Sermon for Evensong & Benediction – Advent 3 Sunday 11 December 2016
Advent 3 E&B
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Beware, therefore, lest there come upon you what is said in the prophets: ‘Behold, you scoffers, and wonder, and perish; for I do a deed in your days, a deed you will never believe, if one declares it to you.’ Acts 13.40-41
That ending of our second reading gives the clue to why we were invited to listen to lots of Isaiah in the first. In summary Isaiah proclaims that because of their injustice and their worship of gods other than the Lord, Israel and Judah are an unfruitful vineyard destined for invasion and destruction.
We are given this passage of Isaiah further to illustrate Paul’s sermon at Antioch in the second lesson. We have a few examples of Paul’s sermons recorded in Acts but this one has been given us tonight with an ulterior motive. Just to remind you, after his admirably brief romp through the Old Testament history of salvation, Paul says
Before [Jesus’] coming John had preached a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And as John was finishing his course, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.’ Acts 13.24-25
So that’s the motivation of our lectionary-compilers: a reprise of John the Baptist’s traditional second Advent outing.
Having established that, I’d like to consider briefly what Paul is actually doing in this sermon, and put a question to each of us. I’ll start with the question. What is your gospel?
One of Fr John Gaskell’s parishioners at S Alban’s Holborn, after thanking him for a sermon, remarked, ‘I’ve decided that Fr Gaskell’s gospel is as follows: Life is bloody, but it will be all right in the end.’ There was a lot more to John’s preaching than that, but he was content with that summary.
What is my gospel? What is your gospel?
Paul, you see, lacking the books we call the gospels, or the texts we call the creeds, put together workable building blocks of a ‘gospel’, an announcement of ‘good news’ that he can articulate according to his audience, which was always a moving target. In Athens, with an inquisitive audience of would-be pagan philosophers, he famously took advantage of a statue to an unknown god and opportunistically equated it with God the Father. Tonight he is talking to fellow Jews and gentile god-fearers, having been invited to speak by the synagogue officials. So he works with their context; he reminds them of their salvation history in terms which will lead neatly into a proclamation of Jesus, and preaches his gospel:
And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus 13.31-32
He then suggests what this gospel means for the hearers:
Let it be known to you therefore, brethren, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him every one that believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. Beware, therefore, lest there come upon you what is said in the prophets:
‘Behold, you scoffers, and wonder, and perish; for I do a deed in your days, a deed you will never believe, if one declares it to you. 13.18-40
This is very neat. John, today’s Advent focus, becomes the apt turning point in a story which riffs on the characteristic OT themes of promise and fulfilment, concentrated in the resurrection of Jesus and its liberating power for those who will listen. He then wraps up with a recogniseable Jewish prophetic trope at the end:
‘Behold, you scoffers, and wonder, and perish; for I do a deed in your days, a deed you will never believe, if one declares it to you.’
We can have no other gospel than that which is given us by the tradition, as Paul says elsewhere. That is the content of the Good News. But if we notice what he’s done here, we quickly see that the manner of it is carefully tailored to his audience.
We cannot tell the gospel without the narrative of Jesus, and him crucified; and him risen as well. But we can’t assume that we must always introduce it as he did here, with a rehearsal of shared Jewish context. Even he didn’t do that when he spoke in Athens, to a group who didn’t share that information. And the story of Israel and the rhetoric of the prophets are not shared information among many people to whom we are likely to speak. We are in Athens, not Jerusalem. As I was suggesting last Sunday morning, we have to take opportunities like the secular Christmas festivities to say, as Paul did in Athens, you are worshipping an unknown God; please let us introduce you to him: this story you love to remember at Christmas can change your life for the whole year; the hopes you have deep inside you are windows to God.
What is your gospel? Mine, much abbreviated in the Pauline manner, is that knowing Jesus Christ can bring us to God as children to a loving and forgiving parent, and that he comes to us in the Blessed Sacrament to feed us in that relationship, which makes the universe a safe place for us. To share that gospel I need to find ways to relate it to the concerns of people who know nothing about theological terms like ‘salvation’ or ‘redemption’. It often involves more listening than speaking.
But I find that presence of Christ in the sacrament invaluable in nourishing me to do it, for the good news is about presence, God being intimately present to us and we to him, and about how that disrupts and interrupts all that is merely material and destined for death, with the offer of life lived with God’s perspective, eternity. That’s a good window into Christmas.