The question put to John the Baptist is exactly the question put to us – ‘who are you, Christians?’ The only answer we can give is that we are a voice, not the word. That belongs to Jesus.
When called to give an account of himself, faced with those who say “Who are you?,” John the Baptist echoes the prophet Isaiah in describing himself as a voice crying out in the wilderness – “prepare the way of the Lord”. The wilderness of which he speaks is not just Bethany on the far side of the river Jordan, of which the Gospel speaks, because in fact the wilderness, the desert, and the voice is always and only in the desert. I’m not talking here about a physical desert, but rather a human desert. It is all around us. The prophet Isaiah says “good news to the poor”, well there is the poverty of the desert; broken hearts; captives; people in prison in all kinds of ways. This is the reality of the human desert in which we find ourselves even here in Brisbane.
The fact of the matter is we are not desert creatures. I learnt this years ago when I was in the Holy Land and I spent a week in the desert south of Jerusalem, the Negev desert. To survive in that region we had to drink 9 litres of water a day. We also had to eat very sweet and salty things in order to make ourselves thirsty in order to drink our quota. If we didn’t we wouldn’t survive so I needed no further proof to understand we are not desert creatures. We are made instead for the Garden – ‘paradise’ or ‘Eden’ which is our true home. It is this which we forget all too easily and which we recall here this Sunday as we move towards Christmas. It is because we have shown a preference for the desert; a preference for the darkness and finally for death, that we have exiled ourselves out of the Garden and into the desert. Yet there is not just the silence of the desert, there is also the voice that cries out ‘come home’ after first of all crying out ‘don’t forget where your true home is and where it lies.’ That home is not in the desert but in the Garden; not in the joylessness of the wilderness, because that is what the wilderness is – the home of joylessness and depression. Sometimes we can also think there is only the desert but that is a big mistake. You see the fact of the matter is God created us not for the desert, not for joylessness and the death that it brings. God created us to share his own ecstasy. That is the way God is and the home of God’s ecstasy is the Garden. Call it heaven or the kingdom if you wish, but I will call it the Garden. So the voice cries out ‘come back to the Garden, come back to joy.” You see joy is something which we cannot concoct for ourselves. We can concoct ‘fun’, and there is nothing wrong with fun, and we can also weave together something called ‘happiness’ but joy is of another depth and dimension and it can only come to us as a gift from the risen Christ. Only he knows what joy really is and only he can give it as a gift. And what is this joy? It is a strange thing, as Paul says in his letter to the Thessalonians which we have heard this morning – “rejoice at all times”. In another of his famous letters, to the Phillipians, he says “rejoice in the Lord always”…and “I want you to share my joy”. And here he is writing from prison. How can you rejoice in a prison? I see it is because this thing we call joy doesn’t depend on circumstances; on how comfortable you are, what house you live in, what car you drive, what kind of food and drink you eat and so on. It is something which you can experience always and anywhere. No matter how grim the circumstances you are not cut off from this thing called ‘joy’. Joy belongs to the risen Christ because once he is risen from the dead they can’t do anything more to him. They tried everything. From the moment he was born Herod stalks him and finally they string him up brutally on a cross and he dies miserably. They put him in a tomb and think that’s taken care of. We finally did it. Then he bounces back cosmically in what we call the Resurrection and the lamb, once slain, lives now forever. They can’t do anything further to Jesus. Now for those who are in him, and we are as Christians who bear his name, then we are invincible with his invincibility. They can do all kinds of things to us – they have and they will, yet finally and beyond all that the power of the risen Christ himself will vindicate us, keep us safe and save. That’s the truth of the Christian life. We are invincible in the invincibility of Christ and you are seeing it now in the Middle East. Christians are being slaughtered. Why? Because they believe the truth that I have just spoken.
Historically Easter came long before Christmas. It was only after 2 or 3 centuries the Christians began to celebrate Christmas as they came to a more human sense of who God was and what it meant for God to take flesh among us. Yet in those early times it was really only Easter that was celebrated, and in one sense Christmas is all about Easter. The baby is born and that is a wondrous thing, but the baby is born to die. The man, Jesus, dies only to be risen from the dead. So Christmas and Easter are two parts of one fantastic mystery, one great fact, and the fact is that Jesus is the first to make it home to ‘paradise’ or the Garden. Of course where he has gone we are called to follow. He is, as St Paul says, the firstborn from the dead, but he’s not the only one. His mother is the second home to the Garden, and that’s what the Assumption means. We are called to follow them back home to the Garden of God’s ecstasy.
So I ask you, the Church of Jesus Christ on this rejoicing Sunday, who are you? Give me your answer. The question put to John the Baptist is exactly the question put to us – ‘who are you, Christians?’ The only answer we can give is that we are a voice, not the word. That belongs to Jesus. We are merely the voice that carries the word and we stand in the wilderness of this world as ones who have heard the call to come home and know there is a way. We stand as ones who echo what we have heard by calling the whole world to leave behind the woes of the wilderness, the desert and its death, and to come home to the Garden for which we were created. Amen
Most Rev Mark Coleridge
Archbishop of Brisbane