Sermon for 9th December

Advent 2 (C)

I like airports. I don’t particularly like flying but there is something very different about being in an airport and watching. Airport terminals are strange places. They have a mixed-up atmosphere that seems to come from the excitement of holidays, the weariness of the business trip, the anticipation of returning home, and the boredom of prolonged waiting at unearthly hours of the day or night. I like the fact that I don’t actually have to do anything, I’m just there. They have the clinical feel of a waiting room — except you have to buy your own magazines. Even the shops selling enticing things such as watches, souvenirs and huge bottles of whisky can’t distract you for long from the fact that there is nothing to do except shop. And then there are those endless loudspeaker announcements trying to find people who have got lost somewhere between check-in and take-off. In an airport, you are in a kind of geographical limbo — it’s as if you belong neither to the country you are leaving, nor the country you are going to. For however long you have to wait, you are neither here nor there, and there is little to do except listen eagerly for your gate to be called.

The Bible has its own geographical limbo: the wilderness. Much more than a place of dust and rocks, the wilderness has a special spiritual significance in the relationship between God and his people.  It is in the wilderness that God calls Moses from the burning bush to lead his people out of Egypt, and it is in the wilderness that the Israelites wander for forty years while they learn what it means to be the people of God.  After his baptism, Jesus is led into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, and filled with the power of the Spirit.

So when we read that the word of the Lord came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness, we know that something of real importance is about to happen. John has spent the best part of his life in this geographical and spiritual limbo; just a chapter earlier we read that he was in the wilderness from his childhood until the day he appeared publicly to Israel. Even allowing for the fact that we don’t know how old John was, we can make a good guess that that’s a long time to be hanging about in a desert.  It was a measure of the importance of John’s future work that he required the kind of spiritual preparation that only the wilderness can give. And when the word does come to John, it sets off something that will change the world.

John’s call is the drum roll that announces that salvation is near, that something really new and really good is about to happen. It is a turning point in time, which is perhaps why Luke takes such care to locate this event in history, by giving us the names of the rulers of the day.

A friend of mine once began a sermon on this very text by saying that if you daydreamed during the first sentence, you missed the whole point. Not only does Luke list the details of some of the villains in our story this morning, but in so doing he sets the ministry of Jesus in its wider context. In other words he pays respect to the principalities and powers of the Roman imperium, just as he had done in the infancy narrative.  It’s worth, therefore, going over that 1 verse:

1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

Just as it was Jesus in that little town of Bethlehem – and not Ceasar Augustus – who is acclaimed by Shepherds and Angels as the real Lord and King, so the really important news, in our story this morning, is about John the Baptist, not the notables in Lukes list. They in fact play negative roles in our story, although there abuse of power will be used by God who will work out how to bring salvation to the world. And so don’t daydream in this first sentence, by not doing so we, like the writer, share the same reality. We then know the history, the world in which this all takes place; we become part of it; and we can see, understand and believe.

John hears his call and sets off into public life to call people to repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and to baptise them as a mark of their decision to lead a new life. And so he becomes John the Baptist, preparing the way for the Lord. John is like Jesus, a Prophet. His continuity with the OT tradition is revealed in his message and behaviour and in his persecution and execution.  He was creating an excitement, a fervour, that was setting the stage for the Christ. He is actually preparing Israel for God’s intervention. Of course, he is more than just a Prophet, he is himself fulfilling the prophecy and the word of God is coming to fruition in John. John the Baptist is rather like Mary. They both straddle the Old and the New Testaments and embody promise and fulfillment.

Advent is uniquely the time when the church focuses on Prophecy and fulfillment and John is at the centre of that. It is a difficult period for us when the Christmas message is now in almost full swing with the nativities, carol services and other parties and productions. The temptation for any preacher, therefore, is to preach about hope and to talk about glad tidings of great joy. The Advent preparation for Christmas is, however, about repentance. Nevertheless we look to this time to reflect on God’s judgement against sin and his response to the crisis sin has created.

We all know what it’s like to be in limbo: to feel that we are neither here nor there.  Generally speaking, we are creatures who love to have a purpose, and we get restless and unhappy when we lack one.  It may be that this “wilderness” is a stagnant time in our lives: a dead-end job or relationship. Some people talk of retirement as a time when they feel lost and useless after many years of work. Some parents talk of feeling strangely empty when their children leave home, and for some children the school years have a kind of aching boredom that can only be described as a wilderness.

Our experiences are all different, but the thing to note is this: that just like the airport, the wilderness is a place where things are about to happen, a place of preparation. It may be a long wait; it may seem painfully boring, it may seem pointless, but the wilderness is where the seeds of change are sown and nurtured. Those who are currently in the wilderness may not readily understand that. It may not be an easy time but it is a time to embrace. It is a time for waiting and listening carefully for the voice of God. And when it comes, who knows where God might lead us?

Advent is a call to wake up, listen and carefully respond to God’s initiative. In the style of Luke, the gospel writer, “In the 61st year of the reign of Elizabeth 11, when David Cameron is Prime Minister and Theresa May is Home Secretary and during the last days of the archiepiscopate of Rowan Williams, the word of God comes to us all in the wilderness of the 21st Century Christmas celebrations.

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