19th December 2023

Advent Three

Advent Three, 17 December 2023

A sermon preached by Canon Nigel Davies, Vicar of the Close


“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness,

‘Make straight the way of the Lord’.”

John 1:23


It often feels like Christians are ‘crying in the wilderness’, sometimes in a language that the rest of society doesn’t understand.  When it comes to ‘making straight’, that is even more difficult, because that requires a direction, with a little knowledge of the geography, perhaps even a map, none of which the CofE seems to possess!

The CofE as an organisation seems to be turned in on itself, whilst at the sametime making pronouncements about ‘being missional’ – except we seem bogged down in the slough of despond, known colloquially as ‘Living in Love and Faith’!  This leaves Dioceses and parishes as outliers, pioneering straight roads in various directions, so we have something more akin to the spokes of a wheel, rather than one well-metaled and many laned, super-highway!

Our own Diocese has embarked upon construction of the way forward following discussions at Bishop’s Council.  David Pain, The Diocesan Secretary and CEO wrote in the Diocesan ‘E’ publication ‘Working Together’:

‘Across the diverse local contexts of the diocese, we are now actively stepping into new paths in mission and ministry to reflect these changing times. We want to deepen our prayerful attention to all that God is calling us to in our communities.’

This is the means by which we will progress the ‘Making Jesus Known’ agenda, in the Ramsbury and Sherbourne areas.  Hopefully these missional initiatives will become navigation points, for the rest of the Diocese, as we builds the ‘super-highway’, or at least the way in which, we test the materials that will be used to build our ‘straight road’.

Then again, this may be just another voice, added to the cacophony of competing Christian voices, in the wilderness of the modern world.  Perhaps we need to come to terms with the Christian ‘multiverse’ and accept that there are many roads we can contruct, which in the end will all lead to the same place, some more quickly than others!

Alternatively, we could use the clarion call of John the Baptist as a wake-up call to us latter day Christians, to strip away all the accretions that have gathered around the Gospel and focus on the two great commandments which Jewish and Christian scriptures have in common:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

The world needs to recover its moral compass, to find a sense of direction, to find a common purpose, which is what the Christian faith can and should provide.  The annual Advent message of John the Baptist’s is a timely reminder of what our purpose should be.

It is reassuring to have our purpose stated simply and clearly, which leads me to ask, ‘If we know what the message is, why are we not more affective in spreading it’?  Is it because we now live a post-everything age, when all our values are in flux, and we don’t have a common language?  Has everything become fluid and reality negotiable?  Are there no more universal ‘givens’ we can ascent to?  Are there no universal truths which transcend and unite us?

When John began his proclamation and call for repentance, those who heard his words understood his message. If we are to be effective in ‘Making Jesus known’ we need to find the words, the language which those who might listen to us, can understand.  The conundrum is that 2000 years since John’s proclamation and Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we still find it hard to communicate the message.

If the church continues to turn in on itself and focuses on its internal agenda, it serves no useful purpose to the rest of society.  When the church looks outward and focuses on the love of God and the love for one’s neighbour, it has a story to tell and challenges the narrative which has caused such misery, and will continue to cause more and more misery, for most of the world’s inhabitants.  The church’s voice needs to be raised calling for repentance, a turning away from the behaviours which lead to suffering, on a large scale.  Christian voices need to be raised, as John the Baptist’s voice was raised, to point to Jesus, to ‘make Jesus known’.  Jesus whose teaching calls us back to God, reminding us how we should serve, rather than be served.  This is the way we should live as individuals, as human societies, as a world community.  This is a message which many are ready to hear, does the church have what it takes to proclaim it?