Saturday, December 07, 2013

Towards a sermon for Advent 2 A at St Matthew's & St Lawrence

It was a delight to spend some time here yesterday, admiring the wonder that is the Christmas tree festival.
To see St Lawrence's full of light and warmth...To wander among the trees and think of all that they represent so many different community groups, so many stories of passions shared and struggles transformed by co-operation, friendship and creativity.
I spoke to one lady who told me she visits every year – and is specially glad of the festival when things aren't going so well in her own life and we agreed that the POINT of Christmas is to light up the tough times – and it seems to me that the festival is an excellent illustration of that.

So – I wouldn't have been too happy if John the Baptist had suddenly arrived in the middle of the festivities & systematically set to to chop down every single tree...

But – in one way he's right.
There comes a time when we do have to clear things away – even things that we've loved and valued.
We need John's intervention – to make us ask what fruit the trees in our life-landscape really bear...whether they are blocking the light and stopping other things from growing or still have a valid and valued place where they stand.

Of course, John is speaking in a specific context. When he talks of taking an axe to the tree he wants his hearer to recall the image we've been reminded of in our 1st reading
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;”
From where John stands, that that noble family tree of God's chosen people looked nothing but a withered remnant.
Those who set out to safeguard its heritage had lost their way and were relying on their family history to assert their value here and now and their ticket to heaven hereafter.
Instead of belonging to a family to be proud of,they'd become no better than a brood of snakes – dangerous and deceitful in equal measure – bearing no fruit whatsoever.

Hence John's role as the mad axeman!

He's such an extraordinary figure as he stands centre stage today.
The unexpected child of worthy, religious parents, from the moment his name was chosen
(John – not Zechariah...JOHN!) he stepped aside from their respectable heritage, chose another path, claimed a heritage with the prophets of old.
Dressed like Elijah he brought his listeners back to their roots, reminded them of their ancient covenant with God.
A man on the edge, he chose to live and minister miles away from civilisation, yet drew crowds from all over the country.
A radical voice he brought new meaning to a familiar religious custom, exhorting his hearers, one and all, to prepare.
Clear away the rubbish, strip out the dead wood, straighten the twisted, distorted pathways of your heart,
The Lord is coming!
Prepare and repent!

That was his message then...but it's also his message for us today.
It's all about bearing fruit – so that we can stand as a sign of God's kingdom.
Our second Advent candle stands for all the prophets who've proclaimed that same message as God's people readied themselves to welcome the Saviour...but it stands too for the prophets of our age...those who, like John, remind us to keep a check on our lives, our churches, our governments – to see if they are bearing fruit

And, of course, Nelson Mandela stands in that same great tradition. He spoke God's truth in the face of persecution – and he LIVED that truth in his determination to forgive.
Prophecy is about DOING as much as about saying...about demonstrating in the face of all that is broken, wrong and distorted that there is another way – the way of the Kingdom.

The bishop of Bradford Nick Baines wrote yesterday
Mandela demonstrated to the whole world the possibility for justice, redemption and peaceful change... he defied the nay-sayers of this world and dared to believe that power could be held without corruption, without violence and with a load of fun. He made the Rainbow Nation a reality and subverted the norms of other political leaders....”

So this week the world resounds with tributes – and that's as it should be...but it's fair to remember that there was markedly less enthusiasm for Mandela from some quarters during the apartheid years. He challenged too much, disturbed things to the point of uproar – and some just couldn't cope with that. Prophets are never comfortable...that's the point of them! They hold up a mirror – to our world, to our churches, to our hearts – and let God's light shine...
Then we can see who we are – fallen people, doing our best in a fallen world – and glimpse too who, by God's grace, we might become.
Because prophets exist not just to cause discomfort for its own sake but to make us REPENT.
That's a word heavy with negative connotations...regret, sorrow, penitence, penance.

But, the Greek word that Matthew uses is so much richer.

This word carries the sense of a whole change of mind, a change of heart. Something about a before.... and an after ….A happening, a reflection, and a decision.
It's not just about understanding and being sorry for past failures – it's about resolve to live in a new individuals and as societies and nations.
That's what Mandela called South Africa to model...and today we marvel at the fruit that was gathered from the tree HE planted.
Fruit of forgiveness and transformation – fruit of hope for South Africa and for the world.
And, like many another prophet, he spoke with passion of something that had yet to come about.

But the prophets speak to us too...
They call us to a larger imagination. Rowan Williams pointed out that while
“”Most politicians represent an interest group, a community of people who vote for them and whose interests they serve. Nelson Mandela was different; he represented a community that did not yet exist, a community he hoped would come into being”
In other worlds, prophets call us to look at the world as it is and then to work to create the world as it might be.
A world that is truly ready for the coming of our Lord...a world that displays Kingdom values lived out for all to see

The call of John resounds through the centuries, a challenge for us this Advent and beyond. He calls us to repent, to change direction and clear away the dead wood because the kingdom of heaven is arriving, that kingdom founded on justice and joy, where mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other...

So – let's rejoice in the kingdom fruit around us today and commit ourselves once more to share in the work of bringing in God's kingdom in our time and in our lives.

1 comment:

Caroline Lumsden said...

Very inspiring sermon...can I share it?
I hope passionately that we can all learn from Mandela and wouldn t it be wonderful if our politicians could adopt a whole new stance and lead from the top through love!
I want a Parliament where there is no waste of time and energy on cutting remarks and trying to outdo one another .....what example is that setting..
Think of the billions saved if each successive government didn t about turn or try out new unsuccessful policies and contribute to the blame culture. Why can t we/they just build on good seeds that are planted? carolinex