Sermon 5 December 2004 – Advent 2

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Liberator. AMEN

In a moment or two, I am going to speak about John the Baptist ? the fiery prophet who stalks through Advent as though it belongs to him alone.

Before I do that though, I want to pause and take stock ? for that is what I told you last week that Advent was all about.
I want to take stock and note that we are reading a new gospel. Last week, with Advent Sunday, we began a new year. No longer are we reading Luke?s gospel. Now it is Matthew. When that change happens, it is important to think about the author a little. Who is Matthew ? who is he speaking to and what is he trying to say?

Well, Matthew seems to be the sort of person who sees the world in a Black and White sort of way. Maybe you are like that, maybe not. Certainly some people are. Matthew tended to sort the world out into opposites.

– God and Devil
– Life and Death
– Heaven and Hell
– Good fruit and bad fruit
– Prudent bridesmaids and silly ones
– Wheat and weeds
– The blessed and the cursed
– Sheep and Goats

Matthew is just that sort of person. And so, when he thinks about the Kingdom of God, which he tends to mix it up with the end of the world, and he seems to think in much the same way.

For Matthew, John the Baptist is a very attractive character and we hear a lot about him in this gospel.

So much of the setting of this gospel is the end of the world. Matthew writes as though the end of the world is right around the corner and everything has to be sorted out right now.

Ultimately though, I don?t want you to think about what Matthew believed about the End of the World. I want you to think about what you believe – because that is what matters to you.

The thing is, the way you think about the end of the world tells you more about you than about the end of the world itself.

And the ultimate destination that we have in mind sets us on our way. The place that we are heading for gives us some idea of the way to go.

And that is what this is all about. It is about finding the way to go. Finding the way to go right now. It is about finding the way to go today.

We need to hold that in mind when we are listening to the preaching of someone like John the Baptist. Someone who said,

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing fork and he will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

The things that will happen at the end of time can seem so distant, so Christians throughout the ages have said – “Act as though it is right now.” How would you behave? How would you relate? How would you life? How would you do all these things if the end of the world were tomorrow.

When Matthew writes, he is not writing a description about how lovely it all is. We can look back at the prophecy of Isaiah for that, or even the reading we had this morning from Romans. Matthew is writing something that is much simpler. When Matthew writes, he is writing simple things in black and white. He is not telling us what the end of the world is like.

He is not even telling us what heaven is like. No, he is saying more than that. He is telling us in black and white how to get there. And the thing that he tells us is simply this. Be ready. Be always ready.

Now, back to John the Baptist. Armed with what we know about the author, let us think again about this figure standing by the water calling us all to repent.

Matthew could not draw a clearer diagram here. John the Baptist is there to point to something coming very soon. The Kingdom of God.

John is a key figure in Matthew’s attempts to show us the way to go. He is the first major figure that Matthew uses to show us the nature of the kingdom that Jesus came to fulfil.

So, we need to think just a little bit more about what Matthew makes John say. For the things he says are strange. They are not what we expect.

Strange that the Baptist preached hell, fire and brimstone…..

Strange that John preached Judgement not jubilee

Strange that an old testament prophet strides across the pages of the New Testament.

These are not easy images. These things never make it into Christmas Cards. When did you last see a Christmas card with John the Baptist on it.

Yet these things matter, because Matthew makes it clear that John was pointing towards someone who mattered.

As I remember saying before, Jesus did not come Christmas wrapped – he was wrapped in the trappings of the OT. He was wrapped in the expectations of people who expected a prophet to come with a radical message. He was wrapped in the expectations of a Messiah who would come to bring about the ultimate change in the world. A world which God would reign directly.

And he came, in the end wrapped in swaddling clothes. A poor refugee child. Who needs to make his home in us, for there is no where else for him to go.

So, what at the outset seemed frightening is perhaps a little less so now. Advent is about the coming of someone who loves us. And the start of Advent is as good a time as any for getting ready for his coming.

Well, if you are heading off to Bethlehem this year, you will find someone in the way. Don?t ignore him. John the Baptizer will help us on our way if we pay attention to him. You can, after all, get to Bethlehem only by travelling through the wilderness.

Perhaps there really are things to be repented of.

Perhaps there really are things that we have to put right before we can meet the Prince of Peace.

Repentance really does mean changing the world, starting with me.

This advent, let us bring the kingdom just that little bit closer.

For repentance means, not just saying sorry, but trying to put things right; putting things right in a world that is far crazier than John the Baptist ever was. Let us hear his message. Let us pray for the grace and the time to repent.


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