Advent 3 (B). (Isaiah 61: 1-4; 8-11. John 1: 6-8; 19-28)
Celebrity culture and our social media dominated world has had a significant impact on ambition and aspiration. Surveys of young people in Western or Westernised societies show that a high percentage hope that they will one day be famous. The ambition isn’t to be a footballer, it’s to be a famous footballer whose name is known. To win a TV talent show and become a List C celebrity. Look at how many people choose to go onto reality TV shows (including some who REALLY should know better) and we can only conclude that being noticed is a high priority for many people within our communities. And often this is being noticed simply for the sake of being noticed. Young people rate their popularity by the number of Instagram likes they get, likes for photos of how they look – make up on, hair gelled, spots covered over. Presentation is all.
I’m struck by the contrast with young people living in refugee camps who will say that they want to be doctors or engineers – that they want to make a difference for other people. They want their lives to have meaning.
This morning’s readings invite us to consider the question: what are we here for? The reading from Isaiah begins by telling us that ‘the spirit of the Lord is upon me… he has sent me’. Isaiah has an understanding of the task that is in front of him. God has chosen him to do this particular thing. There is an identifiable way in which he can make a difference. It’s not about him, it’s about purpose. There is a message to be shared with the wider community, a message that could impact on the life of each and every person.
And the Gospel reading we heard also points us immediately to the task, not to the person and has at its heart a message. John was sent to testify, to tell. His primary role was not to draw attention to himself, although he used his own personality to attract people’s attention, but to encourage people to hear the message that he was charged with telling. John’s purpose was his testimony, not his personality.
Both Isaiah and John were charged with tasks that required their input but did not keep them centre stage. Neither of them was the important character in their vignette. Neither of them was the focus of their own actions. They were each called to a particular ministry that was about glorifying God; about bringing something of God’s light and love and witness into the world. And then, they were charged with getting themselves out of the way. Once the people recognised that Isaiah was bringing a message about how God looks on each one of us, once the captives had their liberty and the prisoners were released (at least metaphorically), Isaiah’s task with and for them was complete. It was then up to the listeners, the recipients of the message, to respond to the gift they had been given.
Once people heard and began to understand the testimony of John, his part in that chapter of the story was complete. He had pointed people in the right direction. He had given them the information they needed. They were then free to respond, to seek out the One about whom they had just been informed.
And that is the role of the prophet. That is the role of the one tasked by God with pointing people in the right direction; giving them a nudge and a prod and perhaps some words of encouragement, but leaving them to make their own decisions about how to respond. And, of course, each one of us is in a position where we can respond to the nudge or the prod that comes into our lives; in a position where we choose our direction, choose to take note – or not. We make those decisions, at least in part, by assessing the validity of the messenger. Is this person telling me about God rather than themselves? Could their message be relevant to me? What is its impact? Is there something I need to do or change?
Each one of us also has the potential to be the prophet in some circumstances and at some times. This isn’t about career ambition, prophet isn’t usually one of the tick boxes when exploring future job opportunities. But prophet is one of those opportunities that comes round if and when we become aware of the times when the spirit of God is upon us.
That might sound rather fanciful and perhaps even presumptuous. I’m not suggesting that any of us is called into a prophetic role that mirrors that of Isaiah or John the Baptist, but I am suggesting that there are opportunities for us to respond to the movement of the Spirit in our lives and to offer the small prods and nudges that can make a difference to the people we meet.
Isaiah’s words: ‘The Spirit of God is upon me…’ are echoed during our Eucharistic prayer when we seek just that blessing. ‘Send your Holy Spirit upon us…’. Send your Holy Spirit upon our bread and our wine that they might become the body and blood of your Son. Send your Holy Spirit upon us that we might also be transformed by grace and by gift.
But the transformation is not for its own sake. Its purpose is not to make us happier, or better, or more popular. The transformation can only be of God if it is about something more than that. We are transformed in order that we can then make a difference; in order that we can show something of God’s life giving love.
We do that by the ways that we witness in our day to day lives. We do that by the ways that we seek to listen to God’s word for us, here and now, in our own context. And we become prophetic voices when we find ways to share something of what we have learned and experienced with others.
What are we here for? One, perhaps partial, answer is that we are here to play our part in the sharing of the Good News, the life and mission of the church. We are here to discern God’s call on our lives and to find ways to respond to that call. We are here to invite the spirit of God to come upon us and to make clear to us the task we can undertake.
We are here not to draw attention to ourselves, but to draw attention to the one who calls us, who loves us, who gives us purpose and direction and who needs us to listen, to respond and to share.