I sensed a few quizzical looks when the Old Testament reading was announced. Some of you might have been thinking to yourselves ‘who on earth is Baruch?’ Anyone like to confess? Phew, its not just me then, for until a few days ago I had no idea who Baruch was. But, can I suggest that we might finding something reassuring in the fact that today we have heard read the words of someone we know little or nothing about? In a world which seems obsessed with the cult of celebrity, status and legacy there is indeed something rather wonderful about reading the words of a largely unknown person of God, thousands and thousands of years after his death.
Last week I suggested that resilience was a function of gratitude and prayer. Today’s reading from the Apocrypha and New Testament readings continue to talk to this theme. Baruch asks us to hold firm in believing that ‘God will lead Israel with joy,’ (verse 9). Earlier in the passage Baruch has asked the world-weary people of Israel to ‘arise…...look East…….rejoicing that God has remembered them,’ (verse 5). As 21st century Christians, occupying a world which seems to have lost leave of its senses, we must continue to thank God for the good things we enjoy whilst hoping, believing, that joy will return. Like the world-weary Israelites of long ago we must keep our heads held high, looking East (the metaphor for looking towards God) for, as I suggested last week, making sure our eyes are continuously fixed on God is the essence of radical repentance; that quality of looking to God, through the person of Jesus, for the answers to the deepest questions.
St. Paul would have been aware of the book of Baruch, he was very possibly fed, spiritually, by it. He is certainly keen to reinforce Baruch’s model of Christian resilience, for he too calls us to develop our reservoir of gratitude and our commitment to a disciplined life of prayer: ‘I thank God every-time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for you,’ (verses 3 & 4).
If we like Paul wish to become disciples of Jesus Christ we need to cultivate our sense of gratitude and our commitment to prayer, or joyful prayer. I can’t really say this often enough.
So what of John the Baptist? In many ways John the Baptist is the sort of odd-ball character we are possibly a little wary of. I suspect that many of us would be uncomfortable walking the streets of Winslow loudly proclaiming a baptism of ‘repentance for the forgiveness of sins,’ (verse 3), but I do hope that we would all hope, and pray, that ‘all flesh shall see the salvation of the God,’ (verse 6) and that the church – you and me in other words – might ‘prepare the way of the Lord, making his paths straight,’ (verse 4). John the Baptist’s message is, yes, the importance of radical repentance but what he also teaches us is that our vocation is the humble work of preparation. As a church we need to lay the right paths and then leave the job of conversion up to God.
So how do we prepare the way and what are the mechanisms through which ‘all flesh shall see the salvation of God?’ You’ve got it: resilience and repentance. As a penitent and resilient Christian community we must always make sure that we are shaped through the person and teaching of Jesus Christ, so that we become ‘as Christ’ for the surrounding community. It is our mandate and duty to offer a better, more hopeful, way ahead; a way that allows ‘all flesh to see the salvation of God.’
The way we get there is through our commitment to prayer.
Let me finish by giving an example of someone preparing the way through prayer. Bishop Stephen Cottrell has written with affection about his Aunt Millie. Millie wasn’t a real aunt, just one of those people who was kind of adopted into the family as an auntie type figure. Millie was a very devout Roman Catholic who was delighted to attend Bishop Stephen’s ordination to the priesthood. The reason she was delighted was that she had partnered with God, preparing the way through prayer. At Bishop Stephen’s ordination she told him that ‘every day, for the past forty years, when she had gone to Mass, she had prayed for the conversion of my family.’ Through her sheer resilience and her commitment to prayer she had accepted the challenge laid down by John the Baptist to ‘prepare the way of the Lord.’
This Advent can I ask you all a rhetorical question: what, or perhaps more precisely, who, are you praying for?