Sunday, December 17, 2023

Advent 3B at Southwark Cathedral 17th December 2023

 Today all our readings are full of music. We have Elgar "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me", Gibbons "This is the Record of John" and Purcell et al inviting us to "Rejoice in the Lord alway"...wonderfully appropriate for this Gaudete Sunday, when, were we wrapped in heavy-duty penitence, we might cast it aside briefly to break into pink vestments to express our joy.

But - what is there to rejoice at, - in our world or in our worship in this troubled and troubling season? Can we rejoice at all?

I'd say we certainly can. There's much to celebrate in our life as a community here. One of my personal highlights in all the busyness of these first 3 months at Southwark is undoubtedly that service of Compline which the Merbecke choir sang under the Museum of the Moon. Listening to the music of ancient prayers said and sung so beautifully, in this space where so many have brought their hopes and fears, under the peaceful light of Luke Jerram’s great moon was a truly wonderful, joy-filled experience that I will treasure for some time.

But the amazing thing about the real moon, of course, is that of itself it has no light at all.

It shines only with the reflected light of the sun.

If that light were extinguished, among many other problems, the moon itself would be all darkness.

 And here in today’s gospel John the Baptist stands as the moon, to the sun that is Jesus.

He was not that light, but was sent to bear witness to that light….

He bore witness because he too shone with reflected glory….and he at least was in no doubt that his role in the gospel was not centre stage.

He was not that light but was sent to bear witness...

His calling was to be a sign, pointing the way to Jesus.

We too share his calling to reflect the light of Christ and to so shine that others can see the way…


There was a man sent from God whose name was John.

Not much of an introduction, but then John was not one who cared about such things. He stepped out of his priestly heritage, shrugged off the wonders that surrounded his own birth.

You could imagine him saying, again and again “It’s not about me”.

John was quite happy with a life of wandering in the wilderness, rough, unfashionable clothes, basic food, and an unshakeable, uncompromising message.

 Uncompromising, but compelling.

So compelling that people assumed that he must be the Messiah, and we completely nonplussed when John said,


That silences the questioners for a moment, but then they are off again.

“Well, if it’s not you, where IS the Messiah? He must be close, if prophets like you are abroad.”

"He is here. He is among you," says John.

And that was almost as startling as anything that had gone before.

Imagine, you have been waiting and watching for the Messiah all your life long, your people have looked for him for centuries, and now you are told that he’s hear among you already. Surely not…

The Messiah arriving unrecognised? Unthinkable…

 But John is insistent, absolutely confident that he has heard God aright, and that he knows his own place in God’s script of salvation.

Thus he can say, with no false modesty,

"I am the voice crying in the wilderness...As Isaiah foretold, the day of the Lord IS coming. Get ready..."

John´s message is compelling, right enough. He believes it himself and is wholly committed to his task, in the tradition of the great Old Testament prophets.

His claim to be the voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way for the Lord,' immediately aligns him with Isaiah as his authority. This inheritance absolutely real to John, and the authority that he received from God shone in his commanding words.

And of course, John´s message is so compelling, so authoritative, because, above all, he points away from himself towards Jesus. That’s the foundation for everything, - all that he preaches, all that he does, all that he is

 He is the moon, not the sun, remember..."Not that light"... "Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal."

And this is the mark of all those who aspire to preach the true Gospel. 

We must remember always that the Gospel is all about Jesus, the Jesus who took as his mission statement, when he preached in the synagogue at Nazareth, these very words of Isaiah.

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the gospel..”

John points to Jesus, and Jesus comes, not with a teaching which would imprison us with fear, not with words which would tie us up in knots, but with tidings of great joy. 

As the way is made straight, as our lives are put right, so we can know that the good news of hope and freedom is for us as well. This is the promise we hear in Isaiah.

"He has sent me to bring the good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted; to proclaim liberty to captives and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord´s favour."   "to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning."

 Isn’t that fabulous?

This, surely, is the central core of our gospel, the heart of the church's ministry.

Healing for the broken-hearted. 

Liberty for the captives.

 And yet so people can be imprisoned by religion rather than freed by it. It’s not a coincidence that many assert that the root of the word comes from the Latin “religare” ,to bind...though that binding can, at its best, be a benevolent banding together of those drawn by a system of belief. Not always, though.

At its worst, religion really CAN imprison. 

We’ve seen this recently during those synod debates that set out to determine who might be in and who out, or where the most pure doctrine might be found. It’s always a risk when you travel with those of like minds...Its all too easy to strengthen your own position by building relationships based on exclusion...whether on account of gender or sexual orientation, youth or age, or preferences in worship.

When that happens, it's not good news at all.

Emphatically not the gospel. 

In case of doubt let me remind you - the gospel is not about legalism, but about liberation, justice and joy.

The year of the Lord’s favour.

It is not about hierarchy but about equality and inclusion.

It is not about fear but about freedom, security and hope

It is without doubt GOOD news – the best possible !

THAT is what John points towards. THAT is what Jesus preached, in word and in deed. And – that is our calling.

 John stands as a model for us.

We share his task, to witness to Christ in our lives, our words, our actions…To speak good news and to be good news as well, hoore in this cathedral for sure, but yet more when we go out into our working weeks, into the flurry of last-minute busyness, the tetchyness of weary crowds.

Like John we are to point to Christ, knowing that any light we may bear is not ours but reflected from him alone…We might be surprised to find that in doing that we become surprisingly beautiful, - as beautiful as the moon on a cloudless night, away from the heart of the city.


When you get home, please do read the gospel again, and put yourself in the place where John stands


There was a man (or woman) sent from God, whose name was ...


May God strengthen us as we witness to the Good News each day.