A sermon for the second Sunday of Advent at Adel Parish Church.
Isaiah 11: 1-10; Romans 15: 4-13; Matthew 3: 1-12
At my interview for the post of Rector here, I was asked to suggest something about me that annoys other people. Well, by now you’ll have drawn up your own lists…
…my answer was my tendency to point out misplaced apostrophes and commas. In my defence here’s an example of the importance of punctuation…where an encouraging invitation “let’s eat, Grandma”, can become the rather sinister…”Let’s eat Grandma”…
Sadly, my first thoughts about today’s gospel reading were to do with punctuation… The reading tells how John the Baptist was foretold by the prophet Isaiah. We hear he’s the ‘one who cries in the wilderness, “prepare the way of the Lord”’. But when I looked up the passage in Isaiah – what it actually says is “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord’”
Now you’re thinking ‘well I can see how she annoys people…’ but that missing comma suddenly seemed important to me. It’s not just John the Baptist who’s in the wilderness, but it’s in the wilderness that we’re called to prepare the way of the Lord. It’s in the wilderness that the way begins.
Advent is about hope; it’s about preparing for the coming of the Christ child. But it’s not about ignoring the difficult stuff in our world, in our lives, and putting on a false smile for Christmas.
If Christmas means anything it’s got to be more than just one day when we celebrate all the good things in our lives. Or one day when we pretend everything’s ok, when we get on with the family we don’t speak to for the rest of the year, when we try to pretend there are no money worries.
Advent is about hope in a world that looks hopeless. It’s about light shining in the darkness.
Isaiah, from whom we hear so much in Advent, spoke to people who had been exiled from their country, and who were still exiled a generation later. Jesus, whose birth we’re looking forward to, was born into a country occupied, pretty unpleasantly, by the Romans. The Advent story is very much one that begins in the wilderness, where everything is not ok.
Some of you here today will already be in your own wilderness, facing difficult things in your lives. For others, going into the wilderness might mean facing what’s wrong with our world today, and our part in it. For me, it’s the horror of climate change. But whatever our wilderness, I think today’s readings tell us to let the Christmas story start in the darkness, in the difficult places.
When clergy get together, the talk always turns to funerals. There is the inevitable competition for the worst funeral experience ever…but I think it’s also because it’s at funerals that the story we tell matters most.
As I once read in a book about funerals, “we stand beside the grave, at the brink of all we fear. If faith has no word for this, it has no word at all.” Funerals are the place where the resurrection gospel we tell really matters…where it is literally a matter of life or death.
And the thing about a ‘good’ funeral – if you can have one – is that it doesn’t pretend death hasn’t happened. It says, even in this wilderness, in God we have hope.
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.’
Last week a young man called Jack Merritt was murdered in London. In life he was dedicated to bringing hope into other people’s lives. He worked for the rehabilitation of offenders – he believed in second chances and that everyone should be offered hope.
He was murdered by one of the people he tried to help. It’s no surprise that the immediate response by politicians has been calling for longer sentences and other measures tougher on prisoners. We might expect Jack’s family to feel the same.
But Jack’s father, in a newspaper article, said this is exactly the response Jack would have hated. He talked instead of the world Jack wanted to build – of rehabilitation not revenge – of believing in the goodness of humanity, even when it’s difficult to see. It feels to me that he’s saying, ‘if Jack’s message of hope means anything – it has to mean it still, even in the wilderness of his murder by the very person he helped.’
Christmas can be wonderful, but it can also be very hard…for the bereaved, the estranged, the lonely, those struggling with debt or poverty. But the story of Advent says these places of wilderness are where the story starts. Because if it doesn’t it’s not a story worth hearing.
For me, this week, John the Baptist has said – what does hope look like for me in my wilderness? Last week I suggested we bring our longings to God. Perhaps this week could be about letting God into the wilderness bits of our lives, or of the world around us. And thinking about what hope looks like in that place of brokenness.
Sometimes, with the familiarity of the Christmas story, we forget that it tells of God risking human birth in a poor corner of an occupied country. We forget it tells of God as a refugee child.
So Advent might sometimes be about admitting the darkness of our lives, or of the world we live in. But hoping in the good news that God comes into the darkness to find us.
There are times when we can’t see a way out of the darkness – but having someone in the darkness with us brings a flicker of hope.
I will end with the opening to a poem from my Advent book…
…In the Holy Child
God comes close to us,
that we might come close to God.