Sermon Advent 3
During Advent we don’t yet celebrate the birth of Jesus. We await the arrival of the Messiah. Capitalist culture isn’t very good at waiting. It wants us to buy stuff now and feel a hit of excitement when we make a purchase. Our culture of consumerism wants to extend Christmas for as long as possible starting as soon as possible. Buy more stuff and feel good about it so that you will buy even more stuff! That’s what the secular Christmas of consumerism is all about. It doesn’t have much of anything to do with Jesus. But let us not be seduced by consumerism or other secular Christmas expectations. Rather, let’s pay attention to Advent.
Part of Advent preparation is to understand why the world needed a saviour at all. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, was needed because something was wrong with the world. Sometimes the world feels so dark and sometimes God just seems absent.
The prophet Isaiah and his people suffered from systemic political oppression and violence. Empire after empire conquered Israel. Isaiah waited for the day that God “would tear open the heavens and come down” to set things right. And sometimes people today feel like Isaiah, that God is somewhere out there, up in the sky, and so absent from here. Sometimes it feels so dark. [i]
“A man came, sent by God. His name was John. He came as a witness, to speak for the light.”
This Sunday again focuses on this person called John and a question continues – who are you? This is the question being asked in the early Christian communities. Who was John? What was he doing? How can we understand his mission and his connection to the mission of Jesus? The questioners put to him names of key Jewish figures who were expected to come in the final days before a longed for new age. “The Christ” is a Greek translation of the Hebrew title, “The Messiah”. They hoped for a descendant of King David who was expected by many to restore the physical kingdom or empire of David. Elijah was one of the great prophets who was said to have been taken to heaven in a fiery chariot and would return at the end time. “The Prophet” refers to a promise made to Moses that God would raise up in the future, a prophet like Moses to lead the people out of oppression to freedom in a promised land. Some thought John fitted one of these hoped for figures. But John turns down these roles.
John knows his place in the scheme of things. He humbly attests that there is another, even greater, who is coming. This is part of John’s greatness, to know and accept the particular role for him in the Realm of God. For some people this can take years of searching and pondering to find one’s role. As Christmas draws near, may it be a time of reflection for us on the particular gifts we have and what particular way we may extend God’s Realm.[ii]
The Fourth Gospel states clearly that John was not the light but was sent from God to testify to the light. His role was to cry out in the wilderness, “make straight the way of the Lord.” When we read the Fourth Gospel on its own terms we see that John baptises with water then we might expect him to say “but one coming after me baptises with the Holy Spirit” as in the Synoptics. But instead, John says, “I baptise with water; but here is one among you whom you do not recognise.” In John we see Jesus who is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” [iii]
Let us not be demoralised by our small numbers or advancing age. Remember the people referred to in the reading from Isaiah. After decades of intimidation, war and the destruction of Jerusalem and then captivity by the Babylonians, every aspect of the personal and social life of the Israelites was in shambles. They were demoralized and resigned to their hopeless circumstances. But, the preacher feels called by the Lord God to make a startling promise: in short, God will reverse every hopeless aspect of their lives. The people of God will re-build their beloved City of Jerusalem out of the ruins in which they now live and many of the lesser cities, too. These people of despair will come to be known as “the planting of the Lord.” Why will God do these things? “For I the Lord love justice….” As reliably as a garden returning after a barren season, “the Lord will cause righteousness to spring up….”
St Paul told the Christians in Thessalonica to rejoice, pray, give thanks. Do not restrict the Spirit of God when God does the unexpected. Let the Spirit of God flow where it will. Although we never know exactly when or where or how God’s justice will re-assert itself, (just as we never know precisely when it will rain), we announce and work for God’s justice, taking for granted that the parched river bed will once again babble and gush with water. Be alert for “messianic time.” Live by “messianic time.” “The Messiah is already among you.”
Here in this Gospel John has dared to announce: “The Messiah is already among you.” The announcement sets the time of justice in motion. Isaiah declares that at precisely the time when God’s people have become resigned to the impossibility of justice, the preacher must announce/ remind/ initiate/ allow/ permit /incite a new era, God’s time of justice. Why? Because the Lord “loves justice.”[iv]
Restoration is a huge concern in our world right now. There is the restoration of nations where dictators have been overthrown and rebuilding must happen. There is the restoration of economic systems that have still not recovered from the global financial crisis. There is the need for the restoration of our damaged planet and its creatures. On other levels there are issues around the restoration of families, communities, and, particularly, the Church and Christian faith.
We cannot hope to address the great challenges of our time without a deep, revolutionary change of our hearts, minds and attitudes. But, equally, we cannot hope to find answers if we keep the same systems and structures and actions that have created our crises in the first place. As followers of Christ we are called to deal with both realities – the internal and the external. As John challenged people to live differently, to change not just themselves but their world, so too did he invite people to recognise Jesus as Lamb of God who is taking away the sin of the world. And so as we Christians, the Church, the Body of Christ, work for peace and justice, may we embrace the call to work for love, compassion and connectedness with God for those with whom we work. And may we continue to pray that God will continue to come to us and bring God’s reign into visible action among us and through us.
It is a shame that the Church is sometimes seen to be concerned only with the hearts and minds of people. We have created a split between the spiritual and the physical which is neither helpful nor biblical.
In every church and every neighbourhood and every city there are people who need both a change of heart and a change of circumstance. There are those who need to encounter Christ both in an experience of God’s Spirit, God’s healing and God’s forgiveness, and in an experience of God’s comfort, provision, protection and care through the physical hands and voices of people. Therefore, we proclaim Christ’s coming not just through our preaching and singing, but also through our feeding of the poor and visiting of prisoners and shut-ins. We demonstrate God’s Reign not just through calling people to repentance and change, but also through living as citizens of God’s Realm by our acts of care, advocacy and service.
And our message is proclaimed and heard most effectively in those places where God’s presence is most hidden, where it is darkest. When we enable people to recognise God’s coming to them, even when they don’t expect it or don’t feel they deserve it, we have revealed God’s Reign. When we have touched people with God’s love and grace through our actions and words, we have made straight paths for God’s coming, and have prepared the way for people to open themselves to God’s transforming presence. Like John our task is both internal and external, and it enables both people and the communities they live in, slowly but surely, to become more just and peaceful and compassionate.[v]
[ii] Mary Coloe, Sundays Under the Southern Cross 2005
[iii] Schmisek, Macalintal and Cormier, Living Liturgy Year b 2018