Sub Dean - Revd Canon Michael Rawson
What an extraordinary week it has been!
This time last week we were gearing ourselves up for the Brexit debate and the vote in the House of Commons. That was controversially postponed and replaced with a flurry of prime ministerial visits to leaders across Europe. Then there was the leadership challenge, followed by more visits to Europe. Sailing into unchartered waters sounds like an understatement. We’ve also witnessed some quite unprecedented behaviour by MPs together with forceful rhetoric on all sides. It has all felt rather unEnglish to say the very least.
This Third Sunday of Advent is often referred to as Gaudete Sunday, or Rejoice for it gives us a glimpse or foretaste of Christmas joy. When I was at Wakefield the Dean encouraged us to use rose vestments as a sign that today the clouds of Advent rise a little. There are no pink vestments here but do you feel like rejoicing today? Does your heart feel filled with Advent joy and hope? It might not feel that we have much to be joyful about with the continuing chaos and confusion over Brexit, the unrest in France and major divisions in the United States, Yemen beyond the brink of disaster, not to mention our fractured relations with Russia. There is fear and uncertainty on our streets with the rise in homelessness and knife crime. Where can we find joy and hope in such a world context?
Hearing some of the speeches and comments by MPs inside and outside Parliament this week makes John the Baptist’s ‘brood of vipers’ speech sound pretty tame. In spite of his lack of sartorial elegance I think he might have felt quite at home in the debating chamber this week, with no holds barred comments on all sides. John challenges his hearers in no uncertain terms. ‘Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come?’ he hurls at his hearers. And then goes on to tell them that ‘every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ And don’t rest on your laurels, thinking that you are God’s chosen people for you have nothing to be satisfied about. The reaction of the crowd is interesting. For those who are threatened by his words, the clock is ticking for John and he will soon be in his grave. For those who respond to his hard message, they ask, ‘What should we do?’ John responds in an equally practical way, pointing to what behaviour might be expected of kingdom people. Be just, share with others, don’t extort and be honest. He points them to the one he is preparing the way for, the one who will bring light into our darkness.
John the Baptist spared no one’s blushes and consciously failed to dress up and sweeten his message. His words can make us feel as uncomfortable and challenged as were his first hearers, for they ask us to commit ourselves and to act now. We, like them, are told not to rely on our status or achievements.
Christmas is almost upon us and if we’re being honest I suspect that most of us would prefer not to be challenged just this minute. Perhaps in the new year but not today, thank you very much. It is easy to be seduced by the tinsel and glitter, with the happy-ever-after Christmas story. But of course, it never did end happily and so John the Baptist is the perfect antidote to the fairy dust and schmaltz of a commercial Christmas.
Today John challenges us to recommit to the ways of God’s kingdom and that we need to do this before continuing our journey to the manger at Christmas. How can we best prepare for Jesus to be born into our hearts and to enthrone him in our lives? The practical steps he offered to his first hearers are certainly open to us too. The word repent means literally to turn around and to see things through the lens of God; turning away from ourselves and refocussing our efforts on God and our neighbour. John calls us to live lives of integrity; with generosity, justice and hope. He calls us to live out the faith we profess and to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom in our words and actions. His words about the axe lying at the root of the tree suggest an immediacy and urgency in his message. This isn’t something to reflect upon and include in our new year resolutions. This is something to act upon today. Now!
It would be very easy to feel overwhelmed by John’s message this morning. After the week we’ve all experienced it feels like a hard message. If, like me, you’re feeling like that, then Paul’s words in our second reading come as music to our ears. ‘Rejoice in the Lord always ... the Lord is near ... Do not worry about anything ... the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds.’ These are amazingly encouraging words to take away and are cause for us to truly rejoice. They are words that you might like to stick on your fridge or wherever you put things to remember them. Read them over again slowly and deliberately, chewing over the words and allowing their meaning to rise to the surface. Some words will resonate more than others. Ponder them and cherish them. I believe it is through these words of encouragement that we are able to truly respond to John the Baptist’s challenging message and commit ourselves anew to be the kingdom people of God. Life comes to each of us with light and shade, challenge and encouragement and the anticipation of our story of salvation story at Christmas is no different.
As people of faith we celebrate the birth of the Christchild in nine days time but we also look for and long for his coming again at the end of the ages. We have our feet planted firmly in the present with all the joys and challenges that brings, but in this coming feast we also anticipate the time when all things will be gathered up in Christ and he will truly be king of the universe. On our journey to that place we are guided by the small flickering light of hope, the hope of a new born child, the hope of a world being made new.