The Purple & The Red

Sunday 10th December 2006
Year C, The Second Sunday of Advent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist
Baruch 5:1-9
Luke 3:1-6

Once upon a time a Man of God from Judah went to the Kingdom of Israel and, by the power of the Lord, frightened the wicked King Jeroboam almost to death. An old prophet heard of his deeds and offered him hospitality but the Man of God said that the Lord had instructed him neither to eat nor drink away from home. But the Prophet, deceiving him, said that an Angel had told him that the Man of God should eat and drink with him; and so he did. And the Prophet then proclaimed that because the Man of God had eaten and drunk away from home he would surely die. After the meal the Man of God left and was killed by a lion. This isn't one of my fancy tales; it's from Chapter 13 of the First Book of Kings. And it's not a very good advert for prophets; in this case a prophet lies to a Man of God as a result of which he is killed by a lion. But this is nothing like as bad as the 400 false prophets in Chapter 22. Incidentally, our story isn't a very good advert for God; but that's for another day.

This story came to mind when I read today's passage from St. Luke's Gospel. There I am, standing on Jordan's Bank, an observer of the daily rituals of my religion, a regular Temple worshipper, a teacher in my local synagogue, the chair of the widow's relief committee; and this scruffy fellow who says he's a prophet wants me to make a public spectacle of myself by repenting and being dunked in the river. So how do I know whether he's a prophet or just another second-hand camel salesman or cowboy tent re-fitter? The place is full of them but, then, it always has been. We have the books of the Prophets but they are just the lucky ones who got their rantings written down; there are hundreds of others. I'm not sure about that Baruch fellow but give me Isaiah any day. At least he didn't go around causing trouble like Jeremiah who probably should have been executed for high treason, preaching surrender when the Babylonians were at the city gates.

And then, because there is some strange magnetism in John Baptist in spite of, or maybe because of, his rough appearance, I go back the next day and he's brought his nice cousin Jeshua along with him and it's like hard man, soft man, the way the Temple Police behave; one roughs me up and the other calms me down and, in the end, I'm in the water.

But I still follow the daily rituals, worship in the Temple, teach in the Synagogue and chair the Widows Relief Committee. I know that I ought to feel different after the experience with John and Jeshua but I don't, so there's a kind of guilt, a kind of worry that I've missed something, a restlessness about a space that I know I ought to fill. But there is also the nagging doubt about prophets, the worry that I will be defrauded and, much worse, the worry that my friends will know I have been defrauded. I can never be sure.

For us today it's not quite so difficult. We can see clearly the line of the prophets from Moses to Daniel, we can see how the immensely rich history of the Chosen People, growing and dying, written and unwritten, saved and lost, nourished the mission and life of Jesus and His disciples. We can see how the Evangelists synthesised the Old Testament and the life of Jesus in different ways. We can see the mission of Jesus through Peter, Paul and James, through the great Fathers of the Church, through countless saints and martyrs; and above all, we can see the whole span from Adam to this morning crucially disrupted by the Incarnation and the Resurrection. We know that we ought to feel different after the experience with John and Jesus at the Jordan but we don't, so there's a kind of guilt, a kind of worry that we have missed something, a restlessness about a space that we know we ought to fill.

The perennial problem of advent is that this time for quiet runs precisely parallel with the restlessness of preparations for Christmas: the purple of the Church is competing with the red of the superstore; penitence is competing with idolatry; restraint with excess; and, in the foreground, Father Christmas is competing with the infant Jesus. We know we ought to be exploring our inner space and yet there is almost unconquerable restlessness.

But this dualism is also the perennial problem of life. During the month before Advent we were thinking about the Kingdom, trying to understand how it is in the here and now; then, suddenly, we are thrown into a period of waiting. One month it's action, the next month it's waiting.

One of the things that makes me really annoyed when I am listening to the radio is the politician who, when asked whether something has been caused by this or that, says: "Well, a bit of both, actually!" but the politician is right and I am wrong. Hardly anything in this life has a single cause or a single solution and, not surprisingly, matters spiritual are even more complex. Whereas in physical life we tend to alternate between acting and waiting, in spiritual life we are doing them simultaneously; we are acting while we are waiting. From its beginning to its end, life is a dress rehearsal; it isn't like the real thing but we better get all the actions and lines right as if it was because if we don't we will never get to the first night.

And if we are going to get to the first night in anything like good condition, there isn't much point learning all the actions if we haven't learned our lines. Advent is a time for learning lines as well as for the generous gesture; it is about getting behind the hope to better grasp the essence of that hope; it is about getting the lines and the actions so much in accord that they become a coherent whole which makes us feel comfortable in our selves and gives pleasure to others.

The trouble is, if the Old Testament is anything to go by, the Prophets had no stagecraft; it was all shouting and wailing and this is the technique which John inherited. We, in the Advent time warp, waiting for Jesus to be born again but knowing how He was born before, know that He is not just a prophet of a totally different order; he is the object of the prophesy. But, as with all drama, what we have to do now, in these next two weeks, is to suspend belief, to live with the prophets, to feel the sharpness of their words, to take them for what they are, to feel the splash as we are submerged in the river, to know the meaning of waiting.