There is a lovely road behind our cottage. It is a back road that takes you past the old barn (where they recently filmed the latest re-make of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’), through gorgeous farmland and woodland (where you often see the local Hunt out riding, or a Pheasant Shoot taking place), along by the old Swannery (the world’s only managed colony of mute swans) and the 14th century St Catherine’s Chapel (where single ladies still go today to pray for a husband), and into the beautiful village of Abbotsbury (steeped in centuries of history). Until recently, however, this road has been virtually impassable. In recent years it had deteriorated alarmingly. Huge potholes had appeared, sections of the road were liable to flooding, and temporary repairs had only succeeded in creating huge mounds in the middle of the road in various places that would rip the exhaust system off your car if you were foolish enough to drive over them. Although this back road had been our favourite route into Abbotsbury, we had stopped using it. While we away in Paris for two weeks early in November, however, the local council finally did something about it. We returned to find that all the potholes had been filled properly, the huge bumps in the road flattened, the areas liable to flooding levelled, and virtually the whole length of the road re-surfaced, so that we can now travel along it safely and enjoyably.
This coming Sunday is the Third Sunday in Advent. Traditionally on this particular Sunday the Church thinks about the ministry of John the Baptist as ‘The Forerunner’. A ‘forerunner’ is a somewhat ancient term, defined in the dictionary as ‘one who goes before and indicates the approach of another’. It was used in days gone by to describe the work of a herald who rode ahead, to a particular town or place, to announce the imminent arrival of a King. Thus the Lectionary Reading for the Gospel for the Third Sunday in Advent this year (as for the Second Sunday) relates to the ministry of John the Baptist once again: ‘God sent a man, John the Baptist, to tell about the light so that everyone might believe because of his testimony. John himself was not the light; he was simply a witness to tell about the light. The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world … This was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders sent priests and Temple assistants from Jerusalem to ask John, “Who are you?” He came right out and said, “I am not the Messiah.” “Well then, who are you?” they asked. “Are you Elijah?” “No,” he replied. “Are you the Prophet we are expecting?” “No.” “Then who are you? We need an answer for those who sent us. What do you have to say about yourself?” John replied in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “I am a voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘Clear the way for the Lord’s coming!'” Then the Pharisees who had been sent asked him, “If you aren’t the Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet, what right do you have to baptize?” John told them, “I baptize with water, but right here in the crowd is someone you do not recognize. Though his ministry follows mine, I’m not even worthy to be his slave and untie the straps of his sandal.” This encounter took place in Bethany, an area east of the Jordan River, where John was baptizing.’ (John 1:6-8, 19-28 NLT)
I particularly like the way the New Living Translation draws out that aspect of John the Baptist’s ministry as being a powerful prophetic voice speaking God’s Word to the people of his day with real power and authority (that we looked at on the Second Sunday in Advent), and immediately combines it with that other key aspect of his ministry – pointing away from himself to Jesus Christ. As we read here: “I am a voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘Clear the way for the Lord’s coming!'” (v.23)! Here we see John the Baptist’s role as being, in one respect at least, that of a Herald. His role was not just to be the ‘disturbing voice of God’ in order to shake people up out of their spiritual apathy and indifference (as we saw on the Second Sunday in Advent), but it was also to prepare the way for the Lord. We can picture in our mind’s eye, an ancient herald approaching a town, perhaps on market day, with the main street thronged with people and crowded with stalls, all blocking the path of King on his way to the castle or manor where he would be staying. We can imagine him blowing a loud blast on his trumpet and in a ringing voice announcing the imminent arrival of the King. This gave the people the opportunity to remove the obstacles and clear the way for the King so that he had smooth passage into their town. In much the same way we can envisage John the Baptist as the Herald of Christ, with his loud ringing prophetic voice (rather than a trumpet), announcing the imminent arrival of King Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, the King of kings! His role as Herald was to prepare the way for Jesus to enter unobstructed into the place his hearers inhabited, and where Jesus was intent on taking up residence.
Back in the late 1970s, when I was an Associate at the Gospel Tabernacle in Slough, where W T H Richards was the Senior Pastor, there was a very jolly Christian woman who was a member of the church, named Audrey Dellow. She was a very fine musician and quite often played the organ at the Royal Chapel in Windsor for Sunday Morning Worship, as well as playing the organ in the Gospel Tabernacle at our Sunday Evening Gospel Service. I once remarked to her that surely this was ‘Going from the sublime to the ridiculous?’ to which she replied, with a laugh, that actually it was ‘Going from the ridiculous to the sublime!’ As well as being an excellent musician, Audrey displayed a remarkable talent for reaching other people for Christ. She was a gifted personal evangelist who had a seemingly natural winsome ability to get alongside people and talk to them about Jesus in a way that affected them deeply in such a way that many made a genuine commitment of their lives to Christ. The Gospel Tabernacle was numerically a large church in those days, with a congregation of around 500-600 people. W T H Richards told me one day that, in his estimation, Audrey had been God’s instrument in winning at least half of them to Christ and bringing them into the church?
Stories about Audrey abound. I don’t think I ever saw her in church without someone she had brought along to the Service with her. One Sunday, when I was preaching, she brought along about a dozen choirboys from the Royal Chapel, Windsor … and three of them committed their lives to Christ that night! If she had not managed to persuade someone to come to church with her in advance, she would drive around in her car looking for someone to invite. Apparently one evening she saw a couple of youths standing around on a street corner. Imagine their surprise when suddenly a VW Beetle pulls up alongside them, a rather jolly, plump middle-aged woman (complete with hat on her head) jumps out and says, ‘Hey! Are you two doing anything tonight?’ They were so shocked at being propositioned in such way, that before they knew it they were in her car and on their way to church … and one of them committed his life to Christ that night! She even joined the Slough ‘Lonely Hearts Club’ on one occasion. They all went round the circle saying why they were lonely, When they got to Audrey she confessed that actually she wasn’t that lonely after all, since she had come to know Jesus as her Saviour and Friend, but since they were lonely she thought she would come and tell them about Jesus? One lady started coming to the church as a result, and she also came to know Jesus for herself … and found a husband as well (but that is another story)?
Now not everybody is a gifted personal evangelist like Audrey Dellow … and, furthermore, I don’t believe that we are all called to be ‘evangelists’. It is clear that the ‘gift’ of being an ‘evangelist’ is indeed a gift of the Risen and Ascended Christ to his Church (Ephesians 4:7-13), but that gift is at the discretion of Christ and is not given to every Christian. Perhaps, like me, you have suffered down through the years, through hearing countless sermons and talks on the subject of ‘Winning Others to Christ’ which have simply condemned us for not winning lots of other people to Christ, made us feel worse rather than better, and loaded us with guilt? But whilst we are not all called, as Christians, to be ‘evangelists’, we are all called to be ‘witnesses’. Amongst Jesus’ final words to his disciples was the exhortation: ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere’ Acts 1:8).
To be a ‘witness’ means ‘to bear testimony’ to the genuineness of something or someone – in this case to bear testimony to the Person and Work of the Lord Jesus Christ. To openly ‘confess’ Christ to others – in life and word. We don’t have to do this is a ‘preachy’ way? We don’t have to ‘corner people’ and ‘beat them over the head with a Bible’? We can do this in an honest, genuine, winsome, attractive, meaningful way! Luke tells us that it was because the Early Church essentially ‘walked the walk’ as well as ‘talked the talk’ that they ‘enjoyed they enjoyed the good will of all the people, and each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved’ (Acts 2:47).
At its simplest, ‘bearing witness’ to Jesus means ‘being a herald’ for Jesus. It means endeavouring to play our part in ‘preparing the way’ or ‘clearing the road’ for Jesus to find his way into the hearts and lives of other people. In some ways we could perhaps be a bit more proactive in seeking to draw people in. I think of ‘Teatime Rita’ (which was my ‘nickname’ for her), a girl in my home church back in the 60s who used to invite various friends and acquaintances round for ‘tea’ on a Sunday … and then bring them to church with her in the evening. I know quite a few who came to know Jesus for themselves as a result of Rita’s ‘ministry’. I think of a nine year old boy I knew, who was so concerned about the people who lived in his village, that he wrote a personal letter to each of them, telling them of Jesus and inviting them to the local chapel. Perhaps it was because the invitation came from a nine year old, but many of them came … and some stayed. I think of an elderly, widowed, Christian lady I know who is warm and friendly and chats to everyone. Her ‘mission field’ is her large front garden. Perhaps it is because people feel sorry for her, being on her own, but they often stop for a chat when she is working in her garden. She usually invites them in ‘for a cup of tea’ … and it is amazing how the conversation over the tea table so often turns to the things of Christ?
Of course ‘preparing the way’ for Jesus is more basic than even this. The basic ‘Commission’ Jesus Christ left us with is not initially to ‘Go and Make Disciples’ (Matthew 28:18-20) but to ‘Be Salt and Light’ (Matthew 5:13-16). As individual Christians, and as Church, we have to ‘earn the right to be heard’! John Wesley’s advice to ‘Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can!’ is good advice we all need to take on board. As Church we need to engage with the local community in ways that make a real difference. Food Banks, Debt Counselling, Pre-Schooling, Mothers and Tots (or whatever you want to call it), Parenting and Marriage Courses, Sheltering the Homeless … the opportunities and the challenges are endless. Whichever way you look at it we really do have to ‘walk the walk’ if people are to listen to us ‘talk the talk’! And by engaging with people in this way, we prepare a way, clear a path, build a road for Jesus to enter into the hearts and lives of others in a meaningful and significant way. It isn’t easy work … but it is so worthwhile!
Road building is rough work
hard labour, muscles strained
hands calloused, back near breaking
even with lifting gear, hard hat, protective boots.
Site clearance is dirty work
removing rotten structures,
risking unsafe ground
uncovering long-forgotten corruption,
the stink too strong to breathe
of waste and dereliction.
God you cry out to us
to clear the site, build the road
because you are coming
and you will come
along the road we build.
Give your people, we pray
the will and stamina for the job.
Give us the courage, to tackle the clearance
of debt and exploitation
which corrupt communities and nations.
Give us the grit and determination
to straighten out the crooked structures
which make it hard for the poor and the weak
to journey to freedom –
And help us to shout aloud that you will come
along the road we build.
~ Heather Pencavel