Sermon by Fr Neil Traynor on 17th December 2017 - Advent 3

Art thou the prophet?

And they asked him – who art thou then?  Art thou the prophet?
Today, unusually, we have a collision of themes and, particularly, music.  For, we have firstly there is the introit proper for today – Gaudete, Gaudete, Christus est natus, ex Maria Virgine (Rejoice, Rejoice, Christ is born of Mary) (cf Steeleye Span); then the great ‘O Antiphons’, best known through the Advent carol: O Come O Come Emmanuel; and thirdly we have the great verse anthem by Orlando Gibbons; This is the Record of John.

The seven Advent ‘O’ antiphons – verses sung before and after the Magnificat at evening prayer -  draw together old testament titles and prophecies, and are a kind of a Christmas wish list.  Not a wish-list of i-phones, computers or earthly things, but of:
O Sapientia - The way of prudence
O Adonai:  Deliverance
O Clavis David:  The release of prisoners
O Oriens:  Light to those who sit in darkness
O Rex Gentium:  salvation of mankind
O Emmanuel:  salvation of Israel
O Virgo Virginum:  The coming of God
These are desires not just of one person, but of whole communities, watching and waiting for the promised saviour.

Our first reading of Moses and the burning bush links us directly with the O Antiphon for today: “O Adonai, leader of the house of Israel, who appeared in a bush to Moses in a flame of fire and gave him the law in Sinai; Come and deliver us with an outstretched arm.”  It is well to remember that we only know as much about God, as God has revealed to us.  And those revelations, these continuing glimpses of God, are refracted through the lens of the successive prophets.  Just as light passing through a prism makes each of the colours of light visible but separate, so are we only able to see glimpses of God, but as though through a glass darkly.

And each of the Old Testament prophets reflects just a portion of God.  It was, and for some still is, the hope of Israel that the prophet will come to redeem the nations of the world.  As the days to Christmas come nearer, the O Antiphons make this increasingly clear that though the law was given to Moses, this salvation is for the whole of the world.

And so, in our Gospel we have the plaintive cry – ‘Art thou the prophet?’, together with its definitive answer of ‘No!’.

John the Baptist is a key person in our salvation history.  He is both the first and the last - one might say, the omega and the alpha – the last of the Old Testament Prophets, and also the one who first recognised Christ as the Messiah.

At John’s birth, his father, Zechariah, sang the Benedictus, the canticle used at morning prayer, beginning “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.”  It ends with one of those magnificent lines with which the Advent Season is peppered:
Through the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us
to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Both John and Christ together are prophesied in Malachi, in one of those texts that Handel set to music, in such a way that I at least find it difficult to read without hearing the music: 
“Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts.”

John is variously the dayspring, the messenger, the preparer of the way.  We should also not forget his filial ties.  This is, at one and the same time, both an event which is for the whole of the world, past, present and future; but also an intimate family event too.

This is God working at both the micro and the macro scale simultaneously.  No detail in the big picture is too small to be noticed, and each is connected to the other.

And so, one might well ponder on who John is.  As he himself says,
I am the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord”.

For, out the wilderness of the world, John comes to light the way of Christ, preparing the way and lighting our path to salvation.  Then, shall the one – the great I AM -  who appeared to the shepherd Moses in the burning bush, be announced to other shepherds on another hillside, not as a conqueror, but as a baby.
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