A Sermon by The Revd Ian Woodward, Vicar of the Close
Sunday, 7 December 2014
Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8
Our reading from Isaiah is one of the truly great Advent messages of preparation and readiness and hope and judging by the busyness of the shops yesterday there is a lot of commercial Christmas preparedness going on.
I’m grateful to my colleague Ed, our Canon Chancellor, who last Sunday you may remember very helpfully made clear the difference between the two great reflective seasons of Advent and Lent. Lent is about introspection – examining our relationship with God and Jesus Christ as we travel on our journey of faith. Advent on the other hand is about rediscovering God as our creator and Jesus Christ as our redeemer. Perhaps, very simplistically, it is the balance of the ‘what’ – the coming of Christ and the ‘how’ – his death and resurrection and thus our redemption bearing in mind that we od course, as Christians, an ‘Easter People’.
But let’s get back to Advent. Advent is distinctively different from our other festivals with its joyful expectation and anticipation – and none of us is too old to feel and experience that some very special is happening even 2000 years later. But to put it even more simply, Advent is about CHANGE – and being changed; and even more so it’s about being open to being changed. As we experienced last weekend in our Advent processions – the whole idea of moving from something dark and unknown, unsafe, perhaps frightening even lifeless, to a bright, new, positive life in which we are freed from the burdens of failure and guilt to live out Christ’s command to love one another and make his love known. It is a thrilling prospect.
Yesterday I was talking to my brother in Australia where he has lived for many years and we are sharing the idea of how hard it is to re-enact the Advent story when it is 30 degrees outside and the sunny days are very long. There, they have to be even more imaginative than we do here – a consequence of our faith stories centred on the northern hemisphere I suppose.
If we look at our reading from Isaiah – I wonder what you hear? For me it has something of the shattering change to the world that is promised in the Magnificat – Mary’s song of humble acceptance of her role as the Theotokos – The God bearer – (that we have at Evensong) - change indeed. But let’s look at it again – like the Magnificat this reading from Isaiah is preposterous to anyone who may be reading it or hearing it for the first time. How do we take, or indeed convince others to seriously believe the claim that God will appear in glory when we are surrounded by man’s inhumanity to man’, yet conflict and religious zealotry and pit one image of God against another leaving our human community fractured and cynical and, for so many people perpetually impoverished? As the theologian Richard Ward says, “How dare we speak of this God who promises to become present in a way that “all people shall see it together”. But this is what we are being challenged and commissioned to do in Advent! Isaiah speaks of God’s messenger as ‘the voice crying in the wilderness that we have to prepare ourselves for the main event and the good news to come. If we turn to our Gospel set for today for a moment I wonder what our reaction would be if John the Baptist appeared here in our Cathedral Eucharist this morning? He’d undoubtedly disturb our routine worship; our stewards would be challenged and I suspect he would not allow himself to be quietly ushered out for a cup of tea in the cloisters whilst we got on with our worship. But I guess he might have honey in his tea! But this disturbing, challenging appearance of John is a cameo heralding the arrival of Jesus himself. John the Baptist, the locust and honey eating lambs-wool dressed messenger is in stark contrast to the gentle, humble poverty of God’s incarnation at Bethlehem. In his gospel Mark instantly ‘cuts to the chase’ as it were; there’s no incarnation story of Bethlehem, no shepherds or heavenly hosts or wise men, nothing about the symbolism of the gifts that would point us to his death and resurrection. In a sense it is straight to the grown up stuff that directly links us with the Isaiah story. There’s not even a Mary or Joseph, so Mark is no good at all for the Christmas card trade. As has been said, Mark reminds us that Jesus grew up and fulfilled his God given mission to his Father and to us too.
At the end of our Gospel this morning we see that essence of our faith that is so wonderfully expressed in our font here – that in our baptism we are baptized with the Holy Spirit which is Jesus’ great gift to us. A gift that we reflect on not just at Advent and Christmas and Pentecost but throughout our journey of faith, in every step in our lives.
In this outwardly reflective season, here’s a poem by Archbishop Rowan Williams – that like much of his writing is rewarded by more reflection – it’s called Advent Calendar’
He will come like last leaf's fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud's folding.
He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.
He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.
He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.
Rowan Williams (The Poems of Rowan Williams, Perpetua Press 2002)
The promise and potency of Advent give us the confidence that ‘God will come in gentle power’, but come he does and we must be open and ready to receive him and to be changed by him.