Sermon: The Third Sunday in Advent (A) – 15th December 2013

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am, 10am and 6pm

Readings: Isaiah 35:1-10; The Magnificat; James 5:7-10 ; Matthew 11:2-11

Advent invites us to imagine “impossible” futures for our world, and then open ourselves to their power of the Spirit to lure us forward.  Advent invites, and it also judges.  Advent asks, “Where are we going in our personal lives?  How far are we from the vision imagined by Isaiah, Mary, John the Baptist, and Jesus?”  Spiritual teachers speak of the examination of conscience and this examination is at the heart of Advent.  We are a long way from Isaiah’s vision, but the spiritual arc of history challenges us to continue our pilgrimages toward God’s realm.

The metaphor of a highway through a desert that is in bloom is an exuberant way to describe the heart-lifting experience of opening oneself fully to God’s creative, transforming power.  A desert is usually thought of as trackless, or with barely discernible routes.  A highway is a broad thoroughfare that invites travel, incites curiosity about what lies ahead and implies companions along the way.  A desert in bloom is a landscape of beauty and wonder that welcomes travellers.  With words like gladness, rejoicing, joy, abundance and singing, the prophet declares the pathway of God, the “Holy Way”, as endorsed by Creation itself.

Although this passage is a poem of return of the exiles, is it any surprise that early Jesus followers would associate these verses, with the advent of Jesus?  In a world famous for the mastery of Roman roads, one can almost imagine these early followers picturing Jesus as striding down this highway, a living link from the prophetic vision of the past to the pressing need for its renewal in the present.  They would see this “Holy Way” of God, in contrast to the Appian Way of Rome, as a declaration of the right road to take.  They found in Jesus a way to affirm the peace of God over the peace of Rome achieved by violence.

The desert shall bloom, the weak will become strong, the lame will dance and the frightened will become bold.  God’s plan for us is aimed toward wholeness and redemption.  The adventures of ideas of a transformed world reflect God’s vision for nature and humankind.

How shall we respond to Isaiah’s amazing vision?  Is it just a picture in words alone?  Will God somehow bring about this new age of Peace?  Are our efforts essential to realizing the realm of Peace in our world?  However we look at this passage, it is an ideal that shapes history, leaving us with a holy discontent, and an inspiration to creative transformation, first, of ourselves and then the world around us.  In contrast to world-destroying apocalyptic writings, Isaiah’s vision emerges from our world, imaging what a transformed world could be like.  Isaiah seeks a restored world, continuous with the past, but revealing new energies and possibilities, and a new human orientation.

Mary’s song places God on the side of the vulnerable and oppressed.  God’s justice will be done and the poor will be uplifted, the wounded healed, and the wicked punished.  The creator of heaven and earth is biased toward justice.  In the beginning, God brought forth order from primordial chaos.  Throughout history, God continues to bring about new forms of order, confronting the disorder of injustice with the powerful vision of a just and orderly society.  Order is not static in the song’s vision but the foundation of creaturely creativity and adventure: a new heaven and a new earth.

The Advent readings connect divine order on the intimate and the inclusiveness of the cosmos: humanity and nature are synchronized as a result of God’s dynamic call, eliciting innovative responses from human partnership.  Mary’s song imagines a divine reign radically different from any religion past or present.  There is no coercion or domination, but invitation and transformation.  Freedom and creativity are preserved and aligned with the greater good of all creation.

The song exalts God’s preferential care for the poor and dispossessed.  It unites the microcosm with the macrocosm: what God is doing in her life reflects God’s aim for history.  Mary shows the way similar to John the Baptist.  She discovers herself as a bearer of a new age to come.  Her humble and risky situation mirrors the challenges the vulnerable and poor are facing.  God’s work in her life reveals God’s intention to lift up the forgotten and desperate.  God is praised for God’s justice and care for the “unimportant” and not the exercise of brute and coercive power.

The message of both John and Jesus is a call to live according to the way of God and not the way of empire.  The way of God is described over and over again by the prophets: take care of society’s most vulnerable; limit the gap between rich and poor do not use power to further the narrow self-interest of yourself and your friends; do not accumulate wealth at the expense of the poor.  So when John’s disciples question Jesus, he answers in language they both understand: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed.  This is the way of God, definitely not the way of empire.  Nor is this news as reported by political tricksters as it is the good news that can be seen and heard by anyone who is paying attention.

The question put to Jesus is this: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  By implication, the question is also put to us: is this the one we are to follow or can we prolong business as usual for a while longer while we wait for someone else to come?  If Jesus reveals God by his unswerving fidelity to God’s way of being in the world, then do we not reveal the same when we act in fidelity to Jesus?

The incarnation of God in the world is always already happening, but we can act in ways that bring more light to the strangers in our midst, to our neighbours, our friends and family members, and to ourselves.

John is looking for signs of the Way.  Jesus responds in terms of action there are no creeds or self-referential Messianic statements.  Take a look he says.  Here’s what’s going on.  Jesus has inaugurated a healing community that potentially encompasses the whole creation.  Jesus is embodying Isaiah’s dream and Mary’s praise.  Healing abounds: cells and souls are transformed.  God is doing a new thing that transforms minds, bodies, spirits and relationships, and God wants us to become part of a divine holistic healing adventure.

The passage ends with what, at first glance, appears to be a diminishment of John the Baptist; “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”.  This should be read as similar in tone to John 14:12, when Jesus asserts that those who follow him will be able to do greater things than he.  Jesus is affirming our role in the realm of God.  We are to be agents in God’s realm of healing.  We are God’s creative partners in healing the earth.  We are to claim our own energy and power in relationship to God’s loving vision.  Open to God’s vision, we can do great things that heal the world.

Advent presents us with an invitation to partnership, grounded in a holy unrest.  God’s aims for history and our personal lives are always somewhat at odds with the concreteness of our lives and social structures.  Their dissonance invites us to imagine and then embody God’s vision of a new heaven and a new Earth.  We are prone to hopelessness, as reflected in our complacency regarding the growing gap of wealthy and poor and the threats to the Earth through global climate change.  Still, Advent’s horizon of hope inspires us to join a healing pilgrimage, with no certain destination, but with the companionship of God.[1]

[1] This sermon based upon material written by B Epperly and J Slettom

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