12th Dec, 2004

The Third Sunday of Advent

Our Lady of Guadalupe
8am Low Mass & 10.30am High Mass
Sermon preached by the Rector Fr Ian Elliott Davies

Lections:
Isa 35: 1-10 then shall the eyes of the blind
James 5: 7-10 Be patient
St Matt 11: 2-11 John in prison, he who is least in the kingdom…

The two young boys were, of course, cousins. Their mothers were not only related but they were intimate, life-long friends. So to begin with we might imagine that these two lads too were friends, they might have shared their ideas and were not, I hope, always serious. I’m talking, of course, of Our Blessed Lord and his cousin St John who was to be known at a later stage in his career as the Baptist. But, alas, such friendship didn’t last. John was the truly wild one, going off into the desert, growing his hair long, well, at the very least down to his shoulders, spending his time with ‘all those kinds of people’, dressing like an ancient prophet, living rough, regarded by some, no doubt, as crazy, and by others as dangerous- can you imagine bringing him home to your family for tea or supper and saying, ‘well, mum, I’ve started spending my time with the Essenes and I’d like you to meet my new friend, this is St John the Baptist!’ what would the neighbours say?

On the other hand, at the other end of the domestic spectrum, Christ became ‘the Carpenter’s son’- he was always about his father’s roaring trade and business in Nazareth, the good hard-working apprentice, the lad who stayed at home.
Out in the wilderness, in spite of his untamable wildness, as the time passed John attracted many followers, disciples and converts. ‘All of Judea and Jerusalem went out to him…’
But, to join their Baptist band the initiation rite was fairly drastic- deliberate plunging beneath the water- which is how John got his name, which if you have seen my Big Fat Greek Wedding you will remember is baptizo- to plunge, dip and immerse or baptize. But above all this outwardly shocking and outrageous clothing, the strange initiation, St John the Baptist proclaimed a message; he was the herald of a new age, the herald of a new way of looking at the whole of human life and a new way of understanding the whole of creation. This message and preaching, this new way was called, in shorthand, ‘the Kingdom.’
Christ too eventually became restless and left home in Nazareth. Some think that like his cousin Christ may have disappeared into the desert, or perhaps he went to live for many years in a kind of monastery school near the Dead Sea- until such time as he was prepared to take up his new ministry.
When Christ began his preaching, he was, like John, to attract disciples who could not resist either the message or the character of the man. And it was the very same message- ‘repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, the Kingdom has come near to you.’
To appreciate the great impact of their message it is important to remember two things. Firstly, in the time of Christ the Jewish faith, of which we as Christians are direct descendants, Jewish faith and practice dominated the whole of life, absolutely and completely, everything. How you ate, slept, protested, washed, worked, and spent your leisure time, as well as how you prayed, everything came within the orbit of Jewish faith- in fact it was impossible to distinguish between how one practiced one’s faith and how one lived- the two were interchangeable.
The faith, the Jewish faith, dominated all human relationships; it put everyone in their place and setting, from the poorest, most isolated leper in the wilderness to the wealthiest, most exalted lord in his palace. Religion was an established, well-tested and well-loved structure, all of it, in every conceivable detail dominated by the religious elite and having its centre and heart in the complicated ritual and liturgies of the Jerusalem Temple.
Christ challenged it all- from top to bottom- as St John had done before him. It is not change simply for change’s sake- but it was a new understanding of the ‘heart’ and spirit of that complicated relationship between God and the world, a new reading of the law that always puts grace first and the detail of liturgical or ritual minutiae or rules and regulations second. So, secondly, the message is revolutionary- ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the poor have Good News preached to them.’
Now the problem was that this kind of preaching involved far more than just physical blindness or deafness or lameness- what Christ is talking about is the reversal of this world’s well-loved, well-established values- in terms of the Good News it is the poor, the marginalized and the outcast that are sought by God and honoured by God’s kingdom, they are the ones to whom God gives his spirit, his presence and blessing. The consequence of this preaching was, for both the Baptist and the Christ to be confrontation and violent death.
So, to the difficult text which we have not heard this morning, those verses just a fraction after the ones we’ve heard Mother Guibord read in the Gospel narrative, Christ goes on to say ‘ever since John the Baptist the Kingdom of Heaven has been subject to violence.’ That’s a very peculiar thing to say. Surely the whole point of the kingdom is Peace- and for those who bravely and consistently pursue the path of peaceful non-violence, as Gandhi or Luther-King did, we have the utmost admiration. They do see the Kingdom come. Yet hard on the heels of Independence in India or the end of segregation in schools comes violence, greater prejudice and deeper suspicion.
UNICEF has published figures in the last week that are truly shocking to learn. Over half of the children alive in this world today, that’s over one billion, are either living with Aids, or are affected by civil or international war or are malnourished. Those are shocking statistics. HALF of the world’s children. We should be outraged, shocked, angry. In THIS culture where we throw out half the food served to us in restaurants- HALF the world’s children are starving to death. The injustice should make us weep, should make us angry, it should frighten us that we can be so lethargic and apathetic.
The Gospel doesn’t provide need and tidy answers to these complex questions about suffering; why devout and goodly priests and religious in the Sudan are murdered today, why a young baby has leukaemia, or why the unrighteous and wicked prosper. But the Gospel provides a framework (the framework), a way of seeing that allows us to ask questions, to protest and demonstrate, to voice despair, to utter prayer, to cry, to weep, to voice anger and to tell the story. To put it bluntly, the more aware we are of God’s presence, God’s kingdom, the fact of evil and suffering, the more vulnerable we become, moral disorder should hurt us more not less. And this is wisdom, which is more than explanation or intuitive penetration, Wisdom is knowing the scope of tragedy AND YET praying, protesting, speaking out, challenging and acting. Not anaesthetising us to suffering or resigning responsibility, but facing up to our duty and taking seriously our responsibility and vocation; all of this in the presence of Christ who is both the Wisdom of God, the beauty of God and the mystery of God. Father Son and Holy Spirit, amen.

RS Thomas, The Kingdom
It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed: mirrors In which the blind look
at themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you will purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.

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