Sermons from St Faith's

A Prophetic Community

Fr Mark Waters: Second Sunday in Advent 2007

I guess that it’s all coming together now. We’ve arranged with those we’re spending Christmas with who’s house we’re going to and who’s doing what. We’ve probably decided what meals we’re going to have on what days. What presents we’re going to give to everyone. Which friends we’re going to entertain and which are going to entertain us.

Its going to be a fantastic Christmas. The best ever. Its going to be just right. Everyone’s going to be happy and going to have a great time. And if it snows -  well that will make things just perfect.

This is the sort of way in which we invest Christmas with so many expectations. All our difficulties and struggles put on hold for a few precious days. Our desperate hopes for a little bit of heaven.

And its not a bad hope. It’s a good thing to do. Its important for our mental health to sometimes think like this. And to let go. It has some pretty impressive precedents. We heard one of them in the reading from Isaiah this morning. Wolves and lambs lying down together. Leopards and kids, calves and lions, cows and bears – all sitting down in peace together – and all led by a little child who can safely put their tiny hand over a snake hole. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.

All violence gone. Paradise restored. Back to a perfect Garden of Eden where there is truly peace on earth.

We need that sort of picture to keep us going sometimes. We need a few precious days from time to time – holidays, holy days – when we can let go of the stress and struggle of our everyday lives, and think about how we would like things to be. And that’s a bit what the season of Christmas is like really. Like going back to the nursery. Wrapped in a pair of safe arms for a while. No worries for a few days. That’s an important thing to do sometimes.

But the Christian tradition in the holy scriptures never lets us forget that the paradise that we would like to return to – and the holy days with which we try and remember it - will only happen on the other side of God’s judgement.

Isaiah again this morning:

With righteousness God shall judge the poor (which means liberate the poor), and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

This is the real stuff of Advent. This is what these four weeks are about as we buy our Christmas wrapping paper and write our cards. This is what our religious tradition invites us to hear before we get to Christmas Day. The promise of a future glory, but for now the reality of God’s judgement on us all.

And John the Baptist repeats that message of judgement in the gospel. A lone voice in the wilderness. Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Who warned you of the wrath to come? Bear fruit worth of repentance! Jesus, the one who is coming will baptise you with fire! The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire!

Isaiah and John the Baptist – prophets both. Dangerous and challenging. Dangerous to the authorities they criticise, who will want to kill them. Challenging to those who follow them. People whose spiritual vocation is to live the tension between how things are and how they are meant to be.

What they draw attention to is the bleak parts of their contemporary world which need change and new life. They keep reminding those around them that human life as it is currently constructed is not how God wants it to be. They point a finger at those with power to do things differently, and thy point a finger at all of us for allowing the powerful to do the things they do.

Every year we recount the story of John the Baptist, and we teach our children all the apparently strange details of how John , but we don’t always remember why.

John the Baptist is not just some eccentric out in the desert who wears funny clothes and eats a strange diet. John lives where he does, looks like he does, and eats and acts like he does, as a sign. He is part of a long tradition of prophets before him who we read about in the scriptures who use symbolic action to convey their message.

The prophet Hosea married a prostitute as a symbolic action. Isaiah went naked for three years. Jeremiah does not marry or have children. Ezekiel eats a parchment scroll, lies on one side for 390 days and then 45 days on the other. These, and others, were all symbolic actions intended to draw attention to the fact that the way things were constructed in their society were not how God wanted them to be. They are political illustrations. Lived parables by dangerous and challenging people about what was going on in their times. Dangerous to the authorities and challenging to their followers.

John the Baptist lives in the desert away from city life, on the margins of civilization. He wears the simplest, rustic clothing, and has a very simple and natural diet. This is not incidental detail. This is a critique of the economic extravagance of the powerful elite in his society – the religious and political leaders – who maintain their own abundance at the expense of the poor. John lives a life denoting poverty to witness to a different way of life -  one centred on faithfulness to God. And that his why when the scribes and Pharisees come to him in the desert, for his baptism, he shouts at them and abuses them – ‘you brood of vipers. Bear fruit worthy of repentance’. And it is why he was killed by Herod for challenging Herod’s way of life.

And as the forerunner of Jesus, John is not just someone who announces that Jesus is coming. He is someone who prepares the way by how he lives. Prepares the way by handing on the Jewish tradition of prophetic critique and challenge to the greatest prophet of all. Jesus. Jesus will be like him, only more so. A very dangerous and challenging person.

You will remember a prophet of our own day, not very many miles from here, someone who has been to this church, a member of our own Anglican church who acted out a symbolic action not so long ago.
Archbishop Dr John Sentamu lived on a liquid diet while he camped inside the Minster for seven days, to highlight the plight of people caught up in the conflict in the middle east. He gave up a family holiday in Salzburg, Austria, to sleep rough and fast while praying for peace in that terrible, ongoing conflict. And to launch his vigil he publicly had his head shaved.

There was another prophet interviewed on Radio 4 just a week or so ago. Desmond Tutu said that he was ashamed of his church, our church, the Anglican church. “Our world is facing problems - poverty, HIV and Aids - a devastating pandemic, and conflict," he said. “God must be weeping looking at some of the atrocities that we commit against one another. "In the face of all of that, our Church, especially the Anglican Church, at this time is almost obsessed with questions of human sexuality." Criticising Dr Williams, he said: "Why doesn't he demonstrate a particular attribute of God's which is that God is a welcoming God."

This is the man who in the time of apartheid in South Africa was at one time as much of a lone voice of protest and opposition on the international stage as John the Baptist. Dangerous to the authorities – his life was always under threat. And challenging to his followers – giving them the hope that they could win and that violence had to give to reconciliation and peace. John Sentamu and Desmond Tutu - dangerous and challenging people.

Now I am aware that this is all a pretty heavy agenda as we approach our season of goodwill. But we must remember this side of the church of which we are part. This is not just some trendy, lefty agenda. It’s not confessions of a Guardian reader. If we read the scriptures seriously we will see that it is the central vocation of the church as handed on by Jesus. It is what he gave his life for, and what he asks us to give our life for. To celebrate the life in all its fullness which God offers us, lives with us. But also to be prepared to face the idea that God weeps for us too, and that should bring us to tears and to prophetic action. To weep for the all the things we know are not as they should be in our world. For the people of Darfur, for trafficked sex slaves in Liverpool and every other city in this country, for the 53% of children who are growing up in poverty in this city in the fourth most wealthy country of the world. For climate change and ecological vandalism and all the other things that we are caught up in in 21st century Britain.

Advent is a time to remember these things. Not just to remember a litany of what is awfu. And certainly not to make us feel guilty. That won’t help much at all. But to remember that as a Christian community, like every Christian community, we have a vocation to be prophetic. To offer and live out a critique of the status quo, how things are, when people suffer as a result. That is one of the main reasons for our existence. But so often it seems to come pretty much near the bottom of our to-do list – if its on there at all.

Being a prophetic community doesn’t mean that we all have to go around performing symbolic acts, or going on demos, or whatever. And it is not for everyone as an individual. But it does mean that as part of our common life together as Christian community a prophetic understanding, a critique of the values of the world in which we live, and some sort of response to that needs to be an important part of what we think about, and what we do together. Otherwise we do not represent the fullness of the Body of Christ in this place.

I want to finish with some words from Isaiah, spoken by Jesus, and meant for us now:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to proclaim release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind. To let the oppressed go free. For me, those words are one half of a sentence. The other half is some similarly familiar words from the gospel: Peace on earth and goodwill to all God’s people. Putting those texts together brings together the meanings of both Advent and Christmas, and you can’t have one without the other.
Let us pray that some of us here may have the courage to become the dangerous and challenging people that our church needs.

Website manager's footnote:  by prophetic coincidence, on the day that Fr Mark delivered this sermon, Archbishop John Sentamu publicly cut up his clerical collar dugint a televison interview with Andrew Marr, and declared that he would not wear it again until Robert Mugabe was removed from power in Zimbabwe.

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