Sunday 4th December, Advent 2, St Matthias & St Mary Magdalene, morning

Readings Isaiah 40.1-11, 2 Peter 3.8-15a, Mark 1.1-8

Preacher Canon Robert Titley

The early Roman empire, out of which the New Testament comes, was a world not so very different from ours. One thing we have that they didn’t, though, is the opinion poll, which is shame, as it would be good to know the approval rating of a king Herod or an Emperor Nero. So let’s imagine – Ipsos Mori (the most classical sounding pollster I can think of) are operating in those days, and they ask 1005 randomly selected Galileans which religious figures they expect to be talking about in ten years’ time. Many, I bet, will put John the Baptist ahead of Jesus.

In Christian art, John appears as the dutiful warm-up man for Jesus, who is the main event. In the New Testament, however, the picture is more complex. There are signs that some see him as the main event, or the main event so far. In the gospels he has his own disciples, and in the Acts of the Apostles they are still in evidence as the early church hits its stride. Next week’s gospel reading (from John’s gospel) will suggest that John still had a big following, decades later. He also appears outside the Bible, in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus. Now Josephus is a sophisticate, at home in classical culture, so he is hardly a fan of the man he calls ‘a hairy, half-naked, vegetarian, desert dweller’, but he mentions him, because he matters. So, why does John matter?

You may have been in town on Friday for Richmond’s Victorian Evening, enjoying the period costumes and taking advantage of the late-night shopping. Imagine you’re back there. You come out of House of Fraser, laden with 30%-off stuff, and you see someone else in period costume – except this costume is out of the 13th century, not the 19th. She is wearing a long, rough brown tunic, tied with a rope with three knots in it. She is a Franciscan sister, and if you know what she is and what she stands for – for instance, that the three knots represent her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience – well, that may make you look at your bulging shopping bags in a new light, even in these austere times, when shopping till you drop is a patriotic duty.

When the people see John the Baptist it’s a little like that: the animal skins, the rough leather belt and the starvation diet, it shouts severe simplicity. But it says more, because he is dressed up as someone else, Elijah, the prophet who will herald the coming of the messiah – God’s anointed one – the day of judgement and God’s setting of the world to rights.

For St Matthias, 9.30am service:

‘Get right with God,’ John says, ‘and do it now, because time is short.’ People respond in huge numbers. Whatever others make of him, though, John sees himself as an incomplete figure. His job is to prepare the way for the one who comes next, who is more powerful than he is. John is a true prophet, the latest in a long line of those whom we mark with today‘s second advent candle, people who see how things really are and how they might be. Prophets call people to act now because of what they see in God’s future. John is the patron saint of those who dare to look up, look forward and act now because of what might be.

These are times when we need that kind of wisdom and bravery, the stuff you need to be ‘a voice crying in the wilderness’. These are days of feverish anxiety about the Euro, when those in business are living hand to mouth, transfixed by getting through the immediate, the next year, or even the next month. The government announced (boldly, I thought) extra spending on infrastructure projects, that will only bring lasting economic benefit some time in the future, and voices have been quick to say that the money should be put in pockets now, so people will spend at once. And then there is that other thing that is exercising some prophetic imaginations. Next Wednesday sees the final episode of the BBC’s Frozen Planet. This last programme might be better called Defrosting Planet, for it is to be very a personal piece of prophecy by our distinguished parishioner David Attenborough, telling us honestly how he sees things now, and how things might be, in a warming world.

This is a matter to dwarf the collapse of the Euro. Being distracted from the melting poles by economic meltdown has been likened to stooping in front of a steamroller to pick up a five pound note. For us, of course, in the temperate north, the steamroller is still a little way down the road. We can carry on as we are, and things won’t get too hot in most of our lifetimes. No doubt when they heard the Baptist’s urgent voice in the wilderness, many said, ‘Well, nothing too terrible has happened yet…’ So, do we just carry on as we are? These are big things, and you may argue that there’s so little we ourselves can do. Even so, for us citizens of this overheating world, the question in our reading from the Second Letter of Peter is pertinent, because it is about character, not pragmatics: ‘What sort of people ought we to be in leading lives of godliness?’

Prepare the way of the Lord, act now because of what might be. There is another event that we can do a lot to affect, and it’s coming soon. We now know that our new Team Vicar, David Gardiner, will be licensed on 30th April. It sounds along way off, but time will fly. What preparing of the way need we to do?

I hesitate to say this, because if we see ourselves collectively as John the Baptist preparing the way, then that makes David the messiah, and that is not the job he applied for (indeed, the post was filled some time ago). We know the elephant trap for those awaiting a new parish priest: every loose end, every unfinished

task, every conundrum that has defied solution for decades – ah, well, the new vicar will be able to sort that. So beware. But also hope for great things. The word messiah means ‘anointed’ by God, anointed like kings and queens are at their crowning to strengthen them for their task. And God ‘anoints’ each of us in the sense that, when we are where God wants us to be, God gives us what we need to do what God wants done. We pray with confidence that this will be true for David and for us. So, back to my question: what preparing of the way needs to be done?

Last weekend the Standing Committee of our Parochial Church Council had a morning away. One topic we discussed was Growth. Growth takes many forms, but we talked most about numbers: encouraging more people to start worshipping among us, and encouraging others who already do that to do it more often. We agreed that it might be good for each of our three churches to fasten on to one initiative – and persist in it – to see what fruit it might bear. (We can talk about ideas over coffee.) If I were coming as parish priest to a church that had embarked on such a thing, I think I would feel that here was a place that might have something prophetic about it: for here were some people prepared to look honestly at what is, to see what might be, and to act; people who were prepared to make their watchword words like these, from the visionary prophet Jeremiah:

Surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart14.  (Jeremiah 29.11f)

For St Mary Magdalene, 11.30am service:

‘Get right with God,’ John says, ‘and do it now, because time is short.’ People respond to that urgency. For Isaiah, however, the times are different: a testing period is coming to an end and a good time is beginning; God is going to bring comfort, strength, reassurance, after times when those things have been in short supply.

For you and me the time is the same on the calendar or on the clock, but in deeper ways the same time can be so different. If you are in talks about saving the Euro time has one face; if you are parted from loved ones, it has quite another. Earlier this morning at St Matthias, I announced that our new team Vicar, David Gardiner, would be licensed on April 30th next year. To some, that seems a long way off. To the couple I met afterwards, whose wedding is in April, I bet it’s no time at all.

What is true at all times, true at the end of an ordeal, true at the looming of a crisis, true in the routines of life, what is always true is that, whatever face it wears, this time is God’s time. This is something to have in mind as you come to receive communion, or the laying on of hands and anointing. God’s time comes with whatever God offers me at this moment, which is whatever I need: whether comfort and reassurance, as for Isaiah’s exiles returning from the wilderness, or the cold shower which presents me with the truth about myself, like John’s baptism in the Jordan. The present moment is all you have. There is no other moment to meet God, either now, or at the end of time.

Notes

The second Advent candle   The lighting of candles on an Advent wreath was a custom imported into Britain from northern Europe in the nineteenth century. The wreath has four red candles in a ring around a white candle. The first candle is lit on Advent Sunday; additional ones are then lit, one more on each Sunday, and the white one on Christmas Day. Each candle directs our thoughts to a particular figure or group of people who prepared for the coming of Christ.

Advent 1 – The Patriarchs, in particular Abraham, our father in faith;
Advent 2 – The Prophets, who foretold the coming of the Messiah.
Advent 3 –  John the Baptist, who proclaimed Jesus as the Lamb of God, the Saviour.
Advent 4 – Mary, the Mother of Jesus, who bore him in her womb.

Dressed like Elijah  2 Kings 1.8 describes Elijah as ‘a hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.’

Laying on of hands and anointing  At St Mary Magdalene, the 11.30 service on the first Sunday of the month and the 9.30 service on the fourth Sunday of the month include the ministry of laying on of hands and anointing.

Excerpt from the Theological Introduction in Common Worship – Pastoral Services

Healing, reconciliation and restoration are integral to the good news of Jesus Christ. For this reason prayer for individuals, focused through laying on of hands or anointing with oil, has a proper place within the public prayer of the Church. Such prayer needs to be sensitive to a number of simplifications or misunderstandings:

  • it should not imply a simple link between sickness and sin; Jesus himself warned against the direct association of disability and sin (John 9.3);
  • prayer for healing and strengthening should not involve the rejection of the skills and activity of medicine which are also part of God's faithfulness to creation (cf Ecclesiasticus 38.9-12; Psalm 147.3);
  • prayer for healing needs to take seriously the way in which individual sickness and vulnerability are often the result of injustice and social oppression;
  • such prayer should not imply that the restoration of physical wholeness is the only way in which Christ meets human need.

It is a way of partaking in God's new life that will not be complete until it includes the whole creation and the destruction of death itself.

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