Sermon from Sunday 8th December

Matthew 3: 1-12


I’m sure you are all really excited today, eagerly looking forward to the opportunity which you will have this week to cast your vote.  I’m sure that you are gripped by election fever, enthused at the prospect of being able to choose someone to represent you in the Parliament, and to which politician will emerge as prime minister, ready to lead us all into a bright future.

Then again, maybe not.  For so much of the campaigning has been negative and so many of the messages confused and depressing.  I do appreciate the willingness of those who put themselves forward for election, which is a brave thing to do in the current climate, but the whole nature of the debate in our divided society is not exactly encouraging.  The hope of a bright future looks like a rather remote one.

So what can a preacher have to say at a time like this?  What I can say is that it was not so different 2,000 or so years ago, especially if you were part of a once proud people which was bitterly divided in how to respond to invasion and occupation.  Up against the massive force of the Roman empire with your leaders squabbling against each other, a brighter future must have looked like a remote prospect indeed.  It was into that atmosphere, and into our fraught atmosphere today, that we welcome John the Baptist.

John is very much part of our Advent story but he doesn’t come to calm our troubled waters!  Indeed it is a fair question to ask whether we would welcome him or not, for he was not the easiest of characters to have around.  Nonetheless he was by far the most famous preacher of his generation.  People walked for miles just to hear him and to watch his dramatic and passionate style of preaching.  He was a sight to see, but it was his message that really grabbed the attention.  Some who considered themselves quite devout before they showed up to listen to him at the Jordan River ended up going home soaking wet having been baptized by John.  Some who had no intention of doing any real soul searching suddenly found themselves welling up with tears, telling God how sorry they were, and getting dunked in that muddy water only to emerge spiritually clean and refreshed.

Of course, like all preachers, John didn’t get through to everybody.  There were plenty of people who already had their minds made up and who came only to judge and to sneer.  These men, who seem to have been religious leaders, provided John the opportunity to cut loose with his strongest and bluntest language:

Sneaky snakes!” he howled!  “Somebody set the field on fire and out slithered you all!  Well, I’m here to tell you that the days of resting on your laurels are over.  Don’t whip out your membership card for the temple, your theological qualifications cut no ice with me!  Don’t tell me about the faith of your forefathers or that you are Abraham’s children because if God wanted more children of Abraham, he’d turn the stones into a whole bunch of them.  But that’s just the problem, isn’t it?  Your hearts are as dead as stone already.  God wants living trees producing spiritual fruit.  If I were you, I’d get serious about that because I’m here to lay the groundwork and clear a path for Somebody big and strong who is coming any minute now.  He’s coming with a very sharp axe in his hand and he will chop down and burn to ashes dead trees like you all!”

This was amazing stuff, powerful and dramatic, disarmingly direct and with a definite ring of truth about it.  It was certainly not the sort of thing you would go home and forget about easily, certainly not the kind of thing you would dismiss as boring.  It shook people up, and it would shake us up.  We read this passage in the Second Sunday in Advent, perhaps in the hope that it will stop us in our tracks, at least for a moment.  That it might stop us in our tracks for long enough to really consider all the mysteries of Advent and Christmas; mysteries which would shake us all up if only we took the time to note them. 

Of course, the problem is that many people see no mystery at all.  Christmas is as straightforward a holiday as they come.  As soon as we get Black Friday out of the way it’s just one long string of “Holly, Jolly, Merry, Merry, Joy, Joy, Joy”, as children’s eyes shine and lights twinkle and we focus on the sentiment and the food.  We might get a little sick of the non-stop cheer-fest, or a little cynical about the blatant commercialisation of it all, but that in itself will not normally drive us deeper into mystery and wonder.

Perhaps that is why John’s message is able to make an impact, now as then.  It is not that he is ever likely to be a popular figure.  There is a reason why he is not going to pop up in any children’s versions of the Christmas story.  John talks about repentance, about change, and he insists that it must start with us before we go worrying about how we wish others would change.  This, he says, is the real preparation for the coming of Christ and if we pause and think about that message, it might put a bit of a dampener on our decking the halls and rocking around the Christmas trees.  What if we now are the people who have become stone-cold in our faith?  What if we are the ones who pay more attention to decorating a dead tree in our living room than we do to the living faith that is supposed to be growing in us, the living faith that is supposed to be producing fruits of peace and love and joy. 

This year we approach Christmas at a time of heightened awareness of the difficult issues facing our world, the difficult choices facing our communities, the divisive nature of our public debate.  This year we approach Christmas at a depressing, frightening, polarising moment in world history, with Brexit and NATO and independence and impeachment and Syria and the Kurds and climate change and immigration and all the rest, echoing around in our thoughts.  This year we might feel that hope is hard to find.  Could it be that John is exactly the shrill voice we need to cut through all the cacophony?   Could it be that a common call to repent, to return to humility and honesty, to stop blaming other and think about how we might change, is precisely what we need to focus us and clarify for us what God’s grand project of salvation is really all about?

The fact is, we cannot shut out the cacophony of the moment, anymore than John’s first listeners could have ignored the political chaos and threat of their time.  We cannot shut out the cacophony of the moment or the very real threats that we are facing, and we surely will not be successful for long if we try to paper it over with Christmas wrappings and tinsel and bows.  Equally, we will gain nothing by getting angry and frustrated and wishing that other people would change their ways.  There is plenty of that going on already!  None of that is what God’s own Son came down to this earth to do.  He came to confront chaos and threat, to take it head on, and only in that raw engagement with all that is wrong with us could he have a chance to win the victory.  But if we are not willing to change, not willing to humble ourselves, not willing to repent, then we will not be ready or able to participate in the new thing which he came to do, the new hope which he came to light up.

Nobody wants John the Baptist at their Christmas party.  He’d be too messy and too loud and too uncomfortable.  You can’t imagine him sitting through too many cosy versions of sentimental carols.  He is the kind of guest that forces you to wonder either - what in the world is wrong with HIM or what in the world is wrong with YOU.

What is wrong with him, or what is wrong with me.  Then again, that may not be a bad thing to wonder about.  So I hope we still have room for John in our lives at advent.  I hope that we have room for John and his message at this advent.  I hope that we can welcome him.  His is a voice which cuts through all our anxieties and our excuses and all of the pretence that we tell ourselves about ourselves, and speaks directly to the true selves which we keep hidden inside.  His is a voice calling out to people who still might feel that they are lost in a wilderness, lost with no obvious road to follow.  His is a voice urging us to get ourselves sorted, a voice calling us to be ready for something new.  His is a voice which can be as powerful now as it was back then.

May we be ready for plenty of mystery and wonder this Christmas.