Sunday 6 December
St Mary’s Hadlow
Advent 2 (Year C)
Phil. 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sisters and Brothers in Christ we should congratulate ourselves on this world which we have created.
Isn’t it wonderful that we live in a world which no longer has war?
Isn’t it magnificent that we no longer live under the threat of terrorism?
Isn’t it great that millions of people are not seeking refuge from violence right now?
Isn’t it a joy that no one lives in poverty, either here or abroad?
Aren’t we clever to have banished preventable sicknesses like malaria to the dustbin of history so that children are not dying needlessly every day.
Isn’t it amazing that no one in this world has to work for a pittance in dangerous circumstances so that others can buy disposable products?
Isn’t it a joy that every person is able to reach their full potential in life regardless of where they are born?
Isn’t it a blessing that we are not polluting the planet to the point where human civilisation is under real threat?
Oh, hang on, I appear to have picked up a sermon from an alternative version of reality. Crikey, that universe does look a lot nicer.
At the risk of sounding like John Lennon just imagine for a moment what it would be like if all of those statements were actually true.
Imagine what it would be like if there were real peace between nations.
Imagine if that were a peace created not by the threat of nuclear weapons but by mutual respect and interdependence.
Imagine if there were no need for borders or security checks because terrorism was unheard of and every country were a good place to be.
Imagine if every person, every family could live in their own home, with enough to eat, with secure and fulfilling employment and without fear.
Imagine if humanity lived within its means so that we could hand on this planet to our children.
Isn’t it a sad indictment of how messed up we have become in our priorities and values that even imaging such a world seems like an impossible dream and even talking about such things makes you look like a ridiculous idealist?
Because the reality is that we have messed up big time and, if we are honest with ourselves, we know it, deep down. This is not how it ought to be.
We have created a world in which we convince ourselves that killing other human beings seems like the only answer when it has never been the answer.
We have created a world in which we live in constant fear of the other.
We have created a world in which our lifestyles are built on the backs of poverty and destitution elsewhere.
We have created a world in which even in this prosperous corner of this prosperous country there are children who don’t get enough to eat everyday and I suspect that as soon as I say those words there will be people here who either don’t believe me or who simply blame the lifestyle of their parents.
Let me say it again. There are children in Hadlow who are undernourished and whose life chances are limited from the moment they are born because of the circumstances into which they are born. You see them every day, but do you really see them?
But if I am a ridiculous idealist I am not one of those idealists who looks back upon a golden era. My reading of history, including the history I see in the bible, tells me that people have always been pretty good at being bad, only now we have the technology and the numbers to do everything on a bigger scale.
But, as I say, there was still plenty wrong with the way humans organised society in biblical times, and there has always been a gap between what we know we are called to and what happens in reality. If you wanted to go back far enough you could say that the story of Adam and Eve perfectly exemplifies that gap between what God wants for us and what we actually do, when Moses was receiving the 10 commandments from God the people he had saved from slavery turned quickly to idolatry and, as time moved on, in Jewish society there was always a mismatch between the law of God which demanded justice and the practice of society which was often unjust. It is against that gap which the prophets rail in much of the Old Testament:
“This is not how it ought to be – this is not what God intends for us!” I am paraphrasing slightly.
And when we get to Israel at the time of Jesus and John the Baptist there is still much injustice and evil in the world, only now that domestic injustice it is accompanied by foreign oppression and assisted by local collaborators.
In the opening verses of today’s Gospel we had a list of names of rulers, which are all too easy to gloss over in our minds:
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor..and Herod was ruler of Galilee…during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.”
At first glance, or at first hearing, this just seems like useful chronological information, locating the story at a place in time. Actually it is not as useful as you might think on that front because the only concrete piece of information was the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius but it is not clear from which year Luke is starting as Tiberius’ rise to power was more complex than a simple coronation in the sense that we might understand, and it also depends which calendar Luke was using. Putting all the pieces of information we do get to around 30 AD but it is not actually as precise as it first looks.
So, as a chronological aid this list leaves something to be desired but it does set the scene in another, perhaps more prophetic, sense. Tiberius, of course, was the head of the foreign and pagan empire who had conquered and invaded Israel, Pontius Pilate was a symbol of Roman power closer to home, the Herod dynasty was much despised by faithful Jews and even the chief priests of the time, Annas and Caiaphas were thought of as corrupt stooges of the Herodians. And, of course, Pilate, Herod and the chief priests will all appear again during the trial and execution of Jesus. So these seemingly innocuous opening verses are actually locating what comes next in a very concrete setting: Luke is telling us clearly that John the Baptist is appearing in a world that is governed by layers and layers of corruption and apostasy. From the point of view of both Luke and John the Baptist we are being told that the world is not as it should be.
I am sure that you have all heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is believed that these scrolls were the library of a strict Jewish sect called the Essenes who withdrew themselves from the corrupt society that Israel had become and had gone to live in the wilderness at Qumran. For want of a better term they lived a monastic lifestyle and their rule of life included frequent ritual cleansings.
Some biblical scholars believe that John the Baptist may well have been a member of the Essenes and we know from Luke 1:15 that he was a lifelong holder of the Nazirite vow, which included not drinking alcohol or cutting one’s hair. This placed John very much in the tradition of old testament figures like Samson and Samuel, and later prophets such as Amos criticised Israel for not respecting the Nazirites. And if respect for those who took their faith seriously had declined at the time of Amos then how much more had it declined when Israel was ruled by the list of figures we have already seen?
So John may have been a member of the quasi-monastic Essenes who felt called to leave the community to take the ritual cleansing that they practised to a wider audience or he may have been a solo prophetic figure from the beginning of his ministry but, either way, we are told in v. 2 that
‘the word of God came to John the son of Zachariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’
It is important to remember that the baptism of John was not entirely the same as Christian baptism at this point. The people he was baptising were not changing faith, they were not coming into faith for the first time and this was not intended as a once and for all experience. The Essenes practised daily immersion, which is were the word baptism comes from. The baptism or immersion of John was therefore probably closer to our concept of confession and absolution. Nonetheless it was very much about telling people in a prophetic way that both they and the world is not as it should be, that they have wandered far from what God wants and that the way back to God starts with the recognition of sin and a desire to change, to wash away that sin, to turn one’s life around and to get back on track with God.
But finally, and importantly, John’s ministry of baptism in the wilderness was not about proclaiming himself and nor was it even intended as an end in itself. The point of being washed clean from sin, the point of changing the world one person and one soul at a time was to prepare the world for the coming of the Lord, to straighten out the crooked paths so that everyone shall see the salvation of God.
Now we continue with John’s ministry and message next week, so in some ways this is a two part sermon, but for this second week of Advent, as we prepare the way of the Lord at the Nativity, let us consider seriously the gap between how the world is, how we are and how things could be if we truly lived our lives as people washed free from sin and as people dedicated not to living by the corrupt values of the world which cause suffering and injustice but as baptised and forgiven citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.