Sermon: The Second Sunday in Advent (A) – 8th December 2013

St Aidan’s Anglican Church West Epping 8.30am

Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-21; Romans 15:4-13 ; Matthew 3:1-12

“Advent is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ,” wrote Thomas Merton.  It is the time Christians set aside for spiritual preparation for the birth of Christ celebrated at Christmas.  Even as Christmas has become more secular, the Advent season still brings joy and the observance of ancient customs.  Christian families find quiet moments lighting candles in the Advent wreath; children use Advent calendars to count the days until Christmas arrives.

Advent is also a pilgrimage.  A time of sacred travel.  It is a way that we answer “the holy longing”.  During Advent, we will leave the place of our birth to journey to the birthplace of another.  It is an invitation to be born again.

“There is great virtue in practicing patience in small things, until the habit of Advent returns to us.”  The disciplines of Advent are ones that teach us to do small things greatly, to do few things but do them well, to love in particular, rather than in general.  This habit of small successes generates creativity, a sense of well-being, a generosity of spirit rooted in satisfaction.  It generates hope.

Christians engaged in social transformation often get discouraged.  We are acutely aware of the evils of the world.  At times, we despair or allow our anger at injustice to be the source of energy in our lives.  Sometimes we actually create despair and depression in our lives when we only fight losing battles.  It is mandatory that we commit ourselves to disciplines that generate hope.

Having fun is not the same as having hope, but they are related.  Dipping in the deep refreshing pool of joy and contentment is one reminder that the world and everything in it, good and bad, belongs to God.  It is our work to live each day as it comes along, receiving our daily bread, doing good, offering hospitality, choosing compassion and forgiveness, serving the “least of these,” singing, praying, and, when night comes, giving our bodies and souls over to sleep.

We light the Advent candles to remind us that things are not always as they seem, and that hope springs forward at the sound of its name.  In William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem”, he wrote:

“I give you the end of a gold string.

Only wind it into a ball,

It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate

built in Jerusalem’s wall.”

The followers of The Way in the first century wove together a “gold string” that reached back to the creation of light in the Genesis story and forward to this very Advent.  There is a golden thread that sews us together as students of Jesus.  Paul calls this thread the “grace of apostleship”.  It is passed, hand to hand, from one generation to the next.  Like young children being guided on a field trip through the big world, we are given a rope and told to hold on.  We know that the rope reaches all the way back to the teacher, the anchor, the shepherd.

Advent is a time to marvel at the golden thread and to make sure that we have not become separated from it.  If, by chance, you have become separated from it, do not be afraid: Jesus extends the end of the string to you again.

The challenge in Advent is less about the future or the past, but about keeping our eyes wide open to where and what God is up to now.  When Advent focuses solely on Christ’s first coming we turn our faith into something that happened back there.  When we focus on his ultimate coming in God’s future we turn the faith into something otherworldly and out there.  In both cases, we risk failing to see Christ’s saving work in our lives right now.

In a classic Advent text from Isaiah, appropriated by the church very early on as a prophetic witness to Jesus being, Great David’s greater Son.  A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and his reign will be glorious.

Israel’s greatest king was David.  After David’s son, Solomon’s reign, things deteriorated.  After one hundred and fifty years of faithless kings and political turmoil, Isaiah reminds the people of God’s promise, saying that though Jerusalem and its king may suffer punishment for sin, God’s chosen city will never be utterly destroyed, nor the Davidic dynasty fall.  The vision Isaiah sketches here is not intended to be a utopian dream about God’s ultimate future.  This is a promise about a king to reign among God’s people now and the quality of life that would come from such a reign.  True, the words about wolf and lamb, leopard and kid, living together in peace and the lion eating straw push the vision out onto the future that is signalled by the words, “On that day reminds us that this promise is as much about now as a future then.  The Spirit-filled Messiah who brings righteousness and justice to bear in the day-to-day lives of his people is named Jesus, and has been living into his messianic reign in the lives of his followers for two thousand years.  When members of his community have embraced his reign, the future becomes present; equity, justice, righteousness and faithfulness emerge.  When the church has not embraced that future present, the old patterns of abuse of privilege and power remain.  The question is are we seeking equity, justice, righteousness and faithfulness, or simply the privilege of belonging to the king?

John’s call for repentance is simply a warning to the people who have long looked for the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy that the Day of the Lord is about to break in with its judgment on those who have abandoned God’s ways.  They want to be washed outwardly but not inwardly.  For all of their piety, for all of their religious observance, for all of their public display of faith, the issues of equity, justice, righteousness and faithfulness, the social implication of God’s reign, were missing in them and they seemed not the least bit concerned about it.  They were, after all, children of Abraham and Abraham’s children who were instructed to be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth.  Can we look the other way in matters of justice, mercy, righteousness and faithfulness and simply claim our relationship to Jesus?  Even now, says John, God’s judgment is unfolding against any one, no matter how pious, no matter how religious, who fails to produce the fruit of the kingdom.

John’s point is simply this: the reign of God is breaking into life and he is simply preparing the way with a baptism of water as a sign of preparation for its coming.  The coming one is so powerful, so anointed with God’s Holy Spirit, so full of God’s presence, that John is not even worthy to carry his sandals.  His baptism will be different from John’s.  It will not be a sign of something we have done.  It will be God’s act immersing us in God’s Spirit and fire.

That is the fundamental difference between John’s baptism and Jesus’ baptism.  John’s baptism was a sign of decisions the people coming to him had made.  It could be done repeatedly as a continuing sign of their repentance.  Those baptized by John were responding to his fearful warning, the coming of God’s reign was a fearful thing.  There was good reason to repent.

The Coming One’s baptism would be different: it would bring with it the results it symbolized.  It would fill the recipient with God’s Spirit, with God’s presence and power and bring with it fire that accomplished God’s judgment.  Christian baptism is first and foremost what God does.  God is filling us with God’s Spirit and Fire.

The Spirit and fire of Jesus’ baptism is God’s presence to touch, awaken and claim us.  God unites us to Christ and empowers us with the Spirit.  We receive God’s presence to judge and destroy those things coming between God, and us and coming between us and our being God’s people.  The Spirit and fire is God’s power to make us into a community that welcomes one another as Christ has welcomed us, a community that is seeking equity, justice, and righteousness as marks of its faithfulness.  The Spirit and fire of God hold us in the transforming presence of Jesus Christ so that we not only trust him as our saviour, but also find power to follow him faithfully in life as Lord.

The reign of David’s Greater Son has come in Jesus Christ.  What John was not ready for was the fact that God’s fire could cleanse and preserve without destroying.  John expected the coming one to be the fierce judge, cutting down trees that did not bear fruit, throwing them into the fire and sweeping the threshing floor clear of wheat to be stored in the granary before burning the chaff with an unquenchable fire.  However, Jesus comes as one who welcomes and forgives sinners, accepts and dines with them, announces God’s love, desire and intention for them and calls them to respond to God’s presence in him.

The One Isaiah proclaims has come and continues to reign in those who welcome him, those who trust him, those who entrust themselves to him.  These he leads into faithfulness.  This is not a future promise.  This is the future present, a promise that is being fulfilled, day in and day out as you and I open ourselves to Christ’s presence in our lives.

The Father sends the Spirit through the Son, to touch us and to awaken us to the fact that we are His, whether Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, and that we and ours belong to God in Jesus Christ.  In so doing, God’s fire emerges within us to consume those things that seek to separate us from God and God’s love and begins to purify and preserve us, tempering us for lives of discipleship.

Water, Spirit and Fire; in baptism they make us the Lord’s, enabling us to love and serve Jesus Christ in this world, living in hope; a hope, says Paul, that fills us with the joy and peace of believing.

Let God glisten in your life.  Let God sweeten your days.  Hold on to your golden string, as your Advent journey is a continuation of your life’s string from God.  “Only wind it into a ball”, my friend, and “it will lead you in at Heaven’s gate”.[i]

[i] This sermon composed using material from

The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson and,, Rose Marie Berger