Sermon by The Revd Dame Sarah Mullally, Canon Treasurer
The Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8- end and John 1: 6-8, 19-28
This week saw the arrival of carol services in the Cathedral and a number of nativity plays. During the previous week in St Thomas’ Church they saw over 13,000 people visit their Christmas tree festival. In amongst the Christmas trees were a number of crib scenes. Some knitted, others using recycled materials from the Cathedral and others more traditional scenes, all contained the baby Jesus. Our own nativity scene went on loan to Sodbury Vale Crib festival with the baby Jesus, and in Sarum College they have their crib scene in the entrance hall including Sean the sheep but not the baby Jesus and within Wyndham House, where a number of the Cathedral staff work, our crib scene was taken out of the box and dusted off – including the baby Jesus.
Now the presence of the baby Jesus has caused much debate, my colleague the Precentor is adamant that we should not have the baby Jesus there because that it part of the advent waiting. Now, in the safety of the pulpit and knowing that my colleague the Precentor is preaching away at St Nicholas in the Savernake team, I would want to say he is wrong.
I know that liturgically and theologically it does not make sense to have the baby Jesus present in advent but in the world in which Christmas is increasingly filled with symbols of snowmen, Christmas puddings and reindeers, where the narratives are of black Fridays and cyber Mondays and penguins, and in which only one third of our primary schools hold traditional nativity plays, many more replacing Mary and Joseph with aliens, fairies, pumpkins and sprouts, we need images which clearly point to the message of Christmas – Christ with us and if that means sometimes getting the liturgical order wrong then we need to do it.
What lack of clarity are we giving if our nativities include a Sean the Sheep but not Jesus?
In our gospel passage this morning we see John pointing to Jesus. Now it is likely that John misunderstood the type of messiah Jesus was going to be and it is likely that behind the gospel text we have today, is a rivalry which had developed between the disciples of Jesus and the disciples of John the Baptist regarding which was the superior leader. But despite John maybe getting it slightly wrong, what he clearly did was point to the Messiah.
In John’s gospel, John is an important and honoured figure. Indeed, he is a prophet in the tradition of Isaiah. But despite the place of respect accorded him in Christian tradition, his vocation was to witness to Jesus. In John, John is not known as the Baptist rather as the one who can witness to the light. A very human witness to a cosmic event.
At the beginning of John’s gospel the writer uses the language of wisdom to identify Jesus. Jesus was resident with God from the very beginning. Through Jesus God created the world. Later in the gospel, we learn that Jesus and God are one in the sense that the character and purposes of God are revealed through Jesus. John points to Jesus who reveals the fullness of the divine will and relationship with the world.
The message of Advent is that God is about ordering a new creation, there is a new presence of light in the world but it necessitates a fellow human to point to its presence, otherwise, human as we are, we might not see it. In our gospel reading it is John and today it is us.
We live in a world similar to the world of the disciples of John and the disciples of Jesus. In today's pluralistic society, many different groups claim to have the ultimate clue to the meaning of life.
We will talk a lot about light over the coming weeks, but like John we are called to point to the light, to give understanding of what Christ being the light of the world means.
We are privileged to have in the Cathedral Bruce Munro’s ‘Star of Bethlehem’. Projected onto the font and Cathedral floor in the Nave, the 'star' is made up of morse code, a series of dots and dashes or short and longer pulses of light. Now in a community full of stars, it is possible to miss that it is a literal and visual abstraction of the text from the New Testament, Matthew 2:1-12, telling the story of the Magi following a star to find baby Jesus, the Messiah. Without explanation the star can merely be counted among the other decorations marking the glitz and sparkle of a public celebration. In a world that has become increasingly secular but still spiritual, we need to point to Christ as the light of the world or he could be missed.
Now if at the end of the service you go to take a look at the Star it may be difficult to see, it is better viewed when there is less light.
When I was in Zimbabwe a few years ago I was amazed that in such a difficult climate of oppression so many people attended Church. As we drove to our church meeting, people were coming from everywhere heading to their Church – it was as if in the darkness of their place, the light of Christ was so much clearer. So in our situation in Salisbury where it is more comfortable and less oppressive, people can find it hard to see the light – although the light is still there.
Just like John it is our vocation as individuals and as the church to witness to Christ. Karl Barth used the altarpiece in a church sanctuary in Isenheim, Germany, as a visual image of the role of the church. The altarpiece depicts the meeting of John and Jesus on the banks of the Jordan. However, John's index finger is distorted. His index finger is disproportionately large as it points to Jesus. In a single picture, we see the mission of the church.
Given the individualism, privatism and tribalism, of today's culture, the church needs to act as a Christian witness beyond the boundaries of the Christian community and points to the hope.
John quotes Isaiah as he tells us that he has come to prepare the way for the Messiah and Isaiah talks of a Messiah who will give "liberty to the captives," "a garland instead of ashes," and "the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit." Isaiah declares that the Lord loves: justice, hates: robbery and wrongdoing.
The goal of Christian witness is not to build up the church for its own sake, but is to help the world recognize God's love for it and to respond with love in all its relationships. To help build that kingdom of light and life – building justice, giving liberty to the captives and garlands instead of ashes.
Sometimes we may get it wrong, but isn’t it better that we have tried and have pointed in our clumsy way to the true light and life.
In everything the Cathedral says and does, we are witness to God as revealed through Jesus.
In its internal life, the Cathedral needs to ask of every line in the budget, every program, every activity and relationship, "How will this action witness to God's love for the world?"
As individuals we need to model John’s ministry in our lives. Now I’m not suggesting that we run out and get camel hair coats. I’m not suggesting that we eat locusts and honey. I am suggesting that we can point to the light, to be witnesses… that we testify to the light, so that others might believe through us.
“How,” you might ask, “can we do that?” Well, we can all witness to the light and we can do it as we carry out our day-to-day activities. We could begin by telling others about why we come to the Cathedral, about how God is part of our lives. By explaining that it is God who motivates our actions of charity and compassion, we could even talk about the difference faith makes in our lives, – and the truth is we may not always get it right but unless we express what God means to us how will others know. Church growth is about relationships – people come to know God through other people, through people like us.
We should also remember that whilst we, like John, may point to the light, it is God who has come into the world to save the world.
As Isaiah reminds Jesus' generation and ours: "The Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations."
This is God's gift to us in Christ Jesus and in a world which has lost the signs and symbols of the Christian narrative, it is even more important for us to point to that gift.
Let us echo the words of Isaiah (61:1-4) in our hearts:
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed
to bind up the broken hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”