All Saints Margaret Street | Second Sunday of Advent High Mass Sunday 8 December 2013

Sermon for Second Sunday of Advent High Mass Sunday 8 December 2013

Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses

On Friday morning, Canon Geoffrey White was on his way here to celebrate the lunchtime mass. When he arrived he was brimming over with excitement. On the Tube, a young woman had given up her seat to him and then introduced herself as a granddaughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The news story of the week has of course been the death of Nelson Mandela which has brought back memories of the struggle to end Apartheid in South Africa, and Archbishop Desmond has been one of the actors in that great drama who has been called on to comment.

In the early 1980’s I was Rector of St. Margaret’s, Leven in Fife and a member of the Episcopal Church’s Overseas Committee. We had a historic and still live relationship with the Church in Southern Africa. Like other churches around the world, we had been challenged to disinvest from South Africa in order to bring pressure on the seemingly impregnable and certainly unyielding Apartheid regime.  I was selected to propose the motion at the General Synod. I was sent off to do my homework. I remember coming down to London and after attending the early mass here going to the Church Commissioners on Millbank where I was ushered into an oak panelled room and told by my elders and betters that there was no way the Church of England could do anything so rash. It would put the stipends and pensions of the clergy at risk. Nor should the Episcopal Church with its much smaller resources do so.

Well, came the day, and I had to make the speech at Synod in the Cathedral in Perth. Most of the previous night was spent writing and re-writing it. More than once, I suspected that a young priest from a poor parish in Fife was being put up to do this because I was expendable. If I was shot down in flames, no great harm would be done. 

To my surprise, and even more to that of the financial great and good of the Church, the motion was carried overwhelmingly.  The convenor of the Finance Committee would later confess that they had even made a profit on the sale of the investments – which I suppose might be called the “fruit which befits repentance.”

So, one of the things in my ministry in which I can take a quiet pride was having had a very small part in the movement to end Apartheid. It means that when I get to the next world, I can look one of my predecessors in that small parish in the face. I was remembering him at Mass yesterday morning, along with our own beloved Bishop Ambrose Weekes.  His name was Ambrose Reeves. He went on to be Bishop of Johannesburg and was deported from South Africa for his forceful opposition to the regime.

Now, let’s turn our attention to our readings, beginning with Isaiah’s vision of a creation at peace.

Wolf, leopard, lion and bear will live, harmoniously with domestic animals – lamb, calf, kid, and cow. Lions will eat straw like oxen, and a small child will play safely over the hole of poisonous snakes. These seemingly natural adversaries will live in harmony with no thought of hurt or destruction. Indeed, the earth will now be filled with the “knowledge of the Lord.” 

This Hebrew term means more than information; it is the full entering into and experience of what is known. So the earth will be infused with the reality of God, and it shall be as comprehensive as the waters of the sea. 

Isaiah’s vision of an Eden restored, is not the product of some rural idyll; composed in tranquillity on one of those beautiful summer days when all seems well with the world.

Its background was a period of extreme tension. The northern kingdom of Israel and its neighbour Syria had tried to persuade Judah to join their alliance against the rising power of Assyria. On Isaiah’s advice, King Ahaz refused but, going against further advice from the prophet, had called on Assyria to intervene. This led to the destruction of the northern kingdom. Isaiah hoped that the young Hezekiah, who would follow Ahaz, would be the righteous successor of David that he longed for and usher in the peaceable kingdom.

The passage opens with the picture of a tree stump from which new branches grow. The stump is named Jesse. Jesse is the father of David, so this growing tree is the house of David. It is a family tree.

The coming king will receive the Spirit of the Lord and thus the various attributes to be desired in a ruler:

  • Wisdom and understanding
  • Counsel and might
  • Knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

Reverence towards God us underlined – the expected one delights “in the fear of the Lord.”

Such a king will not rely solely on the immediate impression of the senses – “he will not judge by what his eyes see or by what his ears hear”– but will rely on faithfulness to God’s covenant, to righteousness and equity. The beneficiaries of these will be the poor and the meek – while the wicked of the earth will be laid low by the mouth and lips of his word of judgement.

We have here a portrait of one to come in the line of David who is empowered by God’s spirit, equipped with the qualities of commitment to God’s covenant, and directed to the welfare of the most defenceless and marginal.

This is a model of hoped-for leadership in any generation. Early Christians saw it fulfilled in Jesus.

(This passage is the source of the popular devotion of the Jesse tree such as that in our west window.) 

“Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you,” says St. Paul to the Romans. He writes to a small community of Christians who were already experiencing divisions: between Jewish and Gentile converts. The latter, increasingly in the majority, saw themselves as superior to those who still clung to some of the Jewish practices which they had not adopted, and as new and liberated Christians they felt themselves free from. That freedom, however right it was in itself, made them feel “strong,” superior to the “weak.”

Paul warns them against this tendency which undermines the whole gospel.  If Christ, “the root of Jesse,” had come for Gentiles as well as Jews, had died for both, so that both might worship God together, then who were they to feel superior?

One of the things that has been written about Nelson Mandela in the last couple of days, has been that – in spite of all those years in prison of Robben Island – he was not only remarkably free from bitterness, but he was able to understand how the white minority, and especially the beleaguered Afrikaaner community, felt. He could understand their fear an, rather than taking a terrible vengeance on them, seek to reach out to them in reconciliation. 

Part of that would be the Truth and Justice Commission over which Archbishop Tutu presided.
It sought not to punish, simply to establish the truth of what had happened. It encouraged people to own up to what they had done. It enabled families to discover what had happened to loved ones who had disappeared in the struggle.

Things are not perfect in South Africa, but that they are much better than they might have been, is to a great extent the legacy of a president and an archbishop and those who shared their generosity of spirit; a spirit which was able to recognise the children of God in all people.

That repentance to which the Baptist calls us in today’s Gospel is not merely a sorrow for past sins. It is a deliberate turning towards God, a re-orientation of our while life towards God. And looking to God, we then see others as he sees them, as his children, as our brothers and sisters.