My first property was an old house that I bought to let. But before I could rent it out, I had to get it up to legal standard. The previous owners had made it attractive. But over the years they had done some things on the cheap. I didn’t want to spend what was left of my savings on the place. But I had no choice, I had to have the house re-wired to make it conform to regulations – for example, underneath the sitting room there were ordinary extension leads running here and there, taking power up through the floor to more extension leads. It was a real fire hazard and had to be put right.
This is something like our lives. The foundations need to be in good nick for people to look at us and see Jesus. But we don’t always want to do the self-examination that’s necessary.
Think of climate change: for too long, some people have been saying there is no climate change, while most of us resist changing our lifestyles. There has been no honesty about the foundations of planet earth.
Or think of inequality: the world’s richest 1% own 50% of the world’s wealth. 800 million people go to bed hungry every night. The rich are so rich they could spare some of their billions and transform the lives of many. But no progress is made, because most do not want to look at the unfair foundations of the world’s economy.
Both climate change and inequality have led to many other problems. Nations fight over fewer resources, and millions flee their country looking for a safer place to live and raise a family.
Humans have always chosen to be blind to problems we don’t want to face. The world has always needed prophets who cry out, who are not afraid to call a spade a spade.
When John the Baptist began his preaching, he had been energised from the time he had spent with God in the stillness of the desert. He shouted to the crowds:
‘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.’
He sounded like a road builder, which he was. The road of people’s hearts had to be prepared for the coming Messiah.
John challenged weak foundations. He challenged church leaders, saying ‘Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God.’ To soldiers he said, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’ To tax collectors he said, ‘Collect no more than the amount due for you.’ All this was from God, building a good foundation for the road on which his Son would come.
A cowboy builder or a DIY person like myself will try to paper over cracks and hope they don’t show. In the kitchen of my buy-to-let house there was a very high ceiling, about 4 meters high. The house had originally been a flat over a stable, and the horse stalls had been converted into the kitchen.
Above the picture rail the walls and ceiling had been painted by the previous owner a very dark chocolate brown. If you got up on a ladder you could see holes in the plaster, large holes, almost fist size, where the plaster was crumbling and ready to fall down if you touched it. But from the floor looking up, because the ceiling was so dark, the holes were not visible. The previous owners had found a very clever way of covering up the rot. After I paid for the re-wiring, the last thing I wanted was to have to re-plaster the kitchen. So I continued the tradition - I repainted the ceiling a dark chocolate. I perpetuated the rot.
But real renewal of a property calls for thorough redecoration. We can only hide the cracks and structural weaknesses for so long. Eventually the truth about climate change has had to be told. We need more prophets calling for a more equal society. Good is stronger than evil.
God in his mercy has given the world prophets, because he affectionately knows our weakness. He continues to inspire prophets to speak out. There are those who listen to the prophets of our time, who wait expectantly, and who open the roads to their hearts. There may be another easier form of Christianity, but who would want to be a part of it?
God helps us put our lives right. Tell God we are sorry for saying things we shouldn’t. He will help us learn to give words of encouragement and hope. Tell God a family member or a work colleague winds us up and we want to be more able to cope. God will help us improve those relationships. Tell God we find it hard to share our toys or our money and we want to be more generous. God will help us do it.
Around Christmas time every year on TV in England there is a film of a short story by Charles Dickens called ‘A Christmas Carol.’ The main character in the story is Ebenezer Scrooge. He is an accountant. He is also a miser, who doesn’t pay a living wage to his employees. Three spirits visit Scrooge in one night and show him the reality of his life, especially that he will die one day and people will be glad he is gone. Scrooge has a change of heart, and he becomes generous towards his family and his employees.
We cannot put anything right until we see there is a problem. The Holy Spirit gently troubles us and prompts us to go in new directions. John the Baptist called people to a straight and level road, saying look at your lives, see those cracks and damp places and get them sorted out.
Because God asks two things of us in Advent: to wait with hope; and to prepare a good foundation, so that the King of glory may come in and give us hearts and minds like his.