Turn us again, O Lord God of hosts;/ Show the light
of thy countenance, and we shall be whole
It is, to my mind, a most
intriguing scene. It belongs to the beginning of John’s Gospel and yet
we read it at the end of the Christian year. It is the first scene in
his Gospel in which Jesus speaks. Quite apart from the miracle of
John’s Prologue, which speaks to us from the eternal heights of heaven, as
it were, and which we will hear at Christmas, “In the beginning was the
Word...”, this is the first scene in which Jesus comes out of the
background and into the foreground of our lives.
The prophetic finger of John the
Baptist has pointed him out, twice already; “Behold the Lamb of God”.
The first proclamation is followed by the Baptist’s profound reflection upon
the meaning of the one whom he sees and whom he has pointed out. The
second proclamation, “Behold the Lamb of God” is followed by Jesus
stepping out into the centre which he is and around which everything
revolves. The prophetic proclamation beholds an eternal truth - Jesus
Christ is the Lamb of God slain from before the foundation of the world -
and announces that eternal presence in our midst. He points him out to
us – “Behold the Lamb of God” - and in some sense the ministry of
John the Baptist is already fulfilled even as it seems it has only begun.
As he says in a related passage, Christ “must increase but I must
decrease”. He gives place to him who is “the Alpha and the
Omega” of our lives and who must have his increase in us.
The witness of John the Baptist
is all the more remarkable because it points to the Revelation of God in our
very midst. As he says, “I myself did not know him; but for this I
came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel”.
And again, “I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with
water said to me, He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is
he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit”.
John the Baptist came
“preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” but he
himself is not the forgiveness of sins. He prepares the way - the way
of our repentance - for the one who is the forgiveness of sins. He
prepares the way for the one who baptizes, not only with water, but also
with the Holy Spirit of God. Only God can forgive sins. John the
Baptist points to the one who is at once the Revelation and the Redemption
of Israel, indeed of all mankind. The fulfillment is altogether in
But there is no fulfillment
merely in naming our need. John the Baptist points to the Revelation
of God and the Redemption of mankind, but our salvation actually depends
upon God’s turning to us and our being turned to him. There is the
motion of God towards us and the motion of God within us. The whole
truth of our lives is about our coming to him who has come to us.
In a way, this gospel speaks
directly to the conflicts of our day in the contemporary church. The
conflict is between “existential Christianity”, on the one hand,
which argues that experience determines the truth of doctrine and
“essential Christianity”, on the other hand, which argues that doctrine
determines the truth of experience. The first is really a kind of
atheism since God has been collapsed into the human experience, for
instance, into the issues of the day, where only one point of view is
permitted and allowed. This absolutizing of the finite betrays the
Incarnation. With “existential Christianity”, there is really
no Word that addresses the human condition and redeems it. But here in
this gospel we see both the desire for that Word of redemption and the
miracle of its turning towards us. Only so can we be made whole, our
experience as grounded and measured in the teachings and presence of Christ.
Such is “essential Christianity” which emphasizes the priority of
doctrine in Scripture and Creed and which ultimately redeems us from the
tyranny of experience.
We come to the end of another
year of grace to take account of the quality of our being with him.
How well have we journeyed with Christ in this past year of grace? Not
what has happened to us simply, but what have we done in the face of every
circumstance? We come to an end only to find, perhaps, that we have
scarcely begun. And if so, what is there to do but begin again with
renewed intent? Or we come to an end only to find, perhaps, that we
have become mired all the more in our usual besetting sins, that there has
been no progress at all, no increase of grace in us, it seems, but only the
recognition of the greater darkness of our sins. And yet, to know that
and to feel compunction for it is itself an illuminating grace which
portends a greater and a renewed intent. What is to be done except to
For the year runs out in hope.
Advent is the season of hope, of our beginning again in him who has turned
to us so that we might turn again to him. It is signaled in the word
for this day: “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy
faithful people...”. This Sunday is commonly known as “Stir Up
Sunday” precisely on the strength of that big little word. A more
prosaic translation would have it as “excite”, but that is too
shallow, too much of the superficial and the sensual, to capture the greater
depths of meaning in the “stirring up” of the inmost desires of our
hearts, our being stirred up to faithfulness.
And if it should be that there
have been the mighty triumphs of grace over sin in your life, then God be
praised. But don’t stand still, begin again with him whose grace has
had its way with you. Come and see what more he has in store for you.
We can begin again because he has
turned to us. “Then, Jesus turned”. John the Baptist
points to Jesus who has his back to us. In the paradox of the Old
Testament, God is both revealed and not revealed, seen and unseen.
There is the passing-by of his glory as Moses is placed in the cleft of the
Rock; we see only the back of God. But “then Jesus turned”.
God turns to us and shows us his face in Jesus Christ. In that turning
we are stirred that we may be whole. God turns to us in Jesus Christ
so that he might speak to us face to face. His first utterance in
John’s Gospel is to ask a question, “What seek ye?”, the question
which signals the redemption of our desires.
Our seeking is our desiring, the
stirring up of our wills. Prayer articulates our desire for God.
It is totally our desire and yet it is also totally God’s desire in us.
Here Jesus’ question draws out our desires. Ultimately, our desire is
to be with God. “Master, where dwellest thou?” Prayer is
our desiring to be with God and prayer, too, is our abiding with him.
He has turned to us that he might dwell among us, “the Word made flesh”.
And Jesus’ first statement in
answer to this solicited question is “Come and see”. God’s
turning to us means our turning to him. It is our work and it is his
work in us, his stirring of us, if we will but let him. And such, too,
is our abiding in him who is our beginning and our end. Advent signals
the hope of our turning to him yet again in repentance and in joy, come what
may. “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful
people” complements the prayer of the Psalmist.
Turn us again, O Lord God of hosts;/
Show the light of thy countenance, and we shall be whole