On 6 December, The Second Sunday of Advent, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were A Song of Creation, Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 3:1-6.
Today in our journey through Advent we are remembering John the Baptist. As I thought about what we know of him, my mind turned to the role of pacemaker or pace-setter in middle distance or long distance running. These runners are in the race to ensure that others win or break records. They are not necessarily able to run the whole length of the race fast enough to win themselves but they can run the first part of it in a very precise way. They have instructions as to what pace they should run at for each lap. The competitor for whom the pace-setter is running knows to keep up with this person for the first part of the race. They are then well placed to go on to win the race or to break the record because they are not left with too much to do in the second part of the race. If you watch the race on television the camera stays on the competitor on whom all hopes are placed. You barely see the pace-setter drop away at an alarming rate as they no longer keep up with the front of the race. Often they don’t even finish as the race is not a distance they normally run. Their job is done; they’ve paved the way for an athlete greater than themselves to succeed. They drop out gracefully.
John the Baptist had a similar role to play for Jesus. He’s even called the forerunner in some Bible translations, though his clothing didn’t include trainers and shorts! Like a pace-setter, John had to be involved in the same situation as Jesus, the one on whom all eyes would be focused. He had to be just as fit as Jesus in order to take on the authorities and challenge them, as well as being available for the ordinary folk. He had to be in tune with the Holy Spirit, following the guidance given. We’re told that the word of God came to John and only then did he begin his ministry. He waited for his instructions. All this was to help ensure the success of Jesus in his all too brief mission on earth. Like a pace-setter, when his job was done John faded into the background. He knew it would happen; he said “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
I was reading J. John’s meditation about John the Baptist. He uses a different metaphor to describe John’s role: “John the Baptist plays a significant part. He is the prologue to the play – he walks on to the stage, gets everyone’s attention and then quietly steps into the shadows as Jesus takes centre stage.”
The Bible calls John “my messenger to prepare the way before me” in the book of Malachi. In Isaiah he is “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” When a king was due to make a journey, the roads and bridges were improved to make his journey as smooth as possible. Even now if a head of state visits somewhere, he or she steps on to red carpet and often the places they visit look amazingly clean and tidy with roads in very good condition. When a king was due to enter a city, a herald would go before him to proclaim his arrival so that no one could miss it. Everyone would come out to look as the king rode in with his entourage.
John was already in the wilderness when he received God’s word. He’d been waiting for permission to get underway with his mission. Once that message came, we read that he travelled round the region of the Jordan. He preached to people about the need for repentance and baptism as a sign of that repentance, and the forgiveness of sins which would be finally achieved by Jesus’ death on the cross. People flocked to hear John; many responded and were baptised. He was preparing people’s hearts and minds for the coming of Jesus. Jesus did not have to do all the work himself. His cousin led people to expect someone else to come, someone so great that John was as the lowliest servant compared to him. This one would bring a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire, rather than just water.
John occupied a unique position in history. For centuries God’s people had waited for the promised one to come. John had the task of announcing that the time of waiting was fulfilled, the Messiah was even then in the world. John stood at the end of the time before the Messiah, a final prophet. As Jesus said of him: “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist.” Yet John’s position as a bridge between ages meant he could not fully belong to the new age ushered in by the arrival of the Messiah. As Jesus went on to say: “Whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
There could only be one time between the prophets of old and the coming of the Messiah. God only called one forerunner to prepare people for his coming. Those events are unique, unrepeatable. Yet there are some similarities to our current situation. Like John, we live in an in-between time. Jesus’ first Advent has happened. At Christmas we remember his birth and the wonderful events surrounding it. Jesus’ second Advent is yet to come.
Particularly at this time we are helped to recall that we must be alert, prepared, because Jesus the King could come at any time. For those who are already following the Messiah there is the requirement to keep short accounts with God. We are to remember to confess our sins when we become aware of them so that we maintain our relationship with God. Sin drives a wedge between us, but God is always willing to forgive if we ask him to. Our hearts and minds need to continue to be transformed. Repentance is not a one off event. Even if we believe we have turned our lives around, we have a habit of turning back. Advent is a time to reflect on what state our lives are in and to make the necessary changes.
We have a responsibility to spread the Good News of the kingdom to those who have not yet heard or responded to it. In doing that, like John, we must point beyond ourselves to Jesus, the one who is to come. This is not about us; if we are not remembered, it doesn’t matter. It does matter if we don’t play our part because then the end result will not be as it should be. Occasionally in running, a pace-setter actually wins the race rather than enabling someone else to do so. They get the glory when that was never intended to be for them and many are shocked at the outcome. John did as he was asked and was prepared to step aside at the right moment. We must do the same. This may not just involve us on a personal level. It might be that the ministry of Anglicans of SL here on Epiphany Island is merely a herald of what is to come. One day, God may ask us to step aside and let something greater flourish as a result of the preparation we have done.
Personally or as a ministry, we have plenty to be grateful to God for. God has called us and given us an opportunity to work in co-operation with him. In this we are truly blessed.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor