The Second Sunday of Advent
4 December 2016
Isaiah 11.1-10; Psalm 72.1-7, 18-19; Romans 15.4-13; Matthew 3.1-12
May I speak this morning in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Some of you may be familiar with the computer game Minecraft.
In Minecraft it is possible to enter into a virtual world, a wilderness if you will, and create almost anything you like, using blocks of different material.
About this time last year Annabelle decided that she was going to build a church in Minecraft. It was a wonderfully detailed creation, so much so that it was possible to climb the steps into the pulpit and to find a sermon there ready and waiting. Annabelle had even written a wonderfully succinct 4 word sermon. I bet some of you are thinking that I could learn a thing or two from her. And what was this 4 word sermon in Annabelle’s virtual church?
“You brood of vipers!”
Yes, it is that time of year again. John the Baptist, that wonderful character so reminiscent of the Prophet Elijah, is in a real wilderness preparing the way for the coming of Jesus.
How does the world prepare itself to receive God in its midst?
John knows that it is not through sermons designed to flatter his hearers, to tickle their ears and to tell them that they can stay exactly as they are. When John accuses his listeners of being a brood of vipers he is not addressing thieves and prostitutes and outcasts, rather he is talking to the pharisees and sadducees, the established religious class, those who probably feel most secure in their relationship with God, relying on their descent from Abraham and following the law of Moses in the Temple.
But John makes it clear that they are wrong. No one can assume that they are right with God merely on the basis of birthright or even religious practice. John’s message is clear and unambiguous they are to repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
What does it mean to repent of something?
Does it, perhaps, mean more than saying sorry for having done something wrong?
If I bump into someone in the street then I may say that I am sorry, in fact it is almost a hallmark of being English that sorry is the first word on our lips. The more you think about its meaning in everyday conversation the more meanings the word sorry has – it can mean ‘excuse me’ when trying to get past someone, it can mean, ‘I apologise for being in your way’ when someone tries to get past you, it can mean ‘I want to say something now’ during a conversation, it can mean that you are sad to hear some bad news and I am sure there are many more.
So if we say ‘sorry’ to God for not living by the values of the kingdom of heaven, is that real repentance or are we simply offering God a conversational apology and then carrying on much as before?
Repentance means so much more than saying sorry. It means to change our ways, to turn our lives around, to stop doing what is wrong and to actually start doing what is right, to remove our hearts of stone and replace them with hearts of flesh – to actually live as citizens of the kingdom of heaven in the here and now and not simply as good Anglicans awaiting Christmas.
When you are going to the dentist do you ever give your teeth an especially long clean? When taking your car into be serviced do you make a special effort to clear out all the rubbish? When having guests over to dinner do you give the house an extra clean?
In the hope that it is not just me who does those things then let me pose the question, do we treat real life-changing repentance in the same way? Something which we know we ought to do all the time but which we put off until the last minute because life is easier that way?
As St Augustine said, in his early days:
“Oh Lord, make me pure, but not yet”
But, in a very real sense, even though we are in the midst of Advent what are we waiting for? Are we waiting for breaking news on Twitter to tell us that Christ has returned so that we can have a really good repent before the six o clock news?
Nicky’s sermon last week made an excellent point that we inhabit the past, present and future all at once and that God’s time is not the same as our time. The nativity casts our minds back to remember the birth of Jesus, the kingdom season through which we have just travelled casts our minds forward to the return of Christ as King but John calls his hearers to immediate, urgent repentance, for the kingdom of heaven has come near, and even now the axe is lying at the foot of the tree.
Preparing ourselves to be part of the kingdom of heaven is not a chore to be put off until it can be avoided no longer but it is our call right here and right now.
So what is it that stands between the person you are now and the person God has called you to be? Is it greed, selfishness, addiction, lack of love? Repent of that thing, don’t just say sorry, but change your heart, your mind, your behaviour, if necessary weep tears of sorrow as you take your repentance to God, and make yourself ready to greet Jesus not just at Christmas and not just when he returns again in glory but right here and right now.
But sisters and brothers please don’t allow the apparent harshness of John’s message or even my message put you off. Because on the other side of repentance there lies the kingdom of heaven, which is governed not by the competitiveness and corruption of this world but by a different set of values, the values to which we aspire through repentance. The prophet Isaiah gave us a small glimpse of that kingdom today:
“The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fattling together
and a little child shall lead them….
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put it’s hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.”
Notice that there are no vicious vipers here, but an asp and an adder which do no harm – even the snakes have repented of their ways!
That peaceable kingdom in which we are called to live grows one soul at a time and one repentance at a time – make that yours today.