Sermon - 8th December 2019
Prepare the way
Scripture - Matthew 3:1-12
The theme for today’s service is “Prepare The Way”. When we prepare something for somebody, our preparations are to make the visitor feel welcome. For whom are we making our Advent preparations? The answer to that question may be easy: we’re preparing to welcome God.
In Umberto Eco’s novel “The Name of the Rose” (set in a bleak 14th-century monastery), or the TV series based on it (showing on BBC2 on Friday evenings), the novice monk Adso 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?”
With the young people earlier, we reflected on the preparations we might make for Christmas, so what preparations might we make for God? That question isn’t as easy, so let’s use our imaginations for a moment!
Let’s imagine for a moment that tomorrow, Kath (our church secretary) receives a telephone call that next Sunday, the Queen would like to visit Wilbraham St Ninian’s as she has heard about everything the church is doing. What preparations would be made? I am sure there would be an emergency Elders’ meeting to discuss what would happen and what would need to be done and who would do what. The Police Special Branch would check out the building and the royal liaison would ensure that all who speak to the Queen are briefed on etiquette in how to speak to Her Majesty. Who among us would go out and buy a new outfit for the occasion? Would we get our hair done especially? What time would we arrive at Church next Sunday? I am sure we would not want to be late! Would we scrub and polish every part of the building? It is said that wherever the Queen goes, she smells fresh paint!
Every year, in her Christmas message, the Queen speaks of her faith, pointing towards her God and our God. She may be the most important person in our country, but she points beyond, just as we heard in our Gospel reading that John the Baptist pointed beyond himself to Jesus.
Our Gospel reading ended as it began, with John the Baptist’s call for people to be baptised: an outward sign of an inner change.
You may be wondering why I have spoken at such length about preparation and going into the realms of a fantasy of a royal visit. My point is this: if we would push the boat out for the visit of a fellow human, albeit an important one, then surely our enthusiasm for worship and time with God should be even greater, whether that is for a Sunday service, or making time each day to pray, or sharing our faith with others!
John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, is revealed to us as the very messenger foretold by the prophets Isaiah and Malachi, and the message of John the Baptist to the people is the very same message: that if the people will acknowledge their shortcomings, God will put things right.
Let’s think about “Preparing the way” from a different angle: when we think about a journey, we think of cars, buses, trams, trains, planes. Until the mid-19th century, journeys by ordinary folk were made on foot.
In coming to church today, we all made preparations. We dressed, put on coat and shoes and set off. A few will have walked to church; some will have come by bus or tram and will have needed money for the fares; others will have come by car – did we need to buy fuel?
Making a journey in the ancient world was far more difficult. Getting anywhere took a long time, requiring the need to take food and drink for maybe several days, the need for shelter at night, and even protection from thieves and wild animals. And worst of all, there were no roads other than dirt-tracks.
Because journeys were so difficult in the ancient world, any important person such as a king would send ahead messengers, servants and soldiers to ensure that the journey would go well, free from obstacles and enemies. Similar things happen today: we see politicians in their limousines moving swiftly through cities, flanked by police escorts which have cleared the way.
In quoting Isaiah, John the Baptist has these dirt-tracks in mind.
Let us look a little more closely at our Gospel reading. We are told that John the Baptist was somewhat unusual: “John’s clothes were made out of camel’s hair. He had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.” (Mt 3:4) Most probably, if we were to encounter someone dressed like that here in Bolton, we would – if we are honest – seek to avoid such a person.
We live in the conurbation of Greater Manchester, and the majority of people now live in cities. Urbanisation has been an on-going process for centuries. There is a common belief that the better things can be found in cities: the better jobs, the better shops, the better hospitals, the better universities, the better entertainment – Canal Street, for example!
Yet, in our Gospel reading, Matthew tells us about a reverse process. We might have expected the best religious teaching to be found in Jerusalem, the centre of the Jewish faith and the location of the Temple, but 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”, my favourite version being the one with Patrick Stewart.
Scrooge’s deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, appears to him as a ghost on Christmas Eve, after which the cold-hearted, miserly Scrooge is visited by three spirits. Scrooge is forced to look back on his life with the Ghost of Christmas Past; he is then confronted with the 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: he will die cold and alone.
After receiving the ghostly visits, Scrooge is a changed man! Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is a wonderful allegory of repentance.
Repentance, however, is not about forgetting our past, which in human reality can only be pretending to forget or suppressing our past. When we receive God’s grace, our past is transformed and our future is created.
Returning to our sermon themes – Preparing The Way and Welcoming God – how welcome is God in our hearts and our lives? Where do we shut God out? Where in our churches and in our nation is God not welcome?
The middle part of our reading mentions how the religious leaders of the day – the Pharisees and Sadducees [pictured here in the film “The Passion of the Christ”] – how (they) came to check him out. 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.
Two thousand years on, and we still have intolerant religious leaders. The American Baptist theologian David Bartlett, a retired professor from Yale Divinity School, wrote 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, as a result of dubious translations taken out of context. 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.
When we sing the words of Marty Haugen’s hymn “All Are Welcome”, the lines “here the outcast and the stranger bear the image of God’s face” are a 21st-century measure of how we as churches take the Gospel seriously.
A few years ago, the University of Durham conducted a survey about Biblical knowledge. Younger interviewees told researchers that the Bible was "old-fashioned", "irrelevant" and "for Dot Cottons" [an elderly character in the BBC soap-opera EastEnders]. A fellow at Durham, a Methodist minister, working on this survey said: "The Church and political leaders should take serious note of the findings and recognise that we cannot make the assumptions we used to make about the Bible and its place in contemporary people's lives and culture."
How can we expect people to come through our doors each week, if they do not even have the first idea of what we are about?
Having spoken about welcome in the church, a word about the set Psalm  from the lectionary: it sets a standard for our nation’s leaders, very apt with the General Election on Thursday! John the Baptist weighed the religious leaders and found them wanting. The Psalm gives us standards by which to measure political leaders: “to judge fairly… to do what is right… to rule in the right way… to be fair and to stand up for those who are hurting… to save the children who are in need.”
We began our sermon with a clip from “Godspell”. In this 1970s film, as we saw, it begins with people being called out of their everyday lives as taxi-driver, waitress, student, dancer etc., and they are caught up in the “Godspell”, an Old English word meaning “the story of God”, and their lives are forever changed. For us, coming to church each Sunday, and our daily devotions on the other days, these are ways we can be caught up in God’s story and be forever changed.
The outworking of our faith has a huge task before it. In Luke’s Gospel’s telling of John’s the Baptist’s teaching, we read: “The whole human race will see God’s salvation”. That puts us as the ones who in this generation, in this time, who are charged to work towards this goal. Unlike many other things in our lives which have become easier, if anything, this task is harder now that it was 30-40 years ago.
As we prepare for Christmas, are we prepared to tell others what Christmas is really all about? If we do this, we will be welcoming God.