2nd Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 11. 1-10
Psalm 72. 1-7, 18-19
Matthew 3 1-12
May I speak in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Spirit of life,
I'm going to start today by asking you to think about something so mundane and so ordinary that you probably don't give it a thought. But without it, you'd be stuck. And that's this, a door hinge. Just think how critical these little things are- without hinges no door could open. Hinges allow us to pass from one room into another, they make it possible for us to move from one space to another. But they're not just handy little bits of jointed metal, when we talk about hinges as metaphors, they also help us to picture in our minds moments of critical significance and importance. When England play Senegal tonight in the World Cup there'll be a moment when Gary Lineker will tell us that the game hinges on a key player or a vital move. That thrilling moment when the game swings into a new reality and everything changes. And today, in our reading from Matthew we encounter just such a moment in the coming of John the Baptist to the people of Jerusalem and Judea, because there is a sense in which everything that has happened previously in human history, and everything that will go on to happen with the coming of Christ into the world, hinges on the events in today's reading from Matthew. John the Baptist's words and actions are closing the door on the Old Testament and opening a new door onto a new covenant, a new relationship between God and Creation.
Matthew reminds us of how we're seeing and hearing a moment of change from one way of knowing and understanding God to something new when he quotes Isaiah in verse 3, telling us that John's is:
'the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'
The reference to Isaiah tells us that John is coming to us at the start of Advent as a guide; he's showing us a way of moving between the Old Testament, and the New. He's the means by which the door opens for us onto a new way of understanding and encountering God. John tells us that this is going to be through the coming of Christ into our lives and that this new relationship means we ourselves have to answer his call to make a new sort of commitment to God. Preparing the way of the Lord means living lives which show what it means to be baptised with fire and with the Holy spirit.
John's fiery preaching and call to baptism come in the same week that the news headlines tell us that we're reached 'the end of an era for Christian Britain', that for the first time the proportion of people who identify as Christian in England and Wales has fallen below 50%. Reading John the Baptist in the same week as those rather bleak headlines made me wonder what he would make of how we as C21st Christians talk about God. Perhaps one of the reasons people aren't identifying as Christian is because the language we use is so different to that used by John on the banks of the Jordan… Ben spoke last week about the difference between language that enables people everywhere to meet the living God and the stale and unengaging experience of the type of religious language which makes God seem boring and irrelevant to so many people today. There's certainly nothing stale about John the Baptist's language of unquenchable fire and axes cutting down trees. No wonder the Pharisees and Sadducees and all the people of Jerusalem and Judea came to him; he must have sounded like nothing they had ever heard before. But our way of talking about our faith can't be his, for all sorts of reasons people nowadays are too wary of fiery street preachers warning of fire and judgement. And dressing in camel skins might get your picture in the Sussex express but it's unlikely to bring more people into church... Perhaps it helps to think of John in the way Renaissance painters often showed him, pointing toward Christ, as if to say, don't look at me, follow him. This, I think, is what Paul has in mind in his letter to the Romans.
Paul helps us to understand how we can act today; how we can follow the Baptist's commandment and help prepare the way of the Lord. what does Paul suggest this new way of thinking, acting and being looks like? Firstly, he tells us that it's about taking hope from the scriptures. We can see that beautifully illustrated in our reading from Isiah; the wonderful image of peace emerging from enmity expressed in the idea of the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid and the cow and the bear living peacefully together, led by a little child, expresses the hope that the peace of God will eventually triumph over all the wars and conflicts brought into being by human greed and anger. Secondly Paul tells us that we can help to prepare for God's coming by living in harmony with one another; this, he tells us, is 'in accordance with Christ Jesus'. By modelling our approach to life on Christ's we can bring peace and, ultimately, help to bring His goodness to the world.
Today's readings tell us that we can use this time of Advent to open a door onto a better world, one in which our words and actions and hopes for the future are driven by the fiery and unsettling presence of the Holy Spirit. Malcolm Guite expresses this very beautifully in his poem 'On St John's Eve', when he writes:
John the Baptist pioneers our path,
Unfolds the essence of the life of prayer,
Unlatches the last doorway into faith,
And makes one inner space an everywhere.
Least of the new and greatest of the old,
He sets himself aside, and cries "Behold
The One who stands amongst you comes with fire!"
Let us hope that this Advent can be a time when we too can open the door onto a new way of being, and that in doing so we too may burn with something of that fire.
In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.