In the four weeks of Advent we have marked the lighting of the Advent wreath by remembering the preparation that God made for the birth of his Son. This began with Abraham and continued with the prophets. Today, the third Sunday of Advent, we reach John the Baptist.
In Christian art, John the Baptist has often been portrayed pointing upwards to heaven. John points to Jesus. The image is taken from John’s Gospel, when John says of Jesus, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’. But it also takes up the Christian understanding of John as the one who prepares the way for the coming of Jesus. John is a figure of some importance himself – in the Gospel reading this morning we hear how people asked him if he was the Messiah. But John constantly directs attention away from himself to Jesus. ‘One who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.’ Just as in the statue, John points to Jesus. John the Baptist is the forerunner, the messenger, the one who prepares the way, the witness, the one who points to Jesus.
Before the Good News can arrive it must be prepared for. The Gospel of Jesus needs preparation. The Gospel itself is a free gift, but it never arrives completely out of the blue. Jesus himself does not suddenly appear as if from no where. John is there to prepare his way. And before John there are many others: Mary and Joseph, the angel Gabriel, all of the prophets, King David, the people of Israel, Moses and Abraham. The coming of Jesus is the fulfilment of God’s plan that has been in operation since Abraham, and perhaps even since the dawn of creation. The Gospel depends on all of this, which is why we read each week from the Old Testament. It is why we listen to the stories of Abraham, Moses and the people of Israel. John the Baptist, who points to Jesus, stands in a long line of those who also point to Jesus.
John the Baptist is part of God’s plan which culminates in Jesus. He is part of the preparation for the coming of the Gospel. In part this is why we have this whole season of Advent – to give ourselves time and space to prepare for the coming of the Good News at Christmas. We too need to prepare and to be prepared for the coming of Jesus. That is true of this Christmas, but it is also true of our Christian lives as a whole. I once tried to compile a list, as part of a spiritual exercise on a retreat, of all of the people who had been a part of bringing me to faith and in deepening my faith in God. I covered an enormous amount of paper before I stopped, fully aware that there were people I had not included but who should be on the list. But there are people who have, knowingly or otherwise, played an important part in preparing me for the Gospel, making me ready to meet with Christ. My parents took me to church every week and gave me examples of faithfulness and commitment that still influence me. I knew someone at school who went to Japan as a missionary, and she taught me a lot about the commitment demanded by the Gospel. None of us would be here today were it not for the influence of others. Their love, guidance, support and help have brought us to where we are today.
Today, as we remember John the Baptist, we have a chance to remember how they too point to Christ. Those in our lives who have prepared us for an encounter with God in Christ are also the forerunners, the messengers of the Kingdom. They too witness to Jesus. They, just like John the Baptist, point to Jesus. And today, as we prepare for Christmas and as we remember the role of John in preparing the way of the Lord, we can and should remember them, all they have given us, and give thanks to God for them. Perhaps as we make our communion this morning we can recall one or two of them and say a prayer of thanks to God for all they did for us and meant to us.
So this morning, as we hear about John the Baptist, we remember that John is the last figure in a great list, beginning with Abraham, of those who prepare the way for Jesus. We also remember all those who have prepared us for our lives and encounters with the Gospel. And in all of this we give thanks.
But there is one other set of pointers that we should remember today. One more group of people that are entrusted with the task of preparing the way for the Gospel. That group of people is us. You and I are given this task. We are also to be pointers to Jesus. We are also sent ahead of the Lord to prepare the way. We prepare the ground for the arrival of the Gospel in the world in which we live and among the people who we come into contact with. It is not our job to make sure that the Gospel arrives, or that people are ready for it. But it is our job to point to it. Nor is it our job to give a detailed theological explanation of every part of the Gospel. But it is our job to point to what it means. We are to point to the good news, we are to be signposts to God. We do this in all sorts of ways: through the conversations that we have; through taking care of people who are in need; through working for justice and peace around the world; through our love for one another and for those we meet; through our worship this morning and each week. In all of these ways we are witnesses, we are signposts. In all of these ways we, like John the Baptist, point to Jesus.
We can only be these pointers, because we have followed others who pointed to Christ and who showed us the way to go. We can only be these pointers because we followed the directions that we were shown and found that at the end of them was mercy, love and forgiveness. We can only be these pointers because God allows himself to be found in the direction that we point.
But we do not have to fear that we will not be able to be these signposts to God. God has chosen to be found in this way, and he wants to be found. Today, as we hear about John the Baptist and how he points the way to Jesus, we gather around the altar and we receive bread and wine. These also point to Jesus, and as we receive them we receive the body and blood of Jesus. It is because we receive Jesus that we can point to him. It is as God gives himself to us, that we can show God to others.
So as we prepare for Christmas, we give thanks for the great plan of God in preparing from Abraham to John for the coming of Jesus. We give thanks for those who have pointed us to Jesus. And we pray that God would help us to point to Jesus.
And may the Lord when he comes find us watching and waiting. May he find us pointing. Amen.
First given at the Chapel of St Mary on the Bridge and Derby Cathedral. 13.12.15.