Sermon for Third Sunday of Advent High Mass Sunday 13 December 2015
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Zephaniah 3.14-20; Psalm 146; Philippians 4.4-7; Luke 3.7-18
When the Bishop of London made me Area Dean of St. Marylebone – more years ago than either he or I care to remember – one of my first duties was to help with the appointment of a new Vicar of St. John’s Wood, a “minister and steward of God’s mysteries” as St. Paul and today’s Collect put it, to replace Fr. John Slater who had been the dean until his move to St. George’s, Hanover Square; where sadly his ministry was cut short by the illness which caused his premature death.
Perhaps because Fr. John was an accomplished preacher – he had learned his trade here at All Saints in this pulpit – one of the parish representatives had asked that the candidates – all 27 of them – should submit with their applications the scripts of three of their sermons – preached in different contexts: a festival, an ordinary Sunday, a wedding or a funeral.
When we assembled at the archdeacon’s house for the short-listing, the said parish representative suggested that we should begin by reading through all the sermons, which we had not yet seen.
I pointed out that this would mean reading no less than 81 sermons – more than many even weekly churchgoers listen to over the space of a year – and this would take up much of the morning allotted for the exercise – and probably leave us comatose.
Fortunately, the archdeacon agreed with my suggestion that when we had got down to the last half-dozen candidates and then wanted to reduce the number by one or two – we might turn our attention to their sermons to see if they could provide a decisive factor.
What, I wonder, would have been the effect on us of reading an applicant’s homily in which he began by addressing his hearers as a “brood of vipers,” likening them to a bunch of venomous snakes? It’s not difficult to guess that the axe would soon be put to the root of his candidacy. When people are searching for a parish priest, they are usually looking for evidence of diplomatic and pastoral skills – someone who is a reconciler rather than a wild-eyed visionary more likely to generate conflict than to bring peace.
When they are looking for a new priest, parishes ought not to forget – as they sometimes do – that they are not looking for a chaplain who will stroke them – but for one who will, like the Baptist, point them to Jesus Christ; who will prepare the way for Christ “by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just.” (Collect for Advent 3).
Well, John the Baptist was a prophet, the last of the prophets. As such he did not have to submit himself to any appointment processes: filling in application forms and submitting to interviews which is the lot of the clergy in today’s Church of England.
As a prophet, his task was to speak God’s word to the people without fear or favour – to speak the truth to power. In the end his speaking of that truth to Herod, the client-king who ruled Judea on behalf of the Romans, would lead to his death.
But before that, however uncompromising or unflattering his language might be, John clearly made a profound and effective impact on his hearers: even when he told them they could place no reliance on their inheritance as members of God’s people, as children of Abraham. People came out to the Jordan to hear this preacher, even members of the temple priesthood – of which John as Zechariah’s son was by birth a member – and tax-collectors, despised collaborators with the Roman oppressor – and soldiers, probably Herod’s mercenaries rather than Roman legionaries.
These came out to hear this figure whose dress and manner of life, as well as his message, brought to mind the prophets of old like Elijah. They responded to his call to repentance by being baptised by him in the waters of the Jordan as a symbolic representation of the change of life he called for in preparation for the coming of the Messiah who would inaugurate the reign of God.
We associate the ministry of the prophet with the denunciation of evil; of disobedience to God’s law. Those words of hope we heard from the prophet Zephaniah this morning, would have come as a surprise if we had read the whole book which is a searing denunciation of the flagrant disobedience to God’s will of the people of Jerusalem – both great and small. It is the inspiration for the Dies Irae of the old requiem mass with its terrifying “Day of wrath and doom unending.” The prophet strips away the illusions on which we rely and forces us back on God – as God is and not as we might like to make him: an indulgent grandfather who will let us off or an impersonal force unconcerned with what we get up to – but someone to be feared; a holy and righteous God who demands holiness and righteousness of us who are made in his image.
Like Zephaniah, John warns the people to flee from the coming judgement – prophesying the disastrous consequences of their present behaviour – but also affirming that there is still hope.
That repentance which John preached, and which Jesus would preach too, is much more than an outward ceremony: it involves the whole person – their life and work which can never be the same again. It is not to be received passively; it demands concrete actions, “fruits that befit repentance.”
Whatever he thinks of their crowd and their motives for being there, John’s words clearly strike home with the crowd. They seek instruction: ‘What should we do?”
Then that we hear him doing something we might not expect to from a prophet or preacher. Luke shows him giving them specific guidance which applies the general message of his preaching to the specific situations of their lives. He tailors his commands to the particular needs of each of the groups he addresses, as indeed a good pastor will do when people come to him for guidance. It is as if he was acting as a spiritual director to his hearers as well as a prophet. But John is no modern-day “non-directive counsellor.” His prescriptions are quite definite and specific. They make demands which are related to the economic and social realities of the world his hearers live in: a world in which the lot of the poor and powerless was a precarious one. John’s directions reflect what the Church would later call God’s “preferential option for the poor,” which the psalm (146) we have just sung, with its God who “gives justice to those who suffer wrong and bread to those who hunger….looses those who are bound..opens the eyes of the blind…lifts up those who are bowed down…watches over the stranger in the land…upholds the orphan and the widow, reminds us is no recent invention of theology which has abandoned God for politics.
- Those who have two coats should give one to those who have none; those who have food and other material benefits of this world must share it with those who have not.
- Tax collectors are to collect only what is owed and not enrich themselves at the expense of the poor.
- Soldiers must not abuse their power to extort and steal and must be content with their wages.
And we, “What should we do?” We might ask ourselves the same question as we who are also the children of Abraham hear the words of prophecy and gospel in our worship. What we should do in our particular situations in life is something we may want to discuss with our pastors – that is one of the things they are for.
As for our general situation, while we may not consider ourselves rich and powerful, we know that we have much more of the world’s good things than many of our brothers and sisters: most of us have “two coats” and the material prosperity they represent and which we are called to share with those who have none. We need think no further than the harrowing scenes we see on our television screens of those fleeing war and persecution in Syria.
We may not feel that we are able to affect the great issues of world politics, but we should realize that we can do something to help with what we have. And as the Church, we do have a collective capacity and responsibility to engage with the moral issues we face as a society:
- How we respond to the refugee crisis,;
- How our country, as it engages in military action in Syria and Iraq, does so in ways which do not lead to a worsening of the situation.
History teaches us that war is a brutalizing business. It can desensitize even those who engage in it for the best of motives. We must not forget the abuses committed in our name and supposedly for our security: the “new-speak” used to legitimize torture and murder. We cannot stand by while politicians – both in the US and perhaps nearer to home, play on our fears and worst instincts for political advantage – seeking to demonize whole categories of people because of their faith. We have been there before and we should not forget where that road led: it led to Auschwitz.
Here in the Diocese of London, following a resolution from our own Deanery Synod and our PCC, we have expressed our concern to the government over the fate of Christians and of other refugees and victims of this conflict. We are seeking collectively to make a practical contribution to the needs of refugees – both those in the Middle East and those who will come to our country. One practical expression of that response will be by the giving of money through the Bishop’s Lent Appeal next year, so that specific help can be provided to those who are also “children of Abraham.”
That contribution is also a spiritual one. It is to bring our needs, our anxieties about all this, to God in prayer. Paul teaches us in today’s epistle – written as I said in the parish email on Friday– not from the comfort of a vicarage study – much less an episcopal palace – but from a prison cell – that it is in prayer that we find that “peace of God which passes all understanding,” which exceeds human imagination or comprehension. That peace, the shalom of God is not merely the absence of conflict but a mutual care and communion in which each can find the fulfillment which is God’s will for his children. We find that peace, not in the evasion of issues, hoping that by ignoring them they will go away, but by facing them together in the presence of God.