Sermon - 4th December 2016
Scripture - Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
The set readings for today, the second Sunday in Advent, focus on the mission of John the Baptist. Saint Luke’s Gospel tell us that John the Baptist was Jesus’ cousin on His mother Mary’s side. Yet, as the world prepares itself to celebrate Christmas with its feel-good nature once again, John the Baptist’s call to repentance – that is, turning from sin – and his harsh words of judgement against the religious authorities of the day seem out of place, maybe even unwelcome.
Of our two readings, our first reading, one of the most well-known from the Old Testament book of the prophet Isaiah – where the lamb lies down with the lion – you probably preferred to listen to that one. And why not? The last thing anyone wants to hear is judgement. Moreover, in the face of the much brokenness of our world, and in our own lives and of those near us, we also need to spare ourselves the glib sentimentality and the falsity that can surround Christmas celebrations.
A Quaker minister and artist living in America in the first part of the 19th century, Edward Hicks, was very much taken by Isaiah’s vision of the lion and the lamb, and between 1818 and 1849 painted over 60 versions of the painting he called “The Peaceable Kingdom”. Hicks, like John the Baptist, grew increasingly discouraged by the events of his time. [I have converted his paintings into a slow-moving video on the screen: you will see over a few minutes how his painting developed over 30 years.]
From literature, some of you may be familiar with Umberto Eco’s novel “The Name of the Rose”, or the film of the same name starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater. The story is set in a bleak medieval monastery. The novice monk asks of his teacher, “Do you think this is a place abandoned by God?” to which he receives the wise answer: “Have you ever known a place where God would have felt at home?”
The American Baptist theologian David Bartlett, a retired professor from Yale Divinity School, writes about “Christians recovering from Christian judgement”. He mentions divorcees and those who have remarried, hurt by unbending church teaching, based on two verses in Mark’s Gospel. He mentions LGBT Christians condemned in a handful of verses, including just one verse in Saint Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, even though scholars cannot agree on the meaning of two Greek words – malakoi and arsenokoitai. And the many everywhere who are constrained by a single phrase in the letter called 2 Timothy – “All scripture is inspired by God.” – and the blunt tool that this has become for fundamentalists.
John the Baptist had harsh words for the religious leaders of his time. He called them “vipers”, a type of snake. Some Bible commentators say that John was making a comparison with the snake analogy in the Garden of Eden. John the Baptist does not mince his words: he is blunt and compares intolerant religious leaders with the Devil, evil personified.
Yet John’s words are for us, too. Professor Bartlett goes on to comment:
“The larger context of the chapter and the entire context of Matthew's Gospel make clear that we all need to be on our toes. Because John, and the Jesus he announces, arrive with the most astonishing combination of acceptance and admonition. We all discover this Advent, not only that we are cherished for who we are, but that we are responsible for what we do.”
In all the places we find ourselves: in our church, in our homes, in our workplaces and the places we go to have fun: are these places where God is welcome, and God would feel at home?
Let us look a little more closely at our reading from St Matthew’s Gospel. We are told that John the Baptist was somewhat unusual: “John's clothes were made of camel's hair; he wore a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” (Mt 3:4) Most probably, if we were to encounter someone like that, we would – if we are honest – seek to avoid such a person.
We are here today in a large city, Manchester, and the majority of people now live in cities. Urbanisation has been an on-going process for centuries. LGBT people also tend to gravitate towards metropolitan centres. There is a common belief that the better things can be found in cities: the better shops, the better hospitals, the better universities, even the gay village!
Yet, in our Gospel reading, Saint Matthew tells us about a reverse process. While one might have expected the best religious teaching Jerusalem, the centre of the Jewish faith and the location of the Temple, the people leave the city and go into the desert, where they find John the Baptist. John’s message was a simple one: to repent and to be baptised.
The word repentance is a very churchy word: it means to look back at things past, to accept what is wrong and needs to change, to seek forgiveness for these things, and to look forward to the future. One of the favourite stories around at Christmas is Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. Closer to Christmas, you will find many different film versions of this story on TV. If you do not know the story, it is the story of a heart-hearted, miserly man by the name of Ebenezer Scrooge. His deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, appears to him as a ghost on Christmas Eve, after which Scrooge is visited by three spirits – the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Scrooge is forced to look back on his life with the Ghost of Christmas Past; he is then confronted with reality of the world, both of those near to him and the wider world with the Ghost of Christmas Present. Finally, the Ghost of Christmas Future shows Scrooge how life might be if he chooses not to change his ways. After receiving his ghostly visits, Scrooge is a changed man!
Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is a wonderful allegory of repentance. Returning to our sermon theme – Welcoming God – how welcome is God in our hearts and our lives? Where do we shut God out?
Repentance, however, is not about forgetting our past, which in human reality can only be pretending to forget or supressing our past. When we receive God’s grace, our past is transformed and our future is created.
God’s call reached into the city and the surrounding area and brought out the people. That call is still there today. John the Baptist’s words offer us a future, but the future he described also points to another, the one whom we call Jesus; John quite clearly did not point to himself.
The creation of a new life, a baby, is usually surrounded by love; and the child, once born, is cherished by its parents. Babies and young children are by nature very trusting, loving and affectionate; only through life experience do we learn to be more cautious or withdraw, even close our hearts. One way in which we learn to close our hearts is to close our hearts to God. In some more words from Professor Bartlett:
“…if God does not care about what I do, I will begin to suspect that God does not actually care about me. If God loves me enough to welcome me into Christ's family, then God loves me enough to expect something of me.”
Dickens’ Scrooge learnt through his repentance experience to re-open his hardened heart and let the love flow once again.
John the Baptist pointed to Jesus, and Christians believe that Jesus is the new King about which Isaiah wrote, mentioned in opening verse of our first reading today.
The first 17 verses of Saint Matthew’s Gospel are seldom read in churches, as they are literally a genealogy, listing 42 generations from Abraham, through David, down to Joseph as Jesus’ human step-father. So, when we read about John the Baptist in Matthew, he has already provided us with Jesus’ family background in the context of prophecy.
During this sermon, you have also been able to see through artistic representation Isaiah’s vision. I am sure many of us have seen those cute animal photos and videos on the internet of unlikely pairing of animals getting along. Maybe in a way, those are a 21st century equivalent of Isaiah’s vision: affection and feeling going beyond what we might expect.
Finally, let us take one step backwards: immediately before we read about Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom, the prophet described the way that this future leader would lead: now while this describes Jesus’ reign, it is an excellent blue-print for our conduct and the conduct we should demand of our leaders, political and otherwise:
Pray for wisdom, knowledge and skill.
Honour God’s will for all and God’s creation.
Not to judge by appearance or by what others say.
To judge the poor fairly and defend the rights of the helpless.
To live justly and with integrity.
If we do these things, we welcome God. This Advent, may we all once again hear John the Baptist’s call, and maybe have a Scrooge-like experience of our own.