A Pastor in a certain Baptist Church I know of, was greatly annoyed by one of his elderly members who fell asleep during his sermons every Sunday. After the service one day, the Pastor said to the old man’s grandson (who always sat with his grandfather), ‘If you can keep the old man awake, I’ll pay you £2 a week.’ This worked for two weeks; the old man was very alert and listened to the sermons attentively. On the third Sunday, however, there he was, up to his old tricks again, sound asleep in the pew. After the service the Pastor called the boy over and said, ‘I am disappointed in you. Didn’t I promise you £2 a week to keep your grandfather awake?’ ‘Yes,’ replied the boy, ‘but Grandpa gives me £5 not to disturb him.’ All too often we are like Grandpa. We don’t like being disturbed. We enjoy living in an atmosphere of quiet contentment. We don’t want anyone or anything rocking our boat. We like stability in our lives. For the most part, as long as everything is going reasonably well and we are not being affected to much by what is going on around us, we just want to be left alone.
Traditionally, the theme for the Third Sunday in Advent is ‘The God Who Disturbs’, and we often look at the role of John the Baptist – in many ways the last in the line of what we might call the Old Testament Prophets – in preparing the way for the Advent or Coming of Jesus Christ. John was Jesus’ cousin (just a few months older than Jesus himself) and we first hear of him in the birth narratives of Jesus (Luke 1 and 2). Like Jesus himself, John doesn’t really burst on the scene until some 30 years later when he appears ‘out of the blue’ so to speak – a disturbing character with a disturbing message. Matthew tells us that he emerged from living in the desert, wearing rough clothing (camel skin), eating weird food (locusts and honey), calling one and all to repent and turn back to God (Matthew 3:1-12). John’s message culminated in pointing to Jesus as God’s long awaited Messiah – ‘the Lamb of God who will take away the world’s sin’ (John 1:29).
The effect was amazing with hundreds of people – even some from amongst those trapped in institutional religion – turning back to God and demonstrating this by being baptised. Ultimately, of course, John’s disturbing ministry backfired on him – it upset the wrong people – and led to his untimely death (Matthew 14:1-12). John’s message, however, was not John’s message but God’s message – John himself was simply the mouthpiece. It was not John the Baptist who disturbed people but his God – ‘the God who disturbs’!
I am reminded of a picture God put into my mind some time ago. I saw a lovely village out in the country somewhere (imagine the Cotswolds, perhaps) with cottages, church, pub, a few shops all gathered around the village pond. It all looked very tranquil and pleasant until you realised that the pond was lifeless, soulless, with no waterlilies, etc. and no ducks or geese. It was stagnant. And then along came a man with a big stick, a long staff of some kind or another – he was clearly someone of importance in the village, perhaps the local Squire or Mayor – and he pushed the big stick down into the centre of the pond, right to the very bottom, and began to stir it all up. All sorts of rubbish began to float to the surface as he kept on stirring things up. If anything the pond looked even worse than before. The villagers began to complain that their tranquillity was being disturbed (even though it was the peace of death) but the man kept on stirring things up. When all the rubbish that had been killing the pond for years was finally brought to the surface the man had it all collected and removed … and slowly but surely the pond came back to life with plants growing in and around the pond and wildlife re-inhabiting the whole area.
Although in Advent we centre our thoughts on and around the birth of Jesus, we cannot really separate his birth from the rest of his life and ministry. Sadly, some people never seem to get beyond the ‘baby Jesus’ stage. Mark tells us that, following the imprisonment of John the Baptist, Jesus himself burst on the scene, also as an itinerant preacher, declaring an equally disturbing message: ‘The kingdom of God is now here … turn back to God … believe the good news!’ (Mark 1:14,15). For the Apostle John, Jesus more-or-less also began this public ministry by deliberately going into the Temple Courts and causing a major disturbance, driving out the traders and money-lenders misusing this sacred space to take advantage of the poor, vulnerable and needy (John 2:13-22).
This is what happening today – not only in the Church, but in society, right around the world. Covid and its associated troubles are just one example of what is going on. There is definitely a disturbing presence in the air. Whilst we must be careful not to draw a negative theology from a positive i.e. God is not the author of Covid (if anything, humankind has brought this and many other of our troubles upon ourselves through our selfishness, materialism, greed, and neglect of God and our fellow human beings) he is undoubtedly using these disturbing days to bring all kind of muck to the surface – in government, industry, the city, society in general, the Church, and the world – so that it can be dredged away and new life come forth. Above all, he is (as he did 2,000 plus years ago with John the Baptist) calling us to look with new eyes to Jesus Christ – ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29).
When I was a child back in the late 1940s and early 1950s we did not have television but we did have radio. One of the most popular radio programmes of the day was The Billy Cotton Band Show on a Sunday lunchtime. It always began with Billy Cotton’s trademark catch phrase, ‘Wakey! Wakey!’ Did he really think we were all still asleep at that time, it being a Sunday? Well, amongst the myriad of messages that God is seeking to communicate to us all during this Advent/Christmas Season, one of them is surely ‘Wake up! It is ‘time to smell the coffee’ (as our American friends say). Time to take a good look at what is going on around us – in our world, in our country, in society in general … in our own lives perhaps! Time to look again at the true meaning of Christmas!