In the 69th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, when Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Andrew Burhnam was Mayor of Greater Manchester and Aasim Rashid was the Mayor of Rochdale, during the Arch-bishophood of Justin Welby and Stephen Cottrell, the word of God came to Jean, Irene, Pamela, Clive and the assembled congregation in the wilderness of Heywood…
As it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, and I paraphrase here: ‘Acquire for yourself a bulldozer and do some bulldozering’.
I wonder which local valleys you would fill (or level-up in today’s parlance) and which hills of the North you would make low? Which crooked you would make straight? Which bit of rough you would make smooth?! For this is a word of God for us here and now, in this time and in this place.
We’re in chapter 3 of Luke. In the first 2 chapters we have had an elderly barren woman getting pregnant, as does her young cousin, an unmarried teenager. And at the end of chapter 2 we fast-forward to the 12-year-old Jesus giving his parents a heart-attack when he went AWOL. And now we zip along another 18 or so years to John doing his proclaiming and baptising.
Perhaps the pace is deliberately quick so that we don’t forget the prophecies about John? His Dad, Zechariah, had said (1:76-77): ‘And you, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.’ I wonder if any of our parents had such high hopes for us.
But let’s not forget all those names that Luke started with. He’s already told us that his Gospel will be an ‘orderly account’. So, he’s been very deliberate in placing John in an historical, political and religious context by doing all that name dropping at the start, just as I did with you.
Yet the word of God doesn’t come to any of those celebrities. It comes to John, in the wilderness. John, the son of two elderly parents who had given up hope of having a child.
And does John sit back and say: “thanks for that God, very interesting” and gets back to picnicking on his honey and locusts? No, he gets out there and does something with that word. He goes into all the region, proclaiming, drawing crowds and preparing a way with a metaphorical bulldozer.
And Luke then draws Isaiah into this too, with some verses taken from Isaiah 40:3-5: ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness…’ John is placed on the threshold between all those Hebrew prophets of old – and the one who is to come, Jesus.
And we shouldn’t be altogether surprised that the word gets to John in the wilderness. The wilderness is where Elijah fled to and encountered the still small voice. It’s where David ran to in order to escape the anger of Saul. It’s where the people of Israel spent their time getting away from Egypt and taking a longcut to a land of promise. Later in the Gospel, Jesus himself is led by the spirit into the wilderness. And throughout his ministry, Jesus continued to withdraw to give himself space and solitude and allow God to divinely provide for his needs. And he encourages his followers, then and now, to do the same.
It’s interesting to take a closer look at the verse which follows Zechariah’s prophecy, in Luke 1:80. We’re told that John ‘grew and became strong in the spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel’. Rather than a burning-bush-type-moment it appears that the word of God comes to John slowly over a number of years until he was ready to share it.
I must just tell you about our own burning-bush moment. A few weeks ago, one of our front garden bushes was set alight during the night, presumably thanks to a cigarette butt from a passer-by rather than divine intervention. The fire-brigade turned up and quickly put out the fire. In our case, the bush was blazing and it was consumed… and we were completely oblivious that any of this had happened until we were told the next day! We’d slept soundly through it all. Was God trying to tell us something? Who knows? But at least when God was trying to catch the attention of Moses, he didn’t have to reckon with the local fire-brigade.
Growing and becoming strong
John ‘grew and became strong in the spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel’. And this should all be an encouragement to us. We might not be famous, or we might just be heavy sleepers, but the word of God still comes to us. And we might feel we’ve been in a wilderness for years. But perhaps God is slowly helping us to grow and to become strong, like he did with John, until we’re ready to get out there.
More than that, maybe we think of the world that we live in as a wilderness. The pain and injustice. Violence and hunger. Scarcity and isolation. Or closer to home we might be disheartened by falling numbers attending church and feel we’re in a bit of a desert time. We might wonder if God is there at all?
Instead, it’s precisely in places like this that God provides what we need. The people of Israel, David, Elijah, John, Jesus… Some of those wilderness stories do have dramatic one-off events – but John’s story shows that God may be doing his work on us bit-by-bit over a number of years.
Preparing the way
It’s also worth just thinking about John, who in the Gospels always seems to be second fiddle to Jesus but was absolutely essential in preparing the way. We need to stop and thank God for all the male and female ‘Johns’ in our churches and congregations today. Those who give out the hymn books and put them away again, who serve, arrange flowers, bake the cakes and pour the tea.
That’s pretty much everyone here, isn’t it? We are all essential in preparing the way. In pointing others to Jesus by the way that we live our lives. All this time perhaps, feeling like we’re in a wilderness, but growing stronger in the Spirit.
Not left unchanged
And whilst this may give us all some comfort, let’s not forget the message from Malachi. As we move through Advent, we might be coming over all baby-Jesus-in-a-manger, peace-on-earth-and-goodwill-to-all, great-joy-for-all-people etc. But Malachi tells us that the arrival of the Lord will demand something from us. We will not be left unchanged but will be re-formed and re-fined to be more like Christ.
In Luke, John’s example gives us hope that when God seems silent, he may actually be preparing us for some special task. But Malachi also reminds us that the promise of Christ’s arrival should prompt us to self-reflect and maybe even make us uncomfortable. Because we need to be asking ourselves whether we are making the most of what God has already given us. Are we making the most of what God has already given us?
I’m going to finish with a poem by Jan Richardson…
A Blessing for Advent
Strange how one word
will so hollow you out.
But this word
has been in the wilderness
This word is what remained
after everything else
was worn away
by sand and stone.
It is what withstood
the glaring of sun by day,
the weeping loneliness of
the moon at night.
Now it comes to you
racing out of the wild,
and waving its arms,
its voice ragged with desert
but piercing and loud
as it speaks itself
again and again:
It may feel like
the word is levelling you,
as it asks you
to give up
what you have known.
It is impolite
and hardly tame,
but when it falls
upon your lips
you will wonder
at the sweetness,
that finds its way
into the hunger
you had not known
“The word of God came to…” was delivered by Ian Banks at St James, Heywood and before that on Zoom, on Sunday 5th December 2021. It was based on Luke 3:1-6 and Malachi 3:1-4.