Sermon for Advent 3 (Gaudete) Sunday 17 December 2017
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: Isaiah 61.1-4,8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24; John 1.6-8, 10-28
Let me begin by showing you a book. This is a book of the Gospels written in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus and John the Baptist. It is still spoken in a number of Christian communities in Syria and Iraq. I was given this on Friday afternoon by Fr. Daniel Alkhory of the Ancient Church of the East in Iraq. He is the parish priest of two churches in the northern part of Iraq, recently liberated from the Islamic State: St. Mary’s in Irbil and St. John the Baptist in Kirkuk. He has been in this country under the auspices of “Open Doors,” one of the two organizations through which our Diocese has supported persecuted Christians in the Middle East. The other was “Aid to the Church in Need,” the Roman Catholic group which organized the “Red Wednesday” event to publicize the plight of these ancient Christian communities – and in which we as a parish took part – marshaled by our own Cedric Stephens.
Earlier in the week Fr, Daniel had been to see the Prime Minister, who was taking time off from the woes of Brexit. He gave Mrs. May a book, too – in her case it was a half-burned Arabic Bible found in the remains of a burnt-out Christian home.
Fr. Daniel spoke quietly and undramatically about his work in helping traumatized communities and individuals recover from the devastation wrought upon them; of rebuilding communities not just physically but psychologically and spiritually. At the heart of this work of rehabilitation is a programme of counselling through groups, mostly led by lay people trained for this work which meet around the study of scripture and prayer.
He had come to this country in part to thank us for what we had done but reflecting on our conversation since then it seems to me that I was the one, we were the ones, who should be thanking him. In the short time we were together, this quietly courageous man, who ministers in the face of death, had reminded me of something of the glory and joy of what it is to be both a priest and a Christian.
He and his people are finding healing and strength in the scriptures and in prayer; so let us who have come together to pray, turn to the scriptures the Church has given us this Sunday.
What Fr Daniel spoke of seemed to embody something of those words we heard from the Book of Isaiah. These were words uttered when the Israelites had returned from exile in Babylon – in the land where Fr. Daniel and his people live – and faced the daunting task of rebuilding city and temple in the face of opposition. They are, too, the words which Jesus applied to himself when he read them in the synagogue in Nazareth.
“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….”
Last Sunday, we heard in St. Mark’s Gospel how John the Baptist came as ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” preaching a baptism of repentance of the forgiveness of sins.’
This Sunday, we turn to St. John’s Gospel. He wants us to know just one thing about John the Baptist: “He came as a witness to testify to the light that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” The evangelist makes this clear in those are words from the great Prologue to John’s Gospel, which we will hear at our Festival of Lessons and Carols tomorrow evening and again at Mass on Christmas Day; and in the Baptist’s responses to the questions of the inquisitors sent from Jerusalem to check him out.
As some of you know, I trained for the priesthood in Edinburgh and studied divinity at its university. One of the theologians we had to study was the great Swiss Reformed teacher Karl Barth. Barth was very much a reformed theologian – a theologian of the Word, of lots of words, too many words we thought, volume after volume of them, filling shelves in the library. But Barth had at least two saving graces for us high church Episcopalians set down among all those Presbyterians:
- First of all, he loved Mozart and believed it was the music of heaven; and
- Secondly, he kept in his study a reproduction of the early Northern Renaissance artist Matthias Grunewald’s “Isenheim Altarpiece”; not the kind of catholic art you would expect to find in the study of a Swiss Calvinist.
It portrays, in gruesome detail, a Jesus covered with the marks of scourging. It was painted for the chapel of a hospice for lepers, and clearly meant to show a Jesus who shared their suffering.
But what had really grabbed Barth’s attention, was the figure of John the Baptist who stands below the cross on the right hand side, with a Lamb at his feet, pointing with an elongated index finger to Jesus as if saying, as he will do in St. John’s Gospel: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
The church and its ministers exist to point to Jesus, to the Lamb of God, to Christ crucified, to the Word made flesh.
The Collect for this Sunday, was written not by Thomas Cranmer, but by Bishop John Cosin of Durham for the 1662 revision of the Prayer Book after the Restoration of both King and Church, after the rule of Cromwell during which he had been in exile. It links the ministry of John the Baptist and that of bishops and priests. That is because these days towards the end of Advent are one of the Ember Seasons, when ordinations take place and we pray for vocations.
Canon Michael Gudgeon, here with us this morning as he often is, will celebrate the 50th anniversary of his priesting on Thursday. So we offer him our congratulations. He will be celebrating mass in St. Mary’s, Littlehampton at noon that day, and we will be remembering him in our prayers at the altar here.
So what has John the Evangelist’s distinctive take on John the Baptist to say to us about Christian ministry? Well, it reminds us that the role of bishop or priest or deacon is always and everywhere to witness to Christ, to point their flock and others to him. Whatever else they do, wherever they do it, that must be always be at the heart it.
In his small but great book, “The Christian Priest Today”, the late Archbishop Michael Ramsey speaks of four functions of the ministry of priests:
- The first of these is to be a “person of theology,” of the gospels and the scriptures. These they must study and ponder; not to demonstrate their cleverness or erudition, but so that they and those to whom they preach might be transformed by them. If they are to draw people to “the wisdom of the just,” then that divine wisdom must be their constant preoccupation.
- Then, says Ramsey, they must be “ministers of reconciliation.” This is more than saying people should be nice to one another: although for some that would be a good start. Priests minister the reconciliation that Christ won on Calvary, so they must speak of sin – not to condemn but so that people might find forgiveness and restoration in the love of God and of each other.
- Thirdly, priests must be “people of prayer”; not just in words, but sharing in the ministry of the high priest who lives to intercede for us: “to be,” as Ramsey says, “with God with the people on our heart.” We are, as Paul says in the Epistle to “pray without ceasing.”
- Finally, the priest is to be “a person of the Eucharist,” praying the prayer of the Church in every age, helping people to see that they are called to something more than a common meal; but to draw near to the Christ of Calvary and to feed on his risen life.
Ramsey and the great tradition in which he stood, and in which we stand, thought these were things priests did for people – but not instead of them. Ministerial priests, do these things so that the whole people of God can be a priestly people:
- People formed by the scriptures and their witness to the light;
- People of reconciliation, forgiveness and mercy;
- People of prayer who “pray without ceasing;”
- People of the Eucharist, of the body broken and the wine outpoured for the life of the world.
If we think about it, we will see these things in what we do this morning and at every mass.
We celebrate the Eucharist, not because it’s a nice service with beautiful music, but because it is the heart of the life of the Christian community because it brings us to the cross and the risen life of Christ.
A school group is coming here in February, 200 kids in two groups. Their teachers have asked us to show them the symbols of Christ to be found here and explain what they mean. That could be a challenge when we get to the Old Testament “types” of the passion and Eucharist on the wall behind you: the bronze serpent, the sacrifice of Isaac and Melchizedek with his bread and wine.
When groups, young and not so young, school parties or the University of the Third Age, come to see the church, I always try to speak to them about more than what it looks like, but what it is for, what it does; how it, and we its people, exist to point people to Jesus. We are not here to tell people how wonderful All Saints, Margaret Street is. (They might tell us we are not as wonderful as we think we, and that would be good for us.) We are here to tell them and to show them how wonderful Jesus is.
We are here, yes, to point away from ourselves, but at the same time, we know that our lives – lives transformed by word and prayer, by forgiveness and sacrament, must be the finger, the living sign, that points people to Jesus as the source of the joy we celebrate in this anticipation of the wedding feast of the Lamb; “clothed”, as Isaiah says, “with the garments of salvation…covered with the robe of righteousness.”