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When I was a boy we used to go on camping trips - cheap holidays for a large family - and I remember one holiday in particular to the Goldfields, sleeping under canvas and waking just before dawn - creeping outside so as not to wake my sisters and Mum and Dad and then watching as the darkness gradually lightened, the tinge of pink in the east spreading across the sky and then the sounds of the bush waking up all around me. That tentative half hour between darkness and light as the world comes back to life.
Well, today is traditionally referred to as Gaudete Sunday - Gaudete meaning to rejoice - and the Advent candle today is pink, representing the first light of dawn. The readings for today are unambiguously good news with the prophet - we are now reading from the so-called Third Isaiah - the prophet claims that he is anointed, or commissioned by God (the Hebrew for this word is moschiach, the same word that will later be used of Jesus, the Messiah). And what the prophet is commissioned to do, is to announce good news for the oppressed, for the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty for captives and release for prisoners, to comfort those who mourn. If this stirs your heart then it should, because this is the verse from Isaiah that Jesus will later claim as his own mission statement, at the beginning of his ministry in Luke’s Gospel, and this also, is our own mission statement as the Church because this in a nutshell is what the Gospel is about. The mission and ministry of the Church, because we are the body of Christ, is to be good news to those who suffer and are oppressed, to be good news to the vulnerable and to those who are burdened whether by illness or poverty or exploitation, to speak comfort to those who are held captive - and to do this in the name of the one who took on human flesh to restore and complete us and to set us free from all that holds us in darkness. But sometimes we don’t know quite how to go about that. Sometimes we are inconsistent, or we don’t have enough courage to live this vocation.
We started reading, last week, about John the Baptist. The Gospels all agree that John comes quoting from Isaiah, the passage from chapter 40 that we heard last week that demands the way be made straight for God who is coming to be with his people in the desert. All the Gospels agree that John the Baptist comes out of the desert beyond the Jordan proclaiming the coming of Jesus, but there are some major differences. The exact relationship between Jesus and John the Baptiser is one of the mysteries of the New Testament, in fact. In Mark, Matthew and Luke John baptises Jesus - but not in the fourth Gospel - in the fourth Gospel although John baptises others in the Jordan he does not baptise Jesus and his role as a witness to Jesus is a little different. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus and John are cousins - in Matthew, John’s teaching looks a lot like what Jesus will later say. In Mark we get the stripped-down version - nothing about John’s teaching or who he is, but his mission is to prepare the way. And it is also in Mark’s Gospel, where we came in today in chapter 6, that John the Baptist meets a gruesome death at the hands of Herod Antipas. And we begin to get the sense that John the Baptist may have been sorely disappointed in Jesus. Because John expected something from Jesus, specifically he expected fireworks. "I baptise you with water", he warns, "but the one who comes after me will give you a baptism of fire!" And in Matthew’s Gospel we hear that John the Baptiser carries that sense of disappointed expectation to the end of his life, dying in prison with an ambiguous answer to the question he'd sent messengers to Jesus to ask: "Are you the Coming One, or are we to wait for another?"
We live in a world of ambiguity, and we are, much of the time, mysteries to ourselves. John the Baptiser faithfully proclaims the one who is coming, he lives with integrity and courage despite his private burden of doubt. He preaches the uncompromising gospel of repentance, of becoming worthy of our calling to be disciples. In fact in St Mark’s Gospel, John the Baptiser is presented as the ideal disciple, the one disciple of Jesus who is faithful to the end - and the one the Gospel writer is suggesting we should emulate. Herod Antipas, by contrast, is presented as a postmodern sort of wannabe disciple - a man who finds John entertaining and admires him for his integrity but who fails the test of integrity himself. From initially listening to and admiring John, Herod has him arrested for daring to criticise him for his marital infidelity, and then in today’s reading has him executed because he is unable to lose face by backing out of a rash promise. Antipas is weak, the model of the fair-weather disciple who pays lip service when it is fashionable but who lacks courage, the groupie who goes through the motions but doesn't actually dare to allow the gospel to sink in and work its transformation.
To be disciples, to live consistently and with integrity can be difficult in a world where we don’t have all the answers. We are not always strong, and we sometimes give way to self-doubt. We live towards the certainty of divine love that we glimpse in Jesus, but we live within the moral ambiguity of our divided selves, and of the world around us. And yet our vocation as Christians, following John the Baptiser’s challenge, is to make a straight path, to prepare a way for the one who has come and who continues to come and who will come into our world in judgement and in love.
We have, as St Paul mutters darkly in his second letter to the Corinthian church (4.7), this treasure in jars of clay. Which means we are actually not up to the job, we are not strong enough, or worthy enough, for the vocation that is ours because it was given to us by our Lord. But the fact that we are not up to the job is the whole point, according to St Paul, so that we may come to know and to rely not on our own strength but on the grace of God.
The first thing, I think, is that we need to understand this about ourselves. We need to take stock, regularly, to reflect on our own life, to recognise its turning points and our personal experience of redemption, the reality that the perspective of eternity and the perspective of the love that creates us and recreates us has the power to transform our divided hearts and the murkiness of our compromised morality. We need to get in touch with the credibility gap between the men and women God created us to become, and the men and women we know ourselves, deep down, to be. We need, continually, to be reconverted by reading the scripture written into the history of our own lives. I was reminded this last week of an old saying attributed to a Benedictine monk who, when asked what monks actually did all day, replied, "oh, we fall down. And then we get up". We deny ourselves, we turn away from the truth we hold and the love that is the ground of our very being; and then we turn back.
Whether or not John the Baptist was disappointed in Jesus, it is fairly clear Jesus was not disappointed in John. As disciples we are not responsible for how things turn out but only for how we live - consistently and with courage giving witness to the one who has come into our own lives and who comes as a light into the darkness of the world around us. We fall down, and by the grace of God we get back up again. And when we have enough courage and enough consistency to do that - then we do bear witness to the one who shares our weakness and vulnerability so that we, finally, may know our oneness with divine love.