Sermon: December 11 2016 (Advent 3)

Third Sunday of Advent

Matthew 11:2-11

Isaiah 35:1-6, 10

James 5:7-10

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.

Words from the traditional entrance antiphon, from St Paul’s epistle to the Philippians, the fourth chapter.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Not so long ago, last week, many centuries past—in the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and Annas and Caiaphas were high priests—John, the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, was in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. No reed shaking in the wind, was he, nor decked in soft kings’ raiment, but a prophet sent to face us.

And today he is told, from behind bars awaiting a puppet despot’s petty vengeance, he is told of the blind seeing, the lame walking, the deaf hearing, lepers cleansed, the dead alive, all good news. He will see confirmation of none of these things, not with his own eyes, our crotchety old faithful old John the Baptizer, none greater than whom has been conceived and born of a woman.

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It is the Third Sunday of Advent. And we are told to rejoice, thus the traditional name for this day in the Church’s year: Gaudete Sunday, from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians. And we are even given a reason so to do: The Lord is near, St Paul says. Near: a word, which like the word advent connotes both approach and arrival. In the same breath: presence and promise. The Lord is near. Nearer now than when we first believed. Not that this is particularly helpful to John the Baptist, languishing in a cell, or Paul, himself under custody and eventually also put to the sword.

The blind see, he told them to say to John, the lame walk, the deaf hear, but of course, they don’t. And the poor may have good news preached at them, but the World Health Organisation says that there are nearly 800 million people who cannot afford to keep themselves nourished. 3.1 million children die ever year from malnutrition. That’s 8,500 kids a day. 350 an hour. 60 in the time it takes to preach this sermon.

Shall we look for another?, John asks, not knowing whether he dares to be hopeful. It’s not a silly question, even now. Be patient, St James says, be patient for the coming of the Lord. But the Lord sure is taking his time. See, this is the why we need the Old Testament. Our forebears, they knew the importance of lament, they knew the place of impatience, of asking “How long, O Lord? How long?” Job 7; Psalm 13 and 35 and 89 and 90, I could go on; Habakkuk 1; pretty much all of Jeremiah. The call to be patient is all too often heard, even if not meant, as permission to accept the status quo, no matter how intolerable it is. This is, of course, not what St James means, who tells us to make the prophets our examples of this patience. Anyone who confuses what the prophets did for passive resignation hasn’t read them very well.

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Now it is time to awake out of sleep,

For the night is far spent and the day is at hand.

These are the words I associate most with Advent, which we say every morning in our common prayer, taken from St Paul’s epistle to the Romans, this one incidentally not written in prison. They are for me a daily reminder of what it means for Advent to be a season of anticipation. Waiting, Christianly conceived, is not a passive act. Rather, we are called in this time to prepare, to make ready the path of the coming King. Saints, you will recall, are not just characters in pious stories or subjects for artistic endeavours, but examples for us now: this includes John the Baptist and the Apostle Paul, martyrs both, who spoke truth to power.

There is another common misconception, not helped by off-the-cuff quips by clerics, that one Sunday of Lent and Advent each—them of these pink vestments—are to provide reprieve from these otherwise penitential seasons. This is a mistake not only because Advent isn’t a penitential season in the way that Lent is, but also because liturgical seasons don’t come with bathroom breaks. Gaudete Sunday is not a suspension of Advent, but an amplification thereof: our anticipation is heightened today as we are given a foretaste of what is to come. We see, even if through a glass darkly, the world for which we are preparing, to which we are paving the way. A world in which the desert shall rejoice and blossom; the ransom of the Lord shall return; sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

So, there is work to be done. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. We have our marching orders, and we should not pretend that we don’t. We have, most of us, been through enough Advents and Christmases to expect sermons about making the world a better place. We should not pretend that we haven’t. Nobody really needs another December tirade from this pulpit about the excesses of consumer capitalism. Tirades, by the way, that are, of course, hypocritical, given that none of the clerics here are anchorites. All the same, there is work to be done, by you and me, by us all. It is the Third Sunday of Advent, and if today we anticipate the coming of God’s kingdom more intensely, then this is as good a week as any to participate more actively, practically, actually in Christ’s advent. As the white of Christmas breaks into the violet of this season, it ought not be rose-tinted glasses that we receive, but a fragrance to be offered: to be offered back to God, of course, but if the New Testament is anything to go by (and it should be), what that looks like is an offering to those in need. The blind, the deaf, the lame, the poor; the homeless and malnourished; the imprisoned, and those who need second chances and thirds and then some.

Maybe you don’t know where to start. You will not be surprised to hear that I have specific opinions on the matter, but we can have that conversation later. For now: start anywhere. Start here, talking to each other about what you can do. Start just outside the church, where people sleep rough, and could do with a hot drink and a kind word. Start down the road, at the Gatehouse, who have called for warm hats and scarves and socks for gifts to the homeless. They need them by this Wednesday. Start with a standing order to a charity that supplies clean water and medical treatment to those who lack easy access. Start with a letter to your MP about what we can do together as a society to make this place look more, even if just a little more, like the glimpse we get to see of a world in which all things are put to right. Wherever you start: the Lord is near.

It is the Third Sunday of Advent. It is time to awake out of sleep. The night is far spent and the day is at hand.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

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Sermon: December 16th 2012 (Advent 3)

Readings

Zephaniah 3.14-20

Isaiah 12.2-6 (Canticle)

Philippians 4.4-7

Luke 3.7-18

Now it is time to awake out of sleep,

for the night is far spent and the day is at hand.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, John the son of Zechariah was in the wilderness; so the story goes, as we heard last Sunday.  John was, in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah and also, as the story goes, as his father Zechariah said upon his birth. John was, in the wilderness, knee deep in the River Jordan (or so I imagine), waiting.

The crowds too—gathered perhaps out of curiosity as much as anything else—were, in the wilderness, waiting and watching, but for God knows what or whom. God knows, and perhaps John knows, but he wasn’t being very specific, our surly sage, wading in the water, like—one gets the distinct impression—a crazy person.

And yet. And yet, here we are, by the water in the wilderness, waiting and watching for—one gets the distinct impression—someone who is already here, closer than we know.

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It is the Third Sunday in Advent. We are called, throughout this season, to wake up and to keep vigil; to wait and to anticipate; to be patient and to prepare for the coming of God who is already and ever with us, who is ever approaching and never ceases to arrive.

We are—Christians are—not unaccustomed to paradox; and this one, between the already and the not yet, between fulfilment and expectation, is certainly a familiar and recurring theme. And so it is, that according to the prophets Zephaniah and Isaiah, the Lord is and will be in our midst; the Lord has become our salvation, and we will draw from salvation’s wells; the Lord has taken away the judgements against us, and we will be gathered and brought home.

And so it is, that in Advent we simultaneously recall what the Lord has done and anticipate what the Lord has promised to do; we simultaneously look backwards and forwards, not least to the birth of Jesus and to his coming again in glory.

And so it is, that Advent is—among other things—an occasion for joy. Rejoice inthe Lord, exclaims St. Paul, “Rejoice”. And then, almost as if whispering, surrounding his words in gentleness and peace, he provides us with a reason to rejoice, the foundation of all joy: “The Lord is near”. Near; the word, both in English and in Greek—like the word advent,which in English and in Latin connotes both approach and arrival—is ambiguous. In the same breath: presence and promise.  The Lord is near. And so we rejoice, we sing aloud, as Zephaniah exhorts us; we exult with all our hearts. And so we give thanks, we shout aloud and sing for joy, as Isaiah bids us; we proclaim the Lord’s name.

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It is the Third Sunday in Advent, and we are told, on this day in Advent to rejoice. And then, we are also told, by our cantankerous prophet John, that the one who is coming, for whom we wait has, in his hand, a winnowing fork to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary, and to burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. And then, without skipping a beat, this is called good news. John is—one gets the distinct impression—like a crazy person.

Rejoice; the Lord is near, and with the Lord, judgement. Joy and judgement; strange bedfellows, it would appear. And yet. And yet, as John suggests, judgement is the consummation of justice. Having verbally abused those who had come seeking baptism, our curmudgeonly baptizer paints his vision of the world as it ought to be. It is, fundamentally, a just world: a world free of embezzlement and extortion, to be sure, but also a world in which we take care of one another’s needs. It is fashionable—and has been for a very long time—to distinguish sins of commission from sins of omission, and it is often implied that the former are somehow worse than the latter. We intuit, for example, that it is more despicable to intimidate as the tax collector might or to threaten as the soldier might, than it is to withhold our coats and food from those who are cold and hungry. This is, of course, very convenient, since few of us are bullies as such, and most of our coat-giving has as much to do with wardrobe clearance as it does with anything else. But these are both acts of injustice—direct aggression and desensitized apathy—and both are denounced by John, both destined for unquenchable fire.

[On Friday, a 20-year-old man—boy, really—walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and opened fire. Twenty-six people were killed—including 20 children and his own mother—before he turned the gun to himself. In the face of tragedies like this, the call to joy seems hollow and the temptation to judge is acute. The word evil has featured prominently in the news and social media, used to describe Adam Lanza, the shooter, as well as his actions. But, by all accounts, he was also ill; and we have failed to notice, failed to step in, failed this boy in the wilderness. We are, all of us, for our aggression and apathy alike, indicted and judged. But if judgement is the bringing forth and consummation of justice, then it is not predominantly about blame and goes far beyond it: it is the putting right of things, the redemption of a broken and heart-breaking world. In this sense, in the face of tragedies like these, only judgement could possible bring joy.]*

And so, the world that John imagines and, by the waters of baptism, prepares is a joyful one, as difficult as that might be to see. He is saying, with the prophet Isaiah—as we hear daily in the Advent liturgy for morning prayer—“Be strong, fear not, your God is coming with judgement, coming with judgement to save you”. This passage from Isaiah goes on to say that the eyes of the blind will then be open, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame shall leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy; waters shall break forth in our wildernesses, and streams in our deserts, and we shall return with singing and everlasting joy. We, with the weary whose hands we are commanded in the same Advent liturgy to strengthen, whose feeble knees we are commanded to make firm. We, with cold and hungry and sick, to whom we are to give our warmth and nourishment, our care and attention. There is, in this world that John proclaims, no place for our aggression or apathy, our pettiness and possessiveness, our self-defensiveness and self-centredness; rather, our joys are bound up with one anothers’, from the greatest to the least, the strongest to the weakest, the healthiest to the most vulnerable.. This is the world for which we are preparing, which we who have gone through the wild waters of baptism are called to prepare, even as we wait for the ever-coming Christ, whose judgement will save us all.

Joy and judgement; that is to say, the arrival of the love that creates, out of nothing, goodness; out of chaos, peace; out of darkness, light. Now it is time to awake out of sleep, for the night is far spent and the day is at hand.

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In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, John son of Zechariah was in the wilderness, in the water, waiting for the God who calls and comes, who invites and arrives, who promises and is present. And the crowd too, they waited and watched, not knowing quite what to expect. These centuries later, we join them and with the Church past and present, no more certain than they what God will do next. But whatever it is, whatever it is we are preparing for—it is good news, and occasion for joy. Amen.

*The draft of the text had been more or less fixed for a few weeks by the time the Newtown, CT shooting happened. Like many other preachers, I rushed back to re-write (parts of) the sermon in light of the incident. This section—an insertion—is the biggest change, but minor amendments flank it. New meaning was brought to  both “aggression” and “apathy”. Before, the references to the Advent liturgy about the strengthening of weak hands and feeble knees were used as metaphors for economic justice; now, physical—or, at least, medical—weakness emerges as a theme too.