This is the sermon for Sunday 10th December 2006. The scripture readings are: Malachi 3:1-4 and Luke 3:1-6
Today we celebrate the Second Sunday of Advent and the main character in today’s scripture readings is not Jesus but rather John the Baptist. In today’s Gospel reading, we read about the ministry of John the Baptist. The Old Testament Reading, from Malachi, was - of course - not originally written about John the Baptist but has been traditionally linked by the Christian church with the life and work of John.
The season of Advent begins on the first Sunday of December and it is a time of preparation and penitence. Like Lent, Advent is a time when we consider who we are before God and when we prepare our hearts.
Although Advent is generally a more ‘positive’ season of preparation than Lent, it is nevertheless a time to take stock of the state of our soul and our being before God as we prepare for his coming. Because it is not only Jesus’ first coming for which we are preparing, but also his second coming.
In Advent, we are not just waiting for Christmas Day so that we can mark the memorial of Jesus’ birth. We are also waiting - and hopefully working - for the “second coming” of Jesus, when Christ will reign at the right hand of God in God’s Kingdom. We are waiting for the baby Jesus and for our triumphant and risen Lord.
Today’s readings focus our attention rather dramatically on the penitential aspect of Advent. Both the readings are somewhat difficult and challenging; neither message is comfy and cosy.
In the Gospel reading, John the Baptist demands that we repent and be forgiven of our sins. He calls us to get to work preparing the path to the Kingdom of God so that the roads are straight and smooth. In the Old Testament reading, we understand that although John’s message has been long-awaited (because it heralds the coming of the Messiah), that his message will refine and purify us and that the day of this purification will be difficult to endure.
It all makes you long for the gentle baby Jesus, meek and mild, doesn’t it?
The first thing that I’d like to do this morning is to consider the idea of “repentance”.
I think that sometimes the word “repentance” can conjure up images of our mothers or fathers standing over us angrily with their hands on their hips shouting: “You say sorry now, young lady! (or young man)” And if this morning’s readings do anything, they might very well reinforce this picture of God as an angry parent.
But the concept of “repentance” is actually a call to turn around. “Repentance” is primarily something that we do in physical space. Of course, you can’t change your direction unless you first decide to do it, but making the decision isn’t all there is to it. A change of attitude is necessary but not sufficient. We actually have to start moving in another direction. We actually have to start doing things differently.
If you think about repentance in physical terms, it’s as if we are walking a path and have our backs turned on God. If our intention is to arrive at the Kingdom of God, we are going in the wrong direction and have to turn around.
What John the Baptist is doing is saying “Hey! You’re going the wrong way! Change your direction and walk that way!”
Repentance isn’t so much about God being angry with us an threatening us, it’s more about actually changing what we are doing. Scripture is filled with many prophetic books, all of which are calling human beings and human society to repentance. If God’s primary interest was to punish us then, first of all he would not have sent a Saviour into the world, but secondly, he would not have sent prophets into the world to call us to repentance.
God’s main interest is not to punish us, but to get us to turn around and walk in the other direction. Repentance may not be easy. Repentance might be difficult, but it shouldn’t make us afraid of God.
Walking toward the Kingdom
What does “walking in the other direction” mean, though? Well, I think we are being called to be citizens of the Kingdom of God, so we are called to “walk in the direction” of the Kingdom.
Because of Jesus’ first coming, and because of his life, death and resurrection, the fabric of reality has been changed such that sin no long has control over human beings. This is why we celebrate Christmas and the coming of the second person of the Trinity in human form.
Because of Jesus’ first coming at Christmas, the second coming becomes possible and we are promised that the Kingdom of God will be established. And as followers of Christ, we are called to recognise and understand what the Eternal Kingdom will look like, so that we can live as if the Kingdom were already here.
So, in practical terms, what does the Kingdom of God look like? What are its traits? How can we recognise it when we see it?
Well, if I recall correctly, one of the first sermons I preached to you was on “Racial Justice Sunday” when we talked about the fact that that God does not judge individuals the way that our worldly society does. God does not think that one person is better than another by virtue of race, gender, ability, social status, education, or what-have-you. Each person has been individually created by God, God knows each of us through and through and he sees each of us as unbelievably precious.
The Kingdom of God, is a place where every individual is infinitely loved and respected by God. And citizens of the Kingdom of God treat each other in the way that God treats them. In the Kingdom, we will have no need to try to prove that we are better than others. In the Kingdom, we will have no need to try to put other people down.
Secondly, because the Kingdom is a place where individuals are not judged by the standards of the world, I believe that the Kingdom is also a place that is inclusive. We need to be slightly careful in this concept, because there are people who hear the word “inclusive” and think that such an idea means we have to abandon all attempts to tell right from wrong.
When I say “inclusive”, I don’t mean keeping quiet in the face of wrong-doing. When I say “inclusive”, I mean that God wants to offer his Kingdom – his salvation – to everyone. Picking up on the image of repentance being a commitment to walk in the direction of the Kingdom, what I’m saying is that through the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus, God has issued a general invitation to all people of all time to walk in his direction.
It is the work of Christ that has made it possible for us to make the decision to walk in the direction of the Kingdom. Having issued the invitation to all people of all time, there are no fences around the Kingdom.
God does not stop some people at the gate and turn them back. God issues a general invitation and all who respond to that invitation, all who repent and walk in the direction of the Kingdom will be welcomed.
Thirdly, the Prophets tell us repeatedly that the Kingdom is a place where justice and righteousness are the order of the day. But it’s important to understand how the Prophets define justice and righteousness. Although righteousness certainly starts with each one of us, it’s not a concept that is confined to the realm of personal morality.
In the prophetic tradition, “righteousness” is a social and communal issue. Righteousness is about establishing a society where the poor and the oppressed have rights, where they are not exploited by the rich and powerful. The prophets constantly rail against Israel and Judah for establishing societies where the rich get richer and where the poor get poorer. The prophets tell such societies that God hates their worship and their religious festivals when there religious obligations are conducted in the context of a society where the poor cannot eat.
So the Kingdom of God is also a place where justice and righteousness are the order of the day.
Repentance is Good News
Far from being bad news, I want to argue that God’s call to repentance is actually good news.
Repentance is possible in the first place because of God’s love and forgiveness as expressed in the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus. So the fact that we are able to repent – the fact that we are able to walk in God’s direction – is the result of God’s love for us.
But in saying that repentance is good news, am I burying my head in the sand and ignoring the hard images in today’s readings? Am I ignoring the images of the refiner’s fire, the images of purification, the images of straightening that which is crooked and of smoothing that which is rough? I don’t think so. Good news does not always have to be the news that life will be easy.
Any individual who has asked God for the grace to give up a besetting sin will tell you that such a journey is not an easy one.
And, if we look at the unrighteousness in our society, we can also see that the solutions are not easy ones and that they will require difficult measures. Being good stewards of the earth and of the climate requires people in the developed world to reduce the energy we consume. Making sure that people in developing countries can earn a living wage requires the West to rethink the way it orders its economy, meaning that we cannot continue to grow our economy and suck in global wealth the way that we have done in the past.
But all of these actions, however painful and refining they may be, are Good News because they are reflections of Kingdom of God.
In Advent, we remember the coming of the baby Jesus into our world 2000 years ago. But Advent is not just a season of looking backwards to the first coming of Christ.
It is also a season of looking forward to the second coming of Christ and to the coming of the Kingdom of God. It is a season that calls us to prepare our hearts for that Kingdom and to live as if the Kingdom were already upon us. Advent invites us to hope in a world where hoping sometimes seems impossible to do.
In this second Sunday of Advent, the prophetic voice of John the Baptist calls us all to repentance. John’s exhortation reminds us that God has made repentance possible. His exhortation reminds us that God invites all of us to change our direction, to straighten and smooth our path and walk toward the Kingdom. We are reminded that change is possible, that hope is possible, that righteousness and justice are possible.
As we go from this place, my prayer for each of us this morning is that we continue to prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ by lives of on-going repentance. I pray that each of us can clearly hear the voice of God calling us with his message of love, forgiveness and reconciliation. I pray that we each be given the grace of God to bring his forgiveness, love, justice and righteousness more fully into the world around us. Amen