew deeper.
• Farmer labourers were being forced onto the unemployment line.
• A new Roman taxation system was extracting nearly every last cent.

Life could be pretty bleak.  Often without hope.
But I must also be honest and say that by the time John - the gospel writer was writing his stuff,
        there appears to have been some strife within the early Jesus movements
        over the place and importance of John the baptiser.

Indeed some argued he had a religious insight not unlike that of Jesus of Nazareth.
So he was as important.  And his thinking should be given more attention.
        Not so, claimed others.

John the storyteller gives him a major reference.

I’m sure you can imagine these debates became a bit heated at times.
Like many church meetings can be!

Some scholars reflecting on these debates have suggested
Jesus started out as a follower or disciple of John.
        But, they conclude, John was seen by Jesus as too much of an alarmist.
        So he, Jesus, left when he chose to follow a different dream.

It is poet and theologian John Shea who, by the way, captures this feeling well
in his poem about John: The Man who was a Lamp.
        “John expected an axe to the root of the tree
        and instead he found a gardener hoeing around it.
        He dreamt of a man with a winnowing fan and a fire
        and along came a singing seed scatterer.
        He welcomed wrathful verdicts,
        then found a bridegroom on the bench.” 
(Shea 1993:177)


It seems John was a man of passionate devotion to the honour of God.
A person of forceful words and not easily pigeonholed.
A person who also attempts to address people’s fear in living.

But in most ways the world of John and of Jesus is far from our 21st century world.
And this difference needs to be acknowledged and taken into account
        every time we turn to the biblical stories, but especially during Advent.

• First, we do not live in a theocracy, despite the desires of the Religious Right.
This means that in their time God was perceived as directly involved
in the personal and especially the social affairs of the people.

Today, in Australia at least, religion is not so pervasive.
        For most of us religion simple stands side by side with other factors of life...
                Sunday maybe is worship day.
                Monday is washing day.
                Thursday is shopping day, and so on...

• Second, the ordinary person’s concern today is coping with life.  Making ends meet.
God is not immediate to us unless there is some want or need, or tragedy interrupts.
        The constant consciousness of God is gone.

And God is not in the language of our greetings and partings.
To hear ‘God bless Australia’ would be totally strange to our ears.

• Third, there is a tendency in our times to relate to religion as magic or superstition.
This is especially true when it comes to the unexplainable or uncomfortable...
        Family breakup.
        Natural disaster.

• Finally, for many, religion is looked upon for its practical ‘DIY’ value.
It is seen as useful for living an orderly and sometimes, peaceful life.
        But when it ceases to be practical, it can be discarded.


Today is the third Sunday in Advent.
Our Lectionary readings have been shaped in such a way
        we are now being confronted by a bloke called John.

And he is no doubt a bit strange... John Shea in his poem goes on to say of him:
“a map of a man...  Unexpected angels are pussycats next to this lion... (John Shea 1993:175)

A bloke called John.  An ordinary bloke.
A bloke who relates best to other ordinary people.

But while it appears his voice is loud and his manner rough,
his message is still essentially heard as one of hope:
        God wants to do great things - with ordinary people.

For it is in the ordinary that we can sense the presentness of God.
In the ordinary... like the love-making songs of the Green Grocer cicadas.
In the ordinary... like the red orange glaze of a low-sunk sun.
In the ordinary... like a rough diamond called John the ‘dipper’. 

Today, this third Sunday in Advent,
        let us remember that the creativity and wisdom we call ‘G-o-d’
        still encourages and awakens and persuades, so great things can be achieved - through ordinary people like us.

And that is an Advent word.
That is a word of hope!

Shea, J. Starlight. Beholding the Christmas Miracle All Year Long. New York. Crossroads Publishing, 1993.