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Who’s Voice? Isaiah 61:1-4;8-11 John 1:6-8;19-28

The mystery man is a common character in fairy stories, novels, plays and films. The Man in the Iron Mask, a novel by Alexandre Dumas, is based on historical events; the character never takes his mask off, and his identity is never revealed. In J. B. Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls nobody’s quite sure who the inspector is. The Beast in Beauty and the Beast is eventually found to be a prince, and is only waiting to receive the love of a princess to be revealed in his full glory. In these and other stories about a mystery man, people whisper in the background, ‘Who is he?’

John the Mystery Man
John the Baptist was a bit of a mystery man. He suddenly appeared in the wilderness, and nobody knew where he’d come from. He spoke like the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, but everybody thought that way of speaking died out long ago. He proclaimed a challenging message, telling people to make a fresh start. “Don’t rely on the traditions you’ve been practising,” he said in effect, “Repent!” which means change your attitude. “Be baptised!” in order to show outwardly the inward change you are making. Begin your life again as a child in the family of God! All this was because of who would be following him. Repenting and being baptised were a preparation – something new was on its way and those who were most ready for it would stand to gain the most from it. So in some ways this mystery man had something of a mystery message.

Clues from the past
Going back to our starting point, a clever story, play or film will leave clues along the way that hint at who the mystery person might be. Some people are better than others about picking up those hints. When messengers came to John to ask about who he was and what authority he had, they had some clues in mind. The clues lay in their holy writings, or scriptures, and in their understanding of what those writings meant. The Pharisees who sent priests and Levites to see John were particularly keen on studying the scriptures. They believed everything that happened in their own day had been predicted in the law and the prophets. The scriptures gave the messengers three possible ideas about who John might be. He could be the Messiah who had been predicted; or he might be Elijah come back from heaven; or he might be the prophet.

Let me say a little more about each of these three figures. The word ‘messiah’ means ‘anointed’. Kings were anointed with oil at the beginning of their reign. However the kings of Israel and Judah had been a disappointment, so the people began to hope for the anointed one, the Messiah, the ideal king, who would one day come and free them from all foreign rulers. Could John be that one? He was certainly new and influential and crowds flocked to hear him. What about Elijah? Malachi, the last of the prophets, had said, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” Had Elijah come back in the form of John? There were certainly resemblances – a strange lone figure who called people to turn back to their true faith and appeared as a kind of religious champion. Did this mean that the Messiah was about to come and they were to prepare for him? The third figure they had in mind was the prophet mentioned in Deuteronomy, where Moses promised, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.” The way they would recognise the true prophet when he came, was that what he predicted would come true. Was this the precedent they were looking for? “Who are you?” they asked: “the Messiah, Elijah or the perfect prophet?

John answered that he didn’t fit any of their three pre-formed ideas. He was not even to be thought of as a full person – he was merely a voice. He had been predicted by Isaiah, another of the prophets from their scriptures, but Isaiah’s words simply pointed to a voice calling people to prepare the way of the Lord.

The Voice that called out in preparation
In the days when processions travelled at walking pace, a king would send someone running ahead to tell people he was coming. Such a messenger was a forerunner – someone running ahead. “Get ready!” he’d cry, “The king is coming only about an hour’s travel behind me.” John said he was just such a voice, running ahead of someone far more important than he who was already in their midst, but as yet unrecognised. We know he was referring to Jesus, but at the time it was not necessarily clear for whom John was preparing the way. In some ways all three of the ideas the messengers had were to be fulfilled at this time, but in a way no-one could really anticipate or understand until afterwards.

Many of us are preparing to celebrate Christmas. It seems that we work ourselves into a frantic rush, sending cards, getting in supplies, hunting for presents and going to Christmas parties. Many of us, too, want to hold on to something of the real meaning of Christmas, and part of that is to try and make something of Advent. We want to try and find some moments of stillness and remember that we are waiting the coming of our Lord. I’m pleased that there is an Advent group meeting this year at Willen Priory. In church we light our Advent candles each week as a focus for Advent expectation. I’m reading a devotional book of meditations on Charles Wesley hymns entitled “Come, thou long expected Jesus!” Perhaps many of us feel that tension between the culture around us which is already celebrating Christmas and our spiritual lives where we are trying not to be Christmassy until the right time. That feeling of “now and not yet” is actually a good place for a Christian to be – living as if we were citizens of heaven but knowing that we are not yet there.

Many Voices
Today we have been thinking about John the Baptist who was a voice calling out with a spiritual message. We may be aware of many voices that call out in a prophetic way like that. As you may know, I am studying interreligious relations and it is helping me be more clear about my own Christian faith as well as understand the other world faiths much better. There is the call of the prophet Mohammed, whom Islam believes to be the last prophet with a message direct from Allah. I have a friend from my gap year, the daughter of a vicar, who has become a Muslim. She found in that faith a much more definite pathway to God than her liberal Christian upbringing she had. Many in our Western society find the voice of Buddha attractive. Finding freedom from suffering by practising mindfulness and seeking to be less attached to this material world makes sense to many people around us. Our local Buddhist temple and pagoda speaks with a voice that many respect and can identify with. Some of us may worry about the decline of the Christian voice in our society but it does not help to fret over this. My studies have also helped me to see that Christianity has often come to a point where it looked like it would decline to the point of extinction only to take root in a new way and flourish once again. It may be that we are coming to that point once more and it is for us simply to attend to the voice crying out in the wilderness to prepare for something new.

In the meantime, and as a simple Advent exercise, perhaps you could take some time to ask yourself what the voice or voices are saying to you. I’m not talking about inner voices that make some people do strange or bad things. I’m talking about those promptings, those thoughts, ideas or messages that intrigue us, that draw us, like John the Baptist, out into the wilderness to hear more and want to respond. Sometimes it helps to talk with a wise listener to explore those promptings. Always in prayer we are to attend to those inner movements in our feelings, thoughts and reactions. To know ourselves better is to grow and mature spiritually. We start off with set ideas about the identity of that mystery voice: Messiah, Elijah, the prophet. But when we stop and ask, the response is: I am none of those, I am something new. Get ready! Be prepared to grow and change! Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith




God for whom we watch and wait,
you sent John the Baptist to prepare the way of your Son:
give us courage to speak the truth,
to hunger for justice,
and to suffer for the cause of right,
with Jesus Christ our Lord.