Advent 3

Some years ago I was in Romania with three of my brethren, staying in the lovely Agapia Monastery in Moldavia. One blazing hot afternoon Fr George said "Let's go up to Old Agapia come on, it's just a gentle stroll through the trees". We set off. The gentle stroll through the trees turned out to be a forty minute hike up the side of a mountain along a stony track and us in our cassocks! As we began our walk a little old nun popped out of the bushes. Could she walk with us? She did and talked incessantly and explained how she had a bad heart and had been to see the doctor who could do nothing. She walked slower and talked faster and we began to despair. "What we need" said Fr Peter "is a donkey to put her on". Well this was Romania; strange things happen in Romania...... a horse and cart came trotting up behind us and we popped the nun in the back. This was not the end of our troubles. The driver was drunk and drove just ahead of us shouting cheerfully over his shoulder and his wife shouted too and the nun kept up her chatter. In the end we dodged behind some trees until they had gone. Yes, it was worth it. The monastery, when we got there was wonderful, beautiful and fresh with delightful welcoming nuns and the home made sherbet in ice cold water was quite out of this world.

The story of John the Baptist was not exactly like that but some things are the same. The hot, stony track for instance. "Make straight in the wilderness the way of the Lord". From another Gospel we know that the mountains were supposed to be levelled and the valleys filled up. Nothing like that happened. John's journey ended in a messy death leaving his disciples confused and wondering where to go. The Lord for whom he was preparing the way found the way very unprepared; people were not ready for him: they could not work out who he was. They listened, they argued, they were amazed but mostly they didn't understand a thing and in the end he too ended his life in a messy death, leaving his disciples bereft and confused.

Mother Millicent, the founder of Burnham Abbey used to say, "I do wish God didn't work in such a muddle." It's true, isn't it? Life is a muddle. We try to impose patterns on it which order it and explain it and sometimes with the gift of hindsight we get the basic picture right. At the time it is hard to see what's going on; hard to see what is the right choice to make. So it was for John's audience. "Who are you?" they ask. "Are you the Messiah? No. Are you Elijah? No. Who are you?" and that is not just the question for John. People ask Jesus the same question. The Jews, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the common people keep asking him, "Who are you?" Sometimes he doesn't answer. Sometimes he says, "Look at what I'm doing and work it out for yourself." Sometimes he gives them a partial answer."I am the good shepherd. I am the door of the sheepfold. I am the vine". Sometimes he goes further than that: "I and my father are one. I work and my father works too. I am going to my father; I came from him and I am going to him". Finally, just before he is arrested, "I am he." For those who could understand it should have been clear that he was the Son of God but they didn't understand.

We do understand, don't we? We know he is Christ, Son of Mary, Son of God. However, do we really know who he is? When we say he is the Christ, the Son of God are we naming him in the hope we will keep him quiet? We name him; we work out a theology of him; we write essays on Christology. We honour him, we dress up in funny clothes and worship him. All that can be simply a way of trapping him, locking him into an identity, making a false idol of him. We do not know the real Christ, not really and the proof of that is how often he surprises us.

I suppose most of us would say we are surprised to be here. At least, this wasn't part of the original plan. Somehow Jesus met us along the way and took us on a different road. Maybe we found it was where we really did want to go; or maybe we were sure it was where we didn't want to go but we went anyway. As we go further down that road there are more and more surprises. Some are painful; some are scary; some, like the monastery of Old Agapia, are unbelievably beautiful.

He doesn't only take us to surprising places, along surprising roads. He turns out to be different from what we thought. This isn't always bad; it can be very good. He can be there in the darkness when we think we are alone; he finds us sometimes lost and lonely and leads us back into the light. He comes and looks for us when we get lost. He finds us when we sin and are ashamed and he forgives us and loves us and seems closer to us than he ever was before. He finds us in sickness when we are frightened and he takes away our fear. We don't know him - or not much - but he knows us more completely than anyone else can ever do, so he understands us and because of that he loves us. That is the love of Jesus that goes deeper than any sword could do into the heart of our being.

"Who are you?" they said to John and finally he gave them an answer: "I am the voice of one crying...". In the end that is what John had to do, simply to cry that the Lord was coming. That is what we must do: that he is coming this Christmas as a baby in a manger, that he comes at the end of time to bring an end to the world, that he comes to us in death, so we do not need to fear death since he will be waiting; that he comes to us now in sorrow and in joy, in our brokenness and shame, in our sickness and confusion, in our fears about money, in our not knowing our future. This confused, broken, lost and beautiful world needs to know that Jesus is coming here.

A few years ago the wonderful Bishop of Lebombo, Dinis Singulane, was driving down a dirt road in Mozambique. The car skidded and crashed and his wife was killed. As he sat there in the road by his dead wife he thought, "This must not be a tragedy" and he saw that a small crucifix had fallen out of his luggage into the road. "Somehow", he said, "this will be the centre of a cross". A few months later he came back with his children. The people from a nearby village came to meet him to express their sorrow and asked him to start a church in their village in memory of his wife and he did, plus a small clinic. Other villages came and asked too. Five years later there were five churches: one in the centre and one to the North, South, East and West. Jesus had come there too. Is that not the way of the Lord?

            Nicolas Stebbing CR