John the Baptist: sermon notes for week three of Advent.
Zephaniah 3.14-20 Isaiah 12.2-6 Philippians 4.4-7
Today’s readings promise that a new and different day is dawning. There is a recognition in the words of the prophet Zephaniah that the people have known ‘disaster’, and that they have ‘oppressors’. The Lord will turn these around – the peoples who suffered will now be ‘renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth’ and God promises, ‘I will bring you home.’
However, the way to peace, promised through the message of John the Baptist, lies through a bold challenge to society, especially the political and religious leaders, to change their ways and to obey the demands of justice. The twin message of challenge and hope – both the need and the possibility of change – is key to the mission of John the Baptist and any mission in the name of Christ.
In 1940, the people of Coventry responded to Provost Dick Howard’s Christmas message, following the destruction of the Cathedral, with amazing grace. As he said in the BBC World Service broadcast, ‘With Christ born again in our hearts today, we are trying, hard as it may be, to banish all thoughts of revenge… We are going to try to make a kinder, simpler, a more Christ child-like sort of world in the days beyond this strife.’
The power to achieve such a change can only be given and sustained through the power of the Holy Spirit: to do so in our own strength will surely fail.
How can we see these twin messages of challenge and possibility in today’s readings?
Zephaniah 3.14-20; Isaiah 12.2-6
These two Old Testament passages have, at their heart, the assurance that God is in the midst of us. Both prophets spoke of a promise yet to be fulfilled – but whose roots lay in the present time. For the people in the Lebanon, God is with them now – in the midst of acute need, just where God is always to be found – but the promises of salvation are yet to be fully realised. In order for that to happen, the leaders of the people must turn back and trust God’s ways. Christian Aid’s work to sustain those like Wessam and the Al Khairat family, while at the same time pressing for political change, is to express the work of God who is with us where we are and at work to take us ‘home’.
Paul also brings an assurance of God’s presence in these familiar words: ‘The Lord is near…The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’
The epistle to the Philippians carries beautiful words of peace, but they are addressed to a Christian community which was at war with itself! It’s often said, ‘charity begins at home’ – and that can be an excuse not to give to the mission of Christian Aid and other organisations. It can truthfully be said, ‘peace-making begins at home’ – and this letter is a challenge to do that, and a promise that it’s possible. We can pray for those in the devastation of refugee camps in Lebanon that God will guard relationships for good, and who work for good relationships in the camps.
John the Baptist cuts anything but a peaceful figure as he roars through the pages of the Gospels. ‘You brood of vipers,’ is not an obvious opening phrase in a message of peace. However, John stands in scripture to remind us that to be a peacemaker is rarely, if ever, to pat people on the head with a simple word of assurance. It is to challenge, publicly and often sacrificially, established ways of living and leading in our own societies which oppress others.
Christian Aid partners are well known for raising awareness and challenging unjust practices alongside practical support of those who have suffered as a result. It’s striking that at the end of John’s message, which is full of challenge, we are told that it’s ‘good news’. Robust challenge which sets out the possibility of change is genuine good news.
Coventry Cathedral’s Community of the Cross of Nails is a worldwide community of those who have embraced the reality of their own situation, and the lack of peace, but have found the resources – sometimes through the inspiration of hearing the stories of others in the community – to work to make things different. To follow John the Baptist is to follow in his challenge to recognise and ‘heal the wounds of history’, to receive God’s help to ‘learn to live with difference and celebrate diversity’, and to work together to ‘build a culture of peace’.
These reflections for Advent 3 have been provided by Very Reverend John Witcombe, Dean of Coventry Cathedral.
Published on 14 December 2018