This sermon was preached by Rev Deborah on Sunday 8 December, and was based on:
Today’s readings are full of images. In the gospel reading John talks about the road, the water, the fire and the axe.
In our first reading Isaiah talks about a shoot coming from a stump and the wolf living with the lamb, the leopard lying down with the kid, the calf and a little child leading them.
Let’s start with John’s images.
Imagine the scene.
Think of a police motorcade sweeping through a city street. First there appear motorcycles with flashing blue lights. People scurry to the sides of the road as they approach. They all know what’s been happening: the king has been away for a long time, and he has come back at last. Two large black cars come by, filled with bodyguards and officials. Then the car with the flag at the front , containing the king himself. By this time the road is clear; no other cars are in sight; everyone is standing still and watching, waving flags and celebrating.
Now take this scene back 2,000 years, and into the hot dusty desert. The king has been away a long time, and word goes around that he is coming back at last. But how? There isn’t even a road. We had better get some ready. So, off goes the herald, shouting to the people of the desert; the king is coming. Make a road for him! Make it good and straight!
This is the message that had echoed through the life of the Jewish people for hundreds of years before the time of John the Baptist, ever since it was first uttered in Isaiah. It was part of the great message of hope, of forgiveness, of healing for the nation after the horror of exile. God would at last come back and bring comfort and rescue. John is saying, ‘this is what is happening now. It is time to get ready. The king, God himself, is coming back. Get ready for God’s kingdom. John’s striking message made everyone sit up and take notice. In today’s language, they saw the blue flashing lights, and stopped what they were doing to get ready.
The problem was …that they weren’t ready – not by a long way. You may think that your house is reasonably tidy and well kept, but you suddenly get word that the king or queen is coming to visit you and you may well suddenly want to give it another spring clean. The Jewish people, even the devout ones, who worshipped regularly in the temple, knew in their heart of hearts, that they were not ready for God to come back. The prophets had said that God would come back when the people repented, turning to him with all their hearts. This is what John summoned them to do, and they came in their droves. They came for baptism and John was plunging them into the waters of the River Jordan as they confessed their sins.
John’s message wasn’t all comfort. Far from it. He speaks of a fire that would blaze and an axe that would chop down the tree. When he saw some of the Jewish religious leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees, coming for baptism, he laughed at them. They were like snakes slithering away from the bonfire where they had been hiding as soon as it started to burn. The only thing that would make John change his mind was if they really behaved differently. Going through the motions wasn’t enough. Real repentance meant a complete and lasting change of heart and life. That was the only way to get the road ready for the coming of the king.
John’s stark warnings set the tone for much of the story of Jesus. The God who came to his people in Jesus will one day reveal his kingdom in all its glory, bringing justice and joy to the whole world.
And yet, alongside the warnings form John the Baptist, there are the images from Isaiah that run parallel with today’s gospel reading. He describe the people using an image of trees that have been cut down and are now just stumps… things that have stopped growing. Their relationship with God had become stagnant and lifeless; they functioned by rote- they had made faith into a ritual- had made the law into a check list of do’s and dont’s. God simply wanted relationship with the people, wanted them to love God and each other and to work toward peace in the world. They were as unmovable and as stagnant as an old stump. But out of that stagnation, God springs up a new way- new life- a new shoot right out of the old stump, that will once again enable people to help bring about God’s design for the earth! The shoot holds a promise- a Saviour, a Messiah.
There is an old legend of a swan and a crane.
A beautiful swan perched by the banks of the water in which a crane was wading about seeking snails. For a few moments the crane viewed the swan in stupid wonder and then inquired: “Where are you from?”
“I am from heaven!” replied the swan.
“And where is heaven?” asked the crane.
“Heaven!” said the swan, “Heaven! Have you never heard of heaven?” And the beautiful bird went on to describe the grandeur of the Eternal City. She told of streets of gold, and the gates and walls made of precious stones; of the river of life, pure as crystal, upon whose banks is the tree whose leaves shall be for the healing of the nations. In eloquent terms the swan sought to describe the hosts who live in the other world, but without arousing the slightest interest on the part of the crane.
Finally the crane asked: “Are there any snails there?”
“Snails!” repeated the swan; “no! Of course, there are no snails in heaven.”
“Then,” said the crane, as it continued its search along the slimy banks of the pool, “you can have your heaven. I want snails!
Isaiah then presents an image of what God’s kingdom is like, possibly beyond what we could ever imagine. It is a place where everyone is reconciled, where weapons are melted down into farm tools and there are no wars, no pain and no worries. Even animals who are natural enemies ‘live together peaceably’, sleep together, sit down and eat together. Even the nursing child and the toddler are not hurt in dangerous situations.
It is some vision, which sounds wonderful but a little scary too. Everything we now know to be true, what we have come to know as the natural order of things, will some day be turned upside down. Everything and everyone gets on and lives in peace, harmony and joy.
How can we get ready for that day? Where do the roads in our lives need straightening out? What clutters up our life? What fires need to be it, to burn away the rubbish in his path? Which dead trees will need to be cut down? Do we need to repent? What are the snails that we hang onto, failing to see God’s vison for the future? Is there something we need to let go of in order to prepare the way for the Christ who enters the world in this and every season?
Last week, on the first Sunday of Lent, we lit the candle of hope. This candle invites us to look forward to a time, as Isaiah proclaimed, when the nations would turn their swords into plough shares. As we gather, on the second Sunday of Advent, we will be lighting both the candle of hope, but also the candle of peace where we have repented and are one with God, humanity and creation and we share God’s vision of peace, hope and love.
Let us now light our advent candles of hope and peace, in recognition of this.