Today is known in some churches as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is the Latin word for ‘rejoice’. The day has its origins in those times when Advent was observed much more as a penitential season, rather than the premature celebration of Christmas which it now seems to have become for many people. Gaudete Sunday is just like its counterpart in Lent, Laetare, also known as Refreshment Sunday. Each of them falls half way through the penitential period, the idea being to provide some welcome relief from the spiritual discipline and austerity of the season. And given that the four themes the church traditionally focuses on in Advent are meaty stuff – heaven, hell, death and judgement – one day of respite certainly doesn’t come amiss!
Talking of judgement…well, only if we must…for it probably goes against both our will and our desire – but John the Baptist takes some beating. Gaudete Sunday didn’t exist in his day, so we just have to take it on the chin when he fires off his warnings about being ready for the coming of the Christ. Today’s opening salvo, aimed at the people who came to him for baptism, is a case in point: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.’ A lesson in how to make friends and influence people it is not! But then, John is hardly known as a model of tact and diplomacy: his words are serious, and he doesn’t mince them. He warns those who seek safety in the old order of conventional standards and institutions, and tells them plainly it is no use saying, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ Even the Hebrews – the chosen people, the insiders – even they must repent. Small wonder the people ask John, ‘What then should we do?’ That challenge to move out of our comfort zones, our supposed security, the familiar ‘this-is-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it’ mindset, comes ringing through the centuries. I suspect the challenge to 21st century Christians goes way beyond current arguments about women bishops or gay marriage.
It must be said that Zephaniah is a miserable prophet on the whole, with the sole exception of this morning’s passage that we read. In it, the prophet almost takes on the mantle of Isaiah with his talk of God restoring the fortunes of the people through images of gathering them together and bringing them home. It struck me what an emotive word ‘home’ is, especially at this time of the year, when so many of us link home and family and Christmas, and go to great lengths to make our homes look attractive for the festive season. It is a time of year when our awareness of those without a home is heightened as we put a fiver in the Salvation Army collector’s tin or do our bit for Crisis or SPEAR. But going back to the Hebrew people, think of all the things that have been done in the name of protecting this idea of ‘home’. To think of ‘home’ and ‘Jerusalem’ in the same breath is almost unbearably ironic. Who has a right to call Jerusalem ‘home’? Zephaniah suggests that Jerusalem can only be ‘home’ when God is there himself. Home is not so much where the heart is, as where God is.
The trick, then, is to train our hearts to feel at home only where God is. It was Augustine who wrote ‘Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in thee’. But the problem is that while we may know our hearts are restless, for I guess they often are, until they do find their home, they don’t really know what they are looking for. I am reminded of one of G.K. Chesterton’s Christmas poems which ends like this: ‘To an open house in the evening/Home shall all men come/To an older place than Eden/And a taller town than Rome/To the end of the way of the wandering star/To the things that cannot be and that are/To the place where God was homeless/And all men are at home.’
It is God’s willingness to be homeless in order to bring us home that we celebrate at Christmas, and that we spend Advent trying to imagine and prepare ourselves for. Today’s Gospel, like Zephaniah, warns us that dispossession is the only preparation for possession. John clearly warns his audience they have placed their faith in the wrong things. They are far too reliant on their status as Abraham’s children, and in danger of missing their chance to get into God’s home. Not only that, they have actually demonstrated that their security lies in having two coats rather than just one, more than enough food and money, and the power to make others do what you want them to do. They have made themselves comfortable and secure.
Almost incredibly, John does not fall into his own trap. He is strikingly successful as a preacher: people come to him, seek his advice, some even believing him to be the promised Messiah himself. The temptation must have been great to make himself central, but he isn’t seduced by any of it. This strange figure in the wilderness will only succeed in what he has been sent to do when he is redundant and the Christ actually appears.
John the Baptist is traditionally thought of as standing on the cusp of what theologians call ‘salvation-history’. He spans the old covenant with the Hebrew people and the new covenant ushered in through Jesus. In a sense, he doesn’t fully belong in either place, the old or the new. To that extent, he is the perfect person to prepare the way for the homeless God, because he himself was prepared to belong nowhere for the sake of responding to God’s call.
There is a great irony in the fact that much of Hebrew history is centred on belonging to a land and finding a home, and yet so much of that history is about being uprooted and not belonging anywhere, whether it be slavery in Egypt or exile in Babylon. From the beginning, Adam and Eve had to give up on the security of Eden; Abraham had to leave home not knowing where he was going; Moses had to lead the people towards the Promised Land, but he wasn’t allowed to enter it; the prophets put themselves on the line, forsaking their own security and risking ridicule and indifference; John the Baptist inhabits the desolate place called the wilderness. Even though I firmly believe faith is a journey, I’m not suggesting we all uproot and go wandering off to the desert. But John is challenging us to re-examine where our true home is. I wonder if John were to walk into our churches today, he might tell us we have over-domesticated Christmas? The idea of judgement is uncomfortable, but perhaps we need the call of the prophet in order to determine where our real priorities lie, and to take the risk of moving outside our personal, communal and, yes, even our religious comfort zones.
One final thought: in the background to these Advent readings, we can see the heavily pregnant figure of Mary, waiting, close to her time now. She is to give birth to a child in the outhouse of a pub. The family will become refugees and the Son of Man will have no where to lay his head. Even more difficult than that: Mary’s son will reject the home and the mothering she offers him for the adventure of faith. As the people said to John: What then should we do?