Thursday 3 December 2009

Advent themes: prophetic in-sight

high street advent shops

Walking down the High Street in Lincoln my attention was drawn to this interesting tableau of meaning. What do you make of what you see here? Having stopped and looked at the image how does it then play out in your imagination? The composition is rich in the purple, violet and blue hues of Advent colour and this palette is suggestive of hidden spiritual meanings in plain view, the sort of device Dan Brown might employ in his writing. To those in the know the colour scheme opens up a doorway into an alternative worldview; one of expectation, judgement, challenge, subversion and revolutionary opposition to the authority of the ruling elite – the hallmarks of prophetic authenticity. Strong stuff indeed, and incited in the mind by the simple association of the thing seen to a radical set of ideas and beliefs. From a particular combination of colours one is inspired to appropriate action.

Anyone stopping and listening to John the Baptist may have experienced a similar associative process going on in their minds too. What they saw and heard would have evoked into consciousness a set of powerful meanings hidden deep within the identity of the Jewish people. The context of John’s prophetic witness in St Luke’s gospel leaves no room for doubt:

It was now the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius, the Roman emperor. Pontius Pilate was governor over Judea; Herod Antipas was ruler over Galilee; his brother Philip was ruler over Iturea and Traconitis; Lysanias was ruler over Abilene. Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests. At this time a message from God came to John son of Zechariah, who was living in the wilderness.   (Luke 3:1-2)

This passage drips with power and oppressive domination. And it is here that the colours of John’s words and actions are seen in plain view. And as they are the old meanings come alive with radical power. The longed-for freedom, justice and peace are unlocked from the deep heritage and self-identity of John’s own people, as shaped, incited and informed by the Hebrew prophets of old. Through John the Baptist the likes of Micah and Isaiah speak with renewed vigour and re-imagined potency. The dazzling spectrum of God’s rainbow promises in Scripture strikes home forcefully. People rush to hear the newly popular prophet and his unfashionably demanding message, which is beginning to set a new trend. In the minds of individuals too fresh hope is born as they come to their senses and realise their need of God, many perhaps for the first time. Expectation reaches fever pitch. The prophetic is in sight and within reach at last.

advent themes prophetic insights copy

So bearing all of this in mind what prophetic in-sight do we discern as we return to our High-Street Advent image? I am struck by the closed down and empty shop in the left of frame. What looks like illumination from within is soon seen to be only the reflections of street lights on the opposite side of the road. The space behind the door seems cold, abandoned and out of place, a dissonant note which jars amidst the full chords of brightness and bustle elsewhere along the busy street. The locked door denies access and the obscured glass keeps the interior from view.  There is nothing here for us. Thinking of John the Baptist how might this be prophetic? Does it represent those things about us which are empty and life-denying? Can we see here his call to change ourselves for the better? Is this a harsh reminder of the precarious nature of life and society, a portent of the uncertainty and suffering  which is never far away? Or does the emptiness speak of the needs of others as well as our own, and does it remind us of God’s promise of fulfilment for all - and as such is it then a call to action on our part? And with what prophetic meaning does this part of the image challenge the churches?

And what of the window dressing, itself a term often used pejoratively for that which distracts or misleads because it bears little relation to the substantive realities inside? Might we be encouraged to think of all the things in life which waylay and entice us, even harm and hurt us? There was certainly no mistaking this aspect in John’s prophetic witness. Alternatively we could find ourselves drawing comparisons to the good things of God and lives of real meaning and purpose displayed upfront throughout the Bible and amongst people of faith today. Might these attract our attention and cause us to stop and see how this divine designer-wear might fit us too? Might such window dressing lead us beyond and through our doubts and denials into the substantive reality of God’s loving presence?

And of course without an open door into a personal faith-space where God can be encountered and we can be transformed and transforming as people, we will remain shut out from the realities to which John the Baptist witnesses. So many messages in contemporary life seem to shut the door on God. Religion can so easily be made out to be closed down and empty with nothing on offer or worth having. Sometimes our window dressing is decidedly off-putting; fashions appear to be from a different bygone age, little thought is sometimes given to presentation and content, or the care which might be needed in order to  attract passers-by in the first place. Yet the substantive truths about God’s love as we encounter them in Jesus are always exactly what we most need to enter into and own for ourselves if we are to discover what it means to be made in the image of God. God’s love is warm and inviting; to step inside it is to find treasures beyond imagining. But each of us has to choose to cross the threshold and explore it for ourselves. And of course to be explored by it, which is the prophetic, life-changing edge to John’s words and actions in the desert. Grace is free but discipleship is costly. Going through the open door is to indwell the Message and become its prophetic messengers too.

There was a lot more of this—words that gave strength to the people, words that put heart in them. The Message! 

(Luke 3:18)


  1. Fantastic Post Dave - I love the juxtaposition of the contrasting images and the way you have drawn out the meanings. Keep pointing us to the open door!