Preached by the Revd Henriette Howarth
Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12 – Sunday 4th December 2022, Bradford Cathedral.
Let us pray,
Loving God, we pray that by your Holy Spirit you will speak to us afresh this morning, open our hearts, our minds and our lives as we reflect on your word and prepare for your coming. Amen.
I wonder how you are experiencing advent this year, advent 2022. Is it different this year from other years? There may be all sorts of reasons why it feels different.
The world is a different place from last year – so much has happened in one year, politically, globally. In your own lives there may have been changes too, especially if you have experienced bereavement or illness.
Advent is a season to take stock so it’s good to briefly check in with ourselves. What is advent 2022 like for you? What is it like for people in other places in the world, such as Ukraine, Palestine, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and so on, countries which have faced significant challenges.
Maybe, like I do, you love the simplicity of the advent season – slowly preparing for Christmas. The days become darker and quieter but therefore the light of Christ shines more brightly and the voice of God, can be heard more clearly. We go with the pace of nature: slow, quiet and restorative. Lighting the advent candles one by one symbolises the increasing light of Christ. Advent is about preparation. Preparing our hearts. Preparing our homes -peaceful and joyful.
But then the reality kicks in: financial problems, pressure to buy presents, family tensions, loneliness, stress, the cold, depression, the football, the global crises etc and it might all feel a bit jarring, this is not how advent or Christmas is supposed to be. And we can get a bit angry and stressed, and think ‘I wish it was all over…’
John the Baptist is a helpful figure in the advent scene because he represents that jarring or angry sentiment. This strange person in the wilderness wearing his camel hair shirt with a leather belt, eating locusts and wild honey.
How do we relate to John the Baptist? He was ok as a baby wasn’t he, miracle son of Elizabeth and Zachariah, cousin of Jesus. But now as an adult he is a bit strange: Maybe we want to push him away: go away- you don’t fit here. We don’t want you at our advent party. We want things to be peaceful and calm.
But might it be that John the Baptist is actually a good person to have around as he embodies the discomfort that we all feel, the weirdness of our times. Let’s embrace John the Baptist and let him speak to us. What does advent look like with John the Baptist present?
By the way, I always find that we are asked to do some acrobatics in our mind at this time.
Advent literally means ‘coming’ and is a season of waiting.
Waiting for the coming of what? Of course we are waiting for Christmas, the birth of Jesus. But Jesus is already born, more than 2000 years ago! Or is it waiting for the return of Jesus in the future?
That explains why during advent we have readings about the end times, the day of the Lord.
So there are these different aspects of waiting: waiting for the birth of Jesus and the celebration thereof and waiting for the return of Jesus.
It is summarised well by John the Baptist’s proclamation: the Kingdom of God is near! We are waiting for the Kingdom as The embodied in Jesus the fragile little baby and the Kingdom of God in all its glory when Jesus returns.
John the Baptist shouts like a lone voice in the wilderness, as foretold by the prophet Isaiah: prepare the Way of the Lord!
How do we prepare for something as big as the coming of God and his Kingdom? We get a glimpse of how big this is when we go back to the prophets. The prophets spoke powerful words containing hope and promise but also judgement and warnings.
Let’s take Isaiah 11, our first reading this morning where the prophet talks about the promised King, from the house of Jesse.
He says about this king that the Spirit is upon him.
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
However it is not all terrifying. He also describes a paradisal scene:
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and a little child shall lead them
Justice and peace are two sides of the same coin.
The prophet Malachi, calls it the great and dreadful day of the Lord which will bring fire to burn the wicked but the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays.
By the way Malachi said that God would send the prophet Elijah before that day comes and John the Baptist is like Elijah -dressed in the same way with a camel hair shirt. No wonder that the people at the time of John the Baptist, looked to Jesus as the promised Messiah, bringing about the great day of the Lord.
How do we wait and prepare for this?
The prophets and their fierce words of warning and promise- might instil fear as well as hope in us.
John, like the prophets, also says we can do something, not just waiting, but actively preparing.
He uses the word repentance. It means change of direction.
Turning towards God, the light, towards compassion and forgiveness of sins. Baptism was a sign of that turning towards God. Even Jesus showed up for this baptism to show how significant it was.
We read in Luke (3: 10-13) that the crowds came to John and said
10 “What should we do then?” . John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?
13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
The world of John the Baptist, the world of Jesus was a world of famine, of refugees, of child murder, of weeping, of oppression. That is the world, the Kingdom of God broke into. A world that asks for repentance but also for action: what shall we do?
This kingdom is near. Jesus even says it is within you, amongst you.
During advent the invitation is to be present in the here and now and discover the signs of this kingdom.
The glimmers of hope, the signs of growth, the symbols of peace, the acts of justice.
Its not just about seeing these signs but about creating them: through our giving, our praying, our hospitality, the life style choices we make. As a cathedral you are a brilliant sign of Gods kingdom in the middle of this city. Don’t underestimate your ministry especially at this time of year.
When we truly embrace John the Baptist, and stand beside him to look towards the coming of Jesus, we accept the rough edges, the challenges, the weirdness of the world we live in and the people we journey with. We look to Jesus, the one we have been waiting for, the one we are waiting for, who brings healing and peace. The one who brings true peace and joy and direction in the middle of the darkness, the cold and uncertainty.