Who remembers 21 July 1969? It was the date that Neil Armstrong, became the first person to set foot on the moon. For the first time in human history we had gone out into space, going out of our spacecraft and stood on a solid surface that wasn’t our earth. We watched the astronauts from a distance as day dawned over the earth. It no longer held us and limited us. We could reach towards the stars, and perhaps one day might live among them. Even though the space programme did not develop as perhaps we thought it might, that first step onto the moon was a watershed in human history. Afterwards, for us, the world and space had been made new; our perspective could never be the same again.
Before and after
Our Gospel today tells of another moment in human story where there is a clear “before” and “after”. It may not seem so dramatic as landing on the moon but it is every bit as significant and has even more far reaching effects.
Our reading today finds John the Baptist on the banks of the river Jordan, preaching to people and baptising people. The religious authorities wonder what is going on. He could be a threat to their authority. On the other hand, it is just possible that he is the expected one. So they send a delegation to investigate. John quickly confirms that he is not the Messiah. The delegation suggests other options. A new Elijah, for example. Or the prophet whose coming was foretold? They may be hoping that he is simply a crank, another preacher making extravagant claims for divine inspiration, who can safely be ignored. But John refuses to be pigeon-hold by their categories. “Who am I? I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Make straight the way of the Lord!”
The quotation comes from the book Isaiah, the part of it that relates to the time when people were in exile from their land. Isaiah tries to persuade them that God, far from having finished with them, is in fact going to do something entirely new. God is going to make a road through the wilderness, to take them home. Just as Isaiah is God’s voice, proclaiming new hope, so John is now God’s voice. This time, though, the new thing to come is an even more radical break from what has gone before.
John represents a turning point in the story of God’s dealing with human kind. He is the one who turns the old into the new. He is like the ancient prophets of Israel, berating them for their sins, calling them to repent. He belongs with Isaiah, Amos, Hosea and the rest. But he also breaks with past tradition. He is not one of them, he says. He is a breath of fresh air, a new voice, the news of someone who is about to appear, someone who has already arrived, someone who will change the world. John will disappear, his work now over. A new age will have dawned.
The light is already present
The voice of John the Baptist reminds us of the radical break in human history that happened when Jesus entered the world. In all the preparations for the celebrations for the celebration of Christmas, it is hard to concentrate on the Advent themes. So it is important for us to listen to John. All that happened before is over, he implies, as the new light appears in the world. And that new light is already present. “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me.”
There is nothing our world needs more than the light of God’s presence. In Advent we wait for its dawning. When it comes, it will not be in a blaze of glory but in a baby born to live among us. He is the light that shines in the darkness and cannot be overwhelmed. In the dark days of Advent, John encourages us to look around us for signs of that light, so that we may be ready to greet it at Christmas and at the end of time.