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Bible readings:

Advent II Year B (December 7, 2014)                                                          St James', Peace River

John the Baptist is a difficult character to bend our minds around. When I imagine John beginning his prophetic ministry, what mostly comes to my mind is a picture of the sandwich-board guy at football games – you know, the one carrying the message, “Prepare to meet your maker”, or “The end is nigh”, with appropriate chapter and verse. And in some ways, that is what John was doing. He got in the face of people like King Herod, and the Pharisees amongst the religious leaders, to tell them that God was not happy with what they were up to, and was about to bring everything crashing down around their ears.

But condemnation and destruction were not the primary things that John was proclaiming. Far from it. His real passion was about telling people where to begin, not how it was all going to end. And the basics of where to begin are contained in John's words in the first chapter of Mark, which we just heard. We begin with preparing the way of the Lord – knowing that God is drawing near to confront this world where so much has gone wrong. We begin with repentance and confessing our sins – acknowledging our own specific contributions to all that wrongness. We begin with baptism, to mark our new beginning. And we begin by looking towards the one who is coming, baptizing not just with water but with the Holy Spirit, making us part of God's reaching out to the world, so that we become part of God's new beginning ourselves.

What an extraordinary sight it must have been, on the banks of the Jordan, watching all those people from town and country flocking to John, wailing out their sins, being plunged into the river, and listening transfixed to this astonishing preacher with his wild ways. Once again, though, our stereotyped images of what a revival meeting looks like don't serve us well. This isn't about whipping up an emotional frenzy. Luke's version of the story tells about John speaking to people in some detail, about what they need to do differently; and it's very practical advice, too. Share your food, and your second coat; quit stealing; don't beat people up. This is how you prepare the way; this is how you become part of the new beginning.

So an encounter with John the Baptist might not have been at all like you or I would imagine. You might head out to see him with your friends, simply because that's what everybody was doing. But somewhere in your heart you carry that sense of wishing that things could be different. You'd approach the scene and wonder at the sheer number of people there, and the charisma of this strange man announcing the imminent arrival of the day of God. You would be swept up in it, or skeptical of it, according to your temperament. Somewhere along the way, though, you would hear John addressing some words directly to you – perhaps in private, but more likely words he spoke to a group would cut straight to your heart. And you would see that this vague wish of yours “that things could be different” was starting to take on the air of reality. Because God is coming, not with his face set against you, but coming to be with you, and that means that you want to change, and that means that you can.

Now, there's a reason why we pay attention to John the Baptist every single year. Even though he takes a relatively small part of the Bible, we give him time every December. And not just because he's part of the story that we have to tell. The reason is that this is what the church is for. We are here to be like John. We are here to tell people about the nearness of God, the urgency of preparing for God to be in our lives; and not because something nasty will happen to them if they don't pay attention to us. The urgency comes because people need God so much, and because God wants to be there to meet their needs so much. When we understand that, there is nothing more important, nothing higher-priority.

Look around you. Look around this building; look around your neighbourhood, your workplace, your family. Look at the strangers who pass through town, or who come and go so quickly here, but don't forget to look at the ones who've been here forever either. Look further. Look at people with no hope in their lives because there is nothing for them where they live. Look at people who are so preoccupied with making money that they forget what it is for. Look at people who have power and misuse it, and at those who have none and want nothing more than to get back at those who do. You don't need to look far, because the point of this exercise is to see where we, you and I, could prepare the way of the Lord, and invite people to make ready for him.

Because these are the people to whom God is coming. These are the people whom God loves so much that he wants to change their lives, to give them something they have never had. And many of them, just like in John's day, would be so happy to know that, so relieved to discover that what they have is not all there is – that they would do just about anything to receive it, even if it meant following a man clothed in camel hair down into a river to be baptized – or whatever the present-day equivalent of that would be! I think this might be the missing piece of the puzzle for us, who find it so hard to open up our faith to the people around us. We don't realize that people are desperate for us to do just that. As long as we can focus on God rather than ourselves, on grace before condemnation, and on the practical possibilities of changing our lives to welcome God in – just like John did – people will grab what we're offering with both hands.

We may also not realize that this is already happening. This is what the church is for, not just in the sense of sending the message John sends, but also being the place where people respond and do something about it. In one way or another, that's why we're all here. There's a line from a video made by a parish in the States that has been running through my head for the last few weeks – they set their stewardship campaign to music, which you really have to see to believe! But the line runs like this: “You just won't believe how this church can change your life.” And that's true, not because we have catchy videos or great music or a well-run welcome program or anything like that, but because this is where people come when we want to prepare to welcome God and want to make our lives ready to do that. We can offer a place where that doesn't seem ridiculous or pointless, where on the contrary you can see people every day and every week who are working on exactly the same thing themselves.

So, I want to ask you to think about that for yourself. How has this church changed your life? Some of you, I know, will feel you don't have to look far for the answer. Maybe you can help the rest of us find ours! Others will find the question strange – but I wonder if that is because you have made yourself so at home here that you never really think how different you would be if you were somewhere else. That's not a bad thing. But try and imagine what you might say to your younger self, or to someone who asked you, “What has it meant to you to spend your life at St James'?” And then maybe there are some of us who are still waiting and looking for our lives to take a new direction. What is it you are longing to see change? What would it look like for you to make a fresh start? What can you do, or who can you ask, that will be the spark to make that happen?

And as we're thinking through those questions, each in our own way, I want us to hold on to one last thought. The difference that God has made or is making in us, through this place, is not the end of the story. It is the beginning. It is the means by which God's way is being prepared, God's path made straight, into the world we live our lives in. We become who we are going to be, in order to welcome Christ when we see him. And he is coming, to give people the peace we long for, to enable us and people like us to live at peace with ourselves, and at peace with each other, and at peace with a God who loves us too much to want us to continue the way we are.

So look sharp! Look beyond yourself to see where people you know need God. Look inside yourself to see where God is making a difference. Look around you right here, to see how God really does change lives. And then see what you can do to stand out from the crowd, like John did, so that with your words and your example you can tell people that there is good news: someone is coming whose love for them can move mountains, and more than that – can change their lives.