Sermon for Sunday 4 December 2022
Matthew 3.1: John the Baptist proclaimed this message in the wilderness: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand
There’s no room for jokes in Advent. The traditional themes for the four sermons in Advent are Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. Today we’re on Judgement. John the Baptist tells us of Jesus’s winnowing fan which will separate the wheat from the chaff. The judgement, for us, is not being condemned at some future date for our uselessness, but is our awareness right now of a new standard for measuring divine and human life, and this new standard, or kingdom, is very close to us, says John the Baptist, in the person of Jesus. It’s as if God is saying, at the beginning of the Church’s year, the first days of our new life with him, look, this is what you can do, this is what you can understand, this is who you can be. So on the second Sunday of advent we meet John the Baptist, who is a messenger of God. He announces our new life. We are to read the signs in the heavens again, and see a beautiful pattern where the world sees randomness and nothing. Learning to see again, to listen, to keep watch; that’s Advent. We hear the voice of one that cries in the wilderness, Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight. So already a connection is there for us between Isaiah’s prophecies and John the Baptist’s appearance in the wilderness. We’re in this too. We heard in the passage from Romans today, that these things which were written so long ago, were written so that we should have hope.
What is repentance? First, what it’s not. Repentance is not feeling sorry or sad about ourselves because we’ve done bad things. That’s remorse – that’s housekeeping, getting our lives back on track. Nor is Repentance about a new me, or a new you, though it’s often presented as that. It’s too late for a makeover; we have to put up with ourselves. Repentance, metanoia, is ‘going beyond the mind’. Go into a larger mind. Go beyond your current operating system. Repentance is acknowledging the moral failures which kept us and others prisoners, our failure to see what we were doing – forgive them Father for they know not what they do – and then preparing for the transformation of our minds so that we have the key, or the codes, to unlock what Jesus says to us about the Kingdom of God and eternal life, and thereby change the direction in which we look for happiness. Change direction willingly and happily, for all can be forgiven, and we can bear good fruit, as the Baptist says today, “Bear fruit that befits repentance”. Repent, go beyond your mind, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, in another word, now. There is to be no separation between God and his creation, even in the wilderness of this world.
Those of you who come here regularly know we do our best to put on show the richness of the Christian tradition. There are always too many words said, but no one leaves without some clue to there being a vast hinterland of spiritual experience to be explored, or rather to be received. The images we receive at this season of Advent, such as the stories of John the Baptist, of Mary, the songs of Isaiah, are more than background reading, they are directly applicable to your life. Reflection, appreciation, a bit of extra study, are of value to us, but they only have an eternal value when we are willing to enter the Kingdom. As John Henry Newman said in one of his Advent sermons, “We are no longer … in the region of shadows: we have the true Saviour set before us, the true reward, and the true means of spiritual renewal.” Christ is to be formed in us, however long and difficult the struggle. The images of God do battle with the attractive demons of the world, and the way we act each day will depend on which images are uppermost in our minds.
Where or what is Newman’s “region of shadows”? It is where we are never quite committed to what we know to be true; where we’re still on the run from the Hound of Heaven, still hiding from Judgement. And that’s our truth, most of time. To be deaf to God’s call is the norm, not the exception, for believers. In Advent the shadows begin to shift, and we see that there is a true way of seeing the world and all it contains, and that is God’s way, God’s Word spoken to us. God speaks to each of us separately and differently, as a parent speaks to a child. The true light, which lights everyone that comes into this world, is there to break through into our lives again; we shall see our judgement, a new standard by which to live and worship. Then we realise how trapped we have become in our delusions and shadow lives, how the stress and speed of modern life have blocked any spiritual renewal. But God’s message of hope comes to those in the wilderness. In Advent we find a way clear for us to tread the highway of our God, the way of holiness, to prepare the way for Jesus to enter our lives once more, when “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” [Isaiah 11:9].
Fr Julian Browning