But the first set of obstacles may be not with our structures but with ourselves – our attachment to the ‘normal’, whether old or new. In other words we need to address the things within us that stifle hope and desire for a better world. That’s the place to start. After all, John’s message is not just about God’s people traveling through the wilderness. It’s about God who will be on the march. It’s a time to clear the way. Perfect solutions can come later.
Advent 2009 – A World In Waiting
Week Two – A New Covenant
Day Six – A Place of Transition
‘In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor
Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of
Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his
brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and
Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during
the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the
word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the
wilderness. He went into all the region around the
Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for
the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book
of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh
shall see the salvation of God’ ”.’ Luke 3:1-6
The word of the Lord came to John in the wilderness. That may sound bleak and harsh. But the wilderness, for the people of Israel, evoked memories of their journey of liberation from bondage in Egypt and towards a new land. That is partly what Luke had in mind when the message he attributes to John is that of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3-5), which pictures the Lord himself leading his people back from exile in Babylon to their homeland. The wilderness, for God’s people, was not a place of refuge or retreat. Much less was it a place where they were meant to remain, however long their journey might be. It was a place of transition from one country to another, from one world to another. Might it be helpful to look at our present economic wilderness in that way – as a place of transition? In a place of transition there can be a strong pull – as the Hebrews on their journey from Egypt to the promised land knew – to want to go back to things as they were, to yearn for the order that was once known, flawed as it was. So with the present economic crisis – do we really simply want to go back, whether that is ‘the old normal’ or even ‘the new normal’ ? It is a temptation that is all the stronger given that there is as yet no real alternative on the horizon.
Being in a place of transition is a disturbing and disorienting experience. It is like a wilderness – unfamiliar territory, a barren landscape, exposed to the elements, deprived of the comforts we have taken for granted. All the more surprising, therefore, that Luke describes John’s work as being in accordance with the passage from Isaiah which begins with the words ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.’ (Isaiah 40:2). A strange comfort, perhaps, but one which says, in effect: It’s all right to be in this place – between two worlds, between the times. For here we are forced to ask questions about the world we used to know. And that can be a good thing. It can free us from forms of bondage that we may not even have known existed. In the wilderness the freedom that is available is largely negative rather than positive freedom – a freedom from. A freedom from fixed routines, pressures, pursuits, patterns of work and consumption. A freedom from old certainties and orthodoxies. A freedom from dependence on ‘essential’ consumer goods. That is, perhaps, one reason why John’s message is: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ Part of our job is to clear the way, to get rid of the obstacles to a new life, including the obstacles presented by our economic system.
And the first step is to try to identify what those obstacles are. What about the unjust structures, the inequalities, the perverse incentives, the false values? Some of the things we can do to remove obstacles are suggested in the other reflections offered in this second week of Advent: insisting on greater financial transparency, easing the bonds of debt, resisting the calls for economic protectionism. But the first set of obstacles may be not with our structures but with ourselves – our attachment to the ‘normal’, whether old or new. In other words we need to address the things within us that stifle hope and desire for a better world. That’s the place to start. After all, John’s message is not just about God’s people traveling through the wilderness. It’s about God who will be on the march. It’s a time to clear the way. Perfect solutions can come later.