Sermon for Advent 3 : Isaiah 35.1-10, Matthew 11.2-11
I love skiing and I am lucky enough to have just come back from a week away in the Alps - right on the border between Italy and Switzerland. Anyway, my wife and I went for a week to learn to ski better with a skiing academy. It’s a grand sounding name for a set of brilliant instructors who try to help people who can ski already, to improve.
One of the most important things drilled into us during our holiday was to ski looking down the mountain. Your legs can turn as they direct the skis, but the upper half of your body must remain heading down the mountain. This technique is called separation: because your legs are doing something the rest of your body is not. By looking down the mountain you can lean forward and get well stacked over the skis, meaning you will be more balanced.
Well this is all fine, when the slopes are quiet, when the slopes are wide, and when the incline of the slope is gentle. You can look down the mountain all you like. But when you narrow the piste, add a few other people and turn that soft incline into a steep drop, you try leaning forward on a pair of skis slipping down the slope ... for the natural thing to do is to lean back.
Ever stood on a ledge and leaned forward? No, what you do instinctively is to lean back, away from the drop. The problem doing this when skiing is that by leaning back, you make yourself more unbalanced and even worse you push your skis away from you. This means you are likely to ski the steep slope more quickly and less steadily as your weight is in the wrong place. So, what do you do then? Yes, of course, you lean further back and on it goes until you either fall or somehow manage to stop. The instructor told us we have to resist doing the very thing we might expect would be the natural thing to do. We had to try and do the opposite.
It seems to me that, when in terms of what we believe and our journey as Christians, a gap begins to open up between what we expect and what actually is then doubt starts to set in. Just such a gap opened up for John the Baptist when he asks of Jesus, ‘Are you the one?’. He was in a far darker situation than being on the top of a piste wearing a pair of skis. John had been arrested and was now in prison. He had spent years announcing that the Kingdom of Heaven was near; the Messiah was coming.
But what had happened? The vicious and violent occupying forces continued to rule the land he called home; the weak local complicit leaders rolled on amassing wealth but did not follow God’s law. Where was the victory that was promised? Where was the ‘winnowing fork’ and the ‘unquenchable fire’ that the Messiah would bring? Instead what John the Baptist got, what the world got, was this poor itinerant preacher who round him had gathered small crowds and tales of healings and mysterious stories. Was this it?
There it is - the gap between what we expect and what we get. But despite that gap we are called to have faith, as we wait for the coming of the Messiah. We can do this by learning to look for the unexpected, the glimpses, the signs of where God is at work and we might find them just in those places and situations where we might not necessarily expect God to be. This is Jesus' answer to John the Baptist’s question. This is what Isaiah promised and that is what Jesus is doing as he gives the blind their sight, he heals the lame, he opens the ears of the deaf and cleanses the lepers. When he gives hope to the dejected. These are the signs of the Kingdom of God, not the vanquishing of enemies and great displays of status and power.
Two significant events took place on Thursday which will affect this church. Where are we more likely to find the signs of the Kingdom of God? The first is the General Election. I write this not knowing the result. I have my own hopes and I pray that God’s will is done in terms of who wins power. However, is this where we will find the glimpses of God’s Kingdom that I have been talking about: the grandeur and might and potential of government?
I wonder whether it might be seen more easily in the second event? For the second week on Thursday, members of our church will have volunteered, like many others, at the Milton Keynes Night Shelter. They will have made beds, cooked, cleaned, welcomed and got to know some people from our community who are homeless. There would have been no pomp and circumstance, there was hard work, a certain uncertainty among all, a helping hand, a smile, a joke and some rest. No great shakes in and of itself but there in the midst of these gestures and actions is the promising of good news to the poor, the loving of those who feel unloved, the bringing of hope to dispel despair.
This is where we are to find God’s Kingdom and, it’s probably the last place many would look. We never get to hear what John the Baptist thought when he got Jesus’ answer. I hope that in his cell, his expectations were enlarged so that his doubts about who Jesus was and what the Kingdom of God looked like began to fall away so that his sight was restored. So that he could truly see who this person was.
Whatever our own lead up to Christmas and the coming of Christ is like, whatever we are likely to do or say may we take to heart Jesus’ answer to John: may our eyes be opened to the reality of God’s Kingdom, however unexpected; may we be ready to do the thing which may not seem sensible or obvious; and may we be ready to respond to others out of love for the one who came among us to reveal the love of God.
There are certain church congregations in Scotland where they have an old adage, “If you’re not shouting, then you are not preaching.” It seems to me that this passage would be made for that particular style of churchmanship.
As we progress through Advent, we busy ourselves with erecting our Christmas trees, plastering our houses with lights, putting up the decorations, preparing ourselves for the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the beautiful baby boy who, as the Christmas Carol ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ states has, “The hopes and fears of all the years, are met in thee tonight”, what we wait for is beauty at this time of year, something peaceful, something wonderful, something joyous. Instead, this morning, what we get is this, and what exactly are we meant to make of this? There are no children dressed as shepherds with tea towels on their heads here.
And when we look at the Advent wreath with its two candles lit we can easily see Advent as little more than a countdown to Christmas. It would be easy to give this wild man, John the Baptist, a bit of a wide berth. Dismiss what he has to say as metaphorical, something symbolic or the ravings of a man who spent too much time on his own in the desert eating grasshoppers. But as has just been proclaimed after the Gospel reading, “This is the Gospel of the Lord” it is part of the Good News and it is just as much a part of that Good News as the miraculous birth of our saviour.
John isn’t all that interested in a manger, Mary’s innocence is not something that that gets covered, in fact Jesus’ name does not get mentioned once! In the Gospel, John is looking for God to do something drastic. His message is to repent, to change...or else.
I suspect that part of what makes this message so uncomfortable for us is not so much the timing of it but that we sort of know it to be true. Looking at the world around us, at the way that we interact – nation against nation, with the way that we disregard God’s creation we know, deep down in our hearts, that things are not as they should be.
Each of us here today could easily name the broken places that we have in our lives and in the world more generally. Places of anger, violence, poverty, homelessness, lives controlled by fear, or it could be the years of guilt that have crippled our lives. The list just goes on and on. But I have to say that there is one sin worse than all of the others, it could well be worse than evil itself, and that is the sin of indifference. It is more insidious, more universal, more contagious, and I think, much, much more dangerous.
We are so busy, so exhausted by the relentless bad news in the media that we inevitably become indifferent to what is happening, indifferent to the needs of others, indifferent to the way that God’s creation is crying out. But that is not all indifference does, we can also become indifferent to ourselves. To the point that we lose sight of the original beauty with which God created us. This struck me earlier this week at the Milton Keynes night shelter, seeing first-hand just how indifference had affected some people who were much more gifted and intelligent than I was and yet had found themselves in the desperate situation of not being able to have a roof over their head. The indifference that others had shown them and in some cases where they had shown to themselves showed me just how poisonous it is. Indifference is sneaky, it takes on many forms.
Yes that is all very well, but what has this to do with John the Baptist’s rant, how are these things connected?
I believe strongly that it shows us clearly that God loves us enough to get angry. He is not indifferent to the unfathomable beauty and delicacy of his creation, he is not indifferent to the suffering, to the relationships we have with him and with each other. He is not indifferent to you, he is not indifferent to me and he definitely is not indifferent to those less lucky than ourselves.
The opposite of love is not hatred or anger, it is indifference, and God is not indifferent - how can he be? God’s anger is the rejection of indifference. He pays attention. It is not offered as punishment but as encouragement. To encourage us to care, to tend, to nurture, to hope and to blossom. God is saying, “You are worthy of my time and attention. Your lives are worthy of being judged. I care enough to get angry when you settle (or are coerced) into settling for less than you are and all that you can be.
This reminds us that Christ came to comfort the afflicted, but he also came to afflict the comfortable.
Advent: Isaiah 2, 1-5 & Matthew 24, 36-44
When I was a child I remember looking forward with great excitement to my grandparents coming to visit. We didn’t see my grandparents – who I called Nana and Bampa (because when I was little I couldn’t pronounce grandpa) – very often, because we lived in Marlow and they lived in Blackburn; a distance of just over 200 miles. On the day when my grandparents were due to arrive I would go and sit in the lounge, by the window, and simply sit and wait; sometimes for what felt like hours on end. Of course when I saw their car turn into the drive I would then run with excitement to the front door.
This little story, vignette, in some ways illustrates the season of Advent; the season in which we are asked to learn the art of watching and waiting, in stillness and quietness, so that come Christmas day we are able to run with excitement to greet our Lord and Saviour. But, of course when we greet our Lord and Saviour it is with the intention that we will then, from henceforth, in the words of Isaiah, continue to ‘walk in the light of the Lord.’
There is, I think, a misplaced perception that the season of Advent is simply a precursor to Christmas. It is for sure the season that both kicks off the Church’s New Year and leads us into the wonder and majesty of Christmas – there is no denying this – but maybe it’s so much more than this? Maybe Advent is the season that sets us off on a journey that only ends when we see our Lord face-to- face? Maybe Advent is the season that sets us up for the encounter that is to have no end? You see when my grandparents came to visit they always left after a few days but when we invite Jesus into our midst he sticks around. My grandparents had to leave in order to return to their work – Bampa was a printer – whilst Jesus' work is to be God with us, and God for us; the God who never leaves.
In the business of life it is very easy indeed to ignore God, to fail to see or perceive God, for the very simple reason that God doesn’t force his way in. God doesn’t want to be the unwelcome house guest who arrives at an inconvenient time and leaves at an even more inconvenient time. God simply wants to be the enduring presence; the relationship and the strength that resides within our very hearts; that’s what God wants to be.
Our Advent-tide job, or vocation, is to ‘ready’ ourselves to greet God and be inhabited by God, for as the gospel makes clear our hearts are going to be captured and our desires are going to be channelled, irrespective, so the only question that remains is what is to be the orientation of our hearts and therefore the purpose and direction of our lives? Are we going to be the sort of people who, in the words of Isaiah ‘go up to the mountain of the Lord.....that he may teach us his ways,’ and where the fruit of our learning is peace, justice and reconciliation – the very things the world so badly needs - or are we going to going to follow a narrower, lazier, easier and yet ultimately less noble path? A path which begins and ends with self? These are Advent questions.
The purpose of Advent is simple and straightforward: it is to prepare and ready our hearts for the greatest, yet least glossy gift of all. The gift that doesn’t come in wrapping paper, but in flesh and blood. The gift that doesn’t depreciate in value but grows in value. The gift that can never be bought, either outright or on credit, but only ever received. The gift of the Christ-child. The gift of the one who invites us to ‘walk, walk in the light of the Lord,’ not just in this world but the world which is to come, for as the Advent Gospel reading reminds us, we are people that live under judgement; divine judgement. Advent asks us to consider whether we want to walk a path which begins and ends with self, or a path which begins and ends with God.
So how do we actually prepare ourselves so that we can see the Messiah when he comes? I can only give three answers and you probably already know what I am going to say: daily prayer (and please do take away and use the Advent prayer cards we have put together), reading the bible, and receiving the sacrament of the Eucharist. I literally know of no other way to prepare my heart to receive Christ.
This Advent we – all of us of us – need to relearn the art of watching and waiting; watching and waiting for the Lord, for the ‘Son of Man is coming.’ May he find us ready and waiting, Amen.
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