Sermon for Advent 3 2007

You will probably be aware that we are using a new microphone system here today. I remember that when I first came here I was told that it was a difficult building to preach in, but you were a good congregation to preach to. Indeed you are. You laugh in all the right places. However how you have been doing so whilst straining to hear, I cannot imagine.

The new audio system has put me in mind of the first time I preached a sermon in an Episcopal church, as a very new ordinand in training. I had been assigned to a church where I had been working for a couple of months. Finally the great day came and I rose to the pulpit to deliver my oration. All seemed to go well. After the service, I was assailed by the verger of the church. “Oh, he said, it was wonderful. It was so good to see you preaching. A wonderful sermon too. Marvellous.”

Being new to it all, I made a mistake that I’ve never made since. I said, “Thank you Peter, now which bit was it that you thought was so good.” He looked just a little nonplussed and said, “Oh no, I didn’t actually hear any of the words. Being in my verger’s pew at the back, I never do”.

Anyway – to the task in hand, which is to listen to John the Baptist’s message from his prison cell and ask ourselves what it means to hear it in Glasgow all these centuries later.

I’m, always a little surprised by the Baptist coming up in the readings so much in Advent. Yet he has to have his place. He was the forerunner. He was the one who announced that Messiah was coming, coming very soon. He needs to be heard as we prepare our own hearts for the God whose coming is certain, whose day draws near.

The temptation, of course, and I sometimes fall into it, is to see John the Baptist as basically an Old Testament figure. It is easy to imagine that he has somehow escaped from the time of the prophets and sneaked into the first few pages of the gospels almost by accident.

Yet there are some contemporary resonances that we must feel with John’s life. He is a prophet for today and we must hear his words. We must yield not to the temptation of keeping our minds closed with the Baptist stuck between the pages of Old and New Testament. We must struggle against the temptation to picture him only in stained glass. No. John is for now. Think on these things:

  • John is a prisoner effectively on death row, at the mercy of an unjust tyrant.
  • John does not just point to Jesus, he receives his message -that Jesus’s coming means healing, revelation and above all, good news to the poor.
  • John surprises us this week by being unsure of who Jesus is. “Are you the one who is to come?” he asks from prison. He is a seeker.

Let me take those things one thing at a time. John is a political prisoner of Herod the tyrant. We know, of course the end of the story. John is beheaded at the behest of Salome and her mother – the victim of an insane palace power game.

He is a man of our time. There are still political prisoners. There are still people in prison for their religious beliefs. There are still people at the mercy of unjust regimes. There are still people who are the victims of tyrants.

I was impressed by the Archbishop of York’s theatrical gesture this week – cutting up his dog collar on national television in protest at the way the tyrant Mugabe and his regime have cut up the identity of so many Zimbabweans. John Sentamu does such gestures well.

However, dramatic gestures from the church would be all the more powerful if we put our own house in order. This same week I have had yet another official mailing from my own church arguing against employment rights for those who work for the church. That means me having less rights at work than you have in law.

I have also had to read yet more justifications from England’s other archbishop of the hows and the whys and the wherefores of why it is still not right to recognise the common humanity and dignity of God’s gay and straight children.

And I am weary of these things. If we are going to preach justice, we must do justice. It starts closer to home than any of us are comfortable with. John was also the master of the grand gesture – plunging people into the river Jordan as a sign of their repentance is as grand a gesture as you will find. But remember – he was Jesus’s family – he was his cousin. The message of the Baptist lies close to home. The call to just living can sometimes be too close for comfort.

Doing justice means good news to the poor. It means things not staying the same. John received the news from Jesus that things shouldn’t stay the same. Until the poor are fed and there is peace on earth and there is justice for all God’s people baptised and unbaptised alike, there should be something niggling away at us, a voice that will not let us go, a cry in our ears – prepare the way of the Lord – put things right, make his paths straight. Sort out the world and bring the kingdom in.

For God is coming. In us. Alongside us. Through us. God is near. God is on the way. God is coming into the world.

I said that John was a man for our time as well as a prophet in the past. No more so than in his cry from prison that we heard this morning. “Are you the one? – Are you the one who is to come?” After all his preaching, teaching, raving, decrying. After his life of standing up to power and privilege and calling in God’s name for people to repent of their corrupt ways…after all of this, John is not sure. Who is this Jesus? Is he really the one who is to come?

He is a saint for our times and one whom we should enrol as an honorary member here. This is a church for people whose gift of faith makes them certain that Jesus is the king of kings and lord of lords – God incarnate born on earth. This is also a place where people can come and with honesty and integrity ask – is this Jesus really the one? Does his coming make any difference to me?

If you are here with thoughts like that in your heart today, you are most welcome to join in with the questions and the wonderings, the dreaming and the pondering, the uncertainty and the hope of this congregation. If you wonder whether Jesus is the one. If you wonder if he is really coming to you. If you wonder whether his coming is certain and whether he could make, can make, will make a difference to the world, you are in good company. Not only the company of those around you, but of the saints through the ages, beginning with the Baptist who have wondered, “Is this the one who is to come?”

The only message I have in advent is to keep wondering. Watch, keep awake and wait. For I believe in a kingdom which is just around the corner. And a new kind of kingdom. A world put right.

That was what John came to preach about. That was his message – with God a world put right. It is a vision to grasp, to hang onto and it will help us all to make sense of the busyness and the uncertainty of this advent season – with its usual call to all of us to come to our sense and get ready for what matters most of all.


[Anyone wishing to write to the John the Baptists of the current world – those locked up as prisoners of conscience could take a look at the Amnesty’s current greeting card campaign described here (see page 10). Amnesty meets in St Mary’s once a month – details times and dates of meetings and who to contact from the cathedral office].


  1. I don’t know if you heard Tutu being interviewed by Michael Buerk for Radio 4, 10 days ago. He was commenting on the madness of the church being obsessed with sexual ethics when the world is wrestling with huge problems of poverty, AIDS, conflict etc.

    It’s something I feel too, but then, it’s easy for me to ignore the gay debates. So you mention John the Baptist, and his preaching for justice, and you also mention Lambeth’s inability “to recognise the common humanity and dignity of God’s gay and straight children.”

    So, I wonder, where does the balance lie? There surely is an ethical responsibility a) to take sincerely held views seriously on all sides b) to work for justice and emancipation for those (gay people in the church) who are oppressed; but also, c) to keep these concerns in right proportion to other ethical issues that face the world.

    As I say, I can comfortably ignore the raging debates of the Anglican Communion. And in fact, I’m a whole lot more interested in climate change, inequality, and the bankruptcy of western lifestyles than I am in the debate surrounding Windsor etc. But I have a niggle: am I selling my gay colleagues short by failing to engage; and must it come from my gay colleagues to ‘release’ me and others to work for the Kingdom where we feel the issues to be most pressing?

  2. Duncan, I think we all need to act where we can– either for those issues that are most pressing, or for those issues that for whatever reason we find ourselves bound up with. But in relation to what is so unfortunately known as ‘the gay issue’, I suspect that it will take as many straight people as gay people to challenge injustice, in the same way that the acceptance of women needed the advocacy of both women and men, and the end of black slavery demanded a change in the hearts of white people.

  3. Marion Conn says

    Hi, whilst ignoring the gay issue of all children of the church is really wrong, I also think we need to concentrate on the issues surrounding our priests such as the issue of employment law. Why should these special people, for that’s what they are, who care for us not only spiritually but in many was physically, not be given the same protection in law in the empolyment as the rest of us?

  4. Eamonn says

    I agree with Kimberly. It’s time the hetero majority found their voices and demanded an end to discrimination and the blanking out of those who are different. I would go further. Having advocated caution in the interests of not compounding divisions within the Church, I’ve been persuaded by a recent lecture by Marilyn McCord Adams: find it on ‘Thinking Anglicans’ for 12 Dec. Her point is that, as with women’s ordination, we should just do it: a significant shift of attitude will come AFTER the removal of discriminatory legislation, as people come to realise that their fellow-humans are just that, and don’t have cloven feet.

    By the way, I’m quite happy to forego the description ‘straight’, as I don’t want to imply that other people are crooked. On the model of LGBT, why don’t we just call ourselves H?

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