Luke 3:1-20 John the Baptist Prepares the Way
"A voice of one calling in the desert,
'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth.
And all humankind will see God's salvation.' "
During this season of Advent we are particularly aware of the coming of Christ into our lives, the breaking in of the Word of God into our society – to denounce, disrupt, challenge but also to bring hope: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done”.
In the Scripture readings for Advent the most outstanding person is John the Baptist – a forthright and radical prophet calling for repentance from sin; advocating just economics of sharing; subverting the claims of state, of nation, and tribe; announcing the imminent appearance of a greater prophet than he. He was jailed by the authorities for openly criticising their leading figures. It is this prophet who announces with authority the coming birth of Jesus.
As Luke's account makes plain, it is John the prophetic radical, agitating among the masses of ordinary people in the wilderness, whose mission anticipates that of Jesus. Luke goes to a lot of trouble to list all the existing people in offices of power in the state and in the temple at that time. But he does so only to point out that, by sharp contrast, Jesus' project is heralded in the desert, in the wilderness - outside of all those centres of power. He is an outspoken critic of the status quo who is jailed for his efforts: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done”.
As we prepare to celebrate Jesus' birth, let us not overlook the extraordinary features of this 'kingly' birth – an unmarried virgin mother, who is forced to travel because those in power wanted to know how many people were under their control; the announcement to lowly shepherds in the fields and a trio of wise men from afar, of the birth they are privileged to witness, in animals' stable because Mary and Joseph could not find a decent shelter.
It is from outside the proud corridors of power that John prepares for the Advent of Jesus with a clear Jubilee message – a message echoed throughout the gospel. The valleys are filled, the mountains are flattened out, and that which is crooked is made straight. This is not environmental restructuring, but a social restructuring, restoration and levelling, to bring God’s plan into action. It makes clear that the powerful and rich of society derive benefit from the systems of power, but also that these are maintained at the expense of the poor: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done”.
The profit motif of these systems is at odds with the community of restoration and common life that the early followers of Jesus established in their endeavours to “make the paths straight”. We read of this community in the Acts of the Apostles:
Acts Ch 2, v42 - 47:
They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.... All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.
The season of Advent requires of us that we too scan or search the wilderness for our own prophetic signs that guide us to spaces where we discover the presence of God made flesh. However, unlike the prophets, the shepherds and the wise men, we are not simply called to witness. We are Christians, followers of Christ by living in faithfulness to the whole mystery of Jesus' birth, life, death and resurrection.
For us then 'truth' is no longer just a matter of scientific or empirical fact. Truth now is living and acting in this world, certain in the knowledge that Christ is risen, that Christ has inaugurated the kingdom of God and that is why we pray: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done”.
Surveying our own Advent landscape in KwaZulu-Natal in 2009 for prophetic signs, we are compelled to call for repentance, for the paths to be made straight. The contours and content of the sins of our times are mapped out in the struggles of ordinary people against the forces of oppression or even death:
* in the struggles of the small-scale traders of the Durban Market in the Warwick Triangle. These traders are trying to defend and maintain an economy that sustains families and makes fresh produce accessible to many poor people, against a proposed mega-shopping mall. City authorities seem by their actions to show contempt for the lives of the traders and their families, as they act in the interests of the economically powerful. This is yet another ‘development’ that will be paid for by the poor – by the destruction of their means of livelihood and the trampling of their rights and dignity.
* in the struggle of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the shack-dwellers' movement. This popular movement is defending its right to organise and speak for itself, outside of the apparatus and coercive culture of political parties and the state. It has called for land and housing to be made available within the city. By doing so it has exposed corruption and mismanagement in the allocation of houses. Since September 2009, when the Kennedy Road settlement was attacked by armed and organised vigilantes, the political elites have brought a horrifying wave of violence upon the movement, including forced evictions, targeted destruction of homes, and death threats against its leaders.
In all of these instances, an unholy but, by now characteristic, alliance of profit seeking economic elites and elements in the governing party are implicated in a broader project of elite enrichment and accumulation. And as we look ahead to the coming year, perhaps the 2010 FIFA World Cup will turn out to be the most emblematic instance of this project.
Already, the unfolding logic of this mega-event reveals an elite- and corporate-dominated agenda with disastrous consequences for the poor and the marginalised. In a country with worsening inequality and desperate backlogs of the basic necessities of human life, resources are being diverted to overblown stadia and the like; where the sexual abuse and exploitation of women and young people is rampant, the authorities propose relaxing the regulation of prostitution in the interests of the male foreign visitor/investor; where our cities already constitute hostile terrains in the desperate struggle for survival of the poor, we pursue a diabolical vision of the 'world class' city that must sweep them aside so they are removed, invisible and silent; where street trading provides an economic toe-hold for poor people, we undermine and remove them 'regulating' and policing the sector to the benefit of the big corporates.
We should not be fooled by the description of this event as 'development', which will also benefit the poor. For us it is quite simply another project that will reproduce current economic patterns which deepen poverty and inequality.
Democracy should mean that everyone counts, that the participation of ordinary people is paramount. What we are seeing is the criminalising and undermining of actions aimed at affirming democracy.
But the above instances of social sin of our time, lead us to question the type of democracy that we are developing if it regards the poor as little more than a vote bank, to be invested in only when there is a opportunity for a high return in the power stakes.
For us then, the struggles of grassroots poor people, organised into properly democratic movements, and speaking for themselves, are our prophetic voice telling us all the truth of the situation we are all in. They mark out the substance of our contemporary sin from which we must repent, and they are our sacramental opportunity of grace and transformation towards the Kingdom of God. As Christians we participate as co-workers in the kingdom of God by taking sides and taking action in support of those struggles. And in that work of establishing the Kingdom of God, lies our hope: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done”.
This statement is released in the name of the KwaZulu Natal Church Leaders Group, with the specific endorsement of the following church leaders and ecumenical agencies:
Bishop Rubin Phillip, Diocese of Natal, Anglican Church of Southern Africa; Chair of KwaZulu-Natal Church Leaders Group
Cardinal Wilfred Napier, Catholic Archdiocese of Durban
Bishop P. P. Buthelezi, South-Eastern Diocese, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa
Graham Philpott, Church Land Programme
Bishop Mike Vorster, Methodist Church of Southern Africa
Ms Nomabelu Mvambo-Dandala, Executive Director : Diakonia Council of Churches
Revd Phumzile Zondi-Mabizela, CEO: KZN Christian Council
Ms Daniela Gennrich, Director: PACSA (Pietermaritzburg Agency For Christian Social Awareness)