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Sermon for Advent 3 Year B 2014

Reverend Canon Charles Royden

Sermon preached for Advent Three 2014
John Chapter 1
There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. Now this was John's testimony when the Jews of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, "I am not the Christ." They asked him, "Then who are you? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the Prophet?" He answered, "No." Finally they said, "Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, "I am the voice of one calling in the desert, 'Make straight the way for the Lord.'" Now some Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, "Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?" "I baptize with water," John replied, "but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie." This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing

It was interesting watching question time this week, it was very animated with Russell Brand and Nigel Farrage among others. One of the things which stood out was that the audience were quite distrustful of politicians - Farrage was targeted for his wealth and Russell Brand was accused of hypocrisy. I remember one comment from the audience was ‘ you’re all in it for yourselves’
It is interesting then to see this week John the Baptist, one who could in no way be accused of seeking self gain.

The description of him in the Gospels is uncompromising. He is totally focussed on his prophetic mission handed to him by God, and the way he dresses and eats, everything about him shows frugality and that he means business. There was no way that anybody could accuse him of double standards. He lives in the desert, there is nothing which says he places any value on anything other than faithfulness to God. So we listen and we take his message seriously. His message is that
‘Everybody should make their lives ready to welcome Jesus.’
John says that the way we should prepare is by repentance.

Now that sounds like a very churchy word. It is what we do in the confession each week, we repent and say we are sorry. But of course repentance is ever so much more than that. Repentance is about the way we seek to live our lives differently.

If we turn to Luke’s Gospel we are especially fortunate because Luke alone has John ties down how to live repentant lives.
‘What shall we do ?’ ask the people. John tells them in no uncertain terms
John answered, ‘Anyone who has two coats should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.’
Even tax collectors came to be baptised. ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘what should we do?’
‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to,’ he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, ‘And what should we do?’
He replied, ‘Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.’

I think that some people might be a little bit disappointed by these words of John. They might want another creed, or another set of prayers. Learning to share with others just seems so ordinary and it is what all religions teach. But that is exactly what we need to grasp. The Christian life is in many ways very ordinary. It is about how we get on with the nuts and bolts of daily living.
How do we cope with our sick friend
How do we react when somebody shares something with us, can we be trusted to be confidential ?
Do we keep all of our time to ourselves or are we willing to offer to help a few hours here and then, perhaps volunteer for some community group or charity.
Giving some of our money to those less fortunate than ourselves. And I must say that the 5.5k which you have given this year to help the Emmaus project is a fantastic example of a spirit filled church. Somebody once said that the last thing we give to God is our money, it is humbling to see how much has been gathered- so thank you

These are the times and places, opportunities when we show God's loving power coming through in our lives.

John says something very interesting to his hearers. He tells them
‘there is one among you who you do not know’

The coming of Jesus is not a far off event, as charicatured in the jokes of the pearly gates. Jesus is with us now. Remember that amazing teaching of Jesus,
Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom…
for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.’

There are opportunities to serve Jesus all around us everyday. It is as we do this of course that we become like John the Baptist in declaring God and proclaiming the coming of our Lord. Our life, our deeds our words, all speaking of the Kingdom of God. It is when we do this that are perhaps the most powerful advertisement for our Lord, in so doing we make straight paths which perhaps allow others to see more easily the living Lord, the worship of whom transcends human religion.

 

The archbishop of Canterbury has been creating a media storm this week. He has been attacked for suggesting that the plight of the poor in food banks was more shocking than folks in Africa.
As somebody who is regularly misreported in the press I though it would be worth reading exactly what the Archbishop actually did say !
He said this
In one corner of a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo was a large marquee. Inside were children, all ill. They had been separated from family, friends, those who looked after them. Perhaps, mostly having disabilities, they had been abandoned in the panic of the militia attack that drove them from their homes. Now they were hungry. It was deeply shocking but, tragically, expected.
A few weeks later in England, I was talking to some people – a mum, dad and one child – in a food bank. They were ashamed to be there. The dad talked miserably. He said they had each been skipping a day’s meals once a week in order to have more for the child, but then they needed new tyres for the car so they could get to work at night, and just could not make ends meet. So they had to come to a food bank.
They were treated with respect, love even, by the volunteers from local churches. But they were hungry, and ashamed to be hungry.
I found their plight more shocking. It was less serious, but it was here. And they weren’t careless with what they had – they were just up against it. It shocked me that being up against it at the wrong time brought them to this stage.

Now when you read these words his comments are immediately and totally understandable and of course true.
On Monday last week an All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger and Food Poverty, led by Frank Field MP (a committed Christian) and the Bishop of Truro, the Right Reverend Tim Thornton, published its report and recommendations.  It is interesting because what is says clearly is that we produce enough food for everybody in the UK but it is wasted astonishing levels whilst hunger stalks large parts of the country. 15 million tons of food is discarded in Britain each year. Much of it sent to incinerators, landfill or anaerobic digestion.

Our Archbishop has noted that families are being forced to turn to food banks to make ends meet despite holding down jobs

Frank Field pointed out that
“The most worrying aspect is the sheer inability of the department to deliver benefits efficiently and accurately. Some families wait… 13 weeks for their benefits to be processed, and this is a benefit where people are eligible because they have got no other income.”

Now Pope Francis said this two weeks ago
The Church is called to draw near to every person, beginning with the poorest and those who suffer.
This is our challenge at Advent. To find ways of service, and never daring to despise the poor and blame them for bringing it on themselves.

The Church is not a perfect place and we are not perfect people. We disappoint God and ourselves, if we looked at the history of the church we might say that it has not and is not working. We could despair and give up.

However we know that this is not how God judges us. God does not judge us by our success we are judged by our willingness to pick ourselves up dust ourselves off and continue to live out the call of Christ to love our fellow human beings. Not to be drawn to wealth and success but to start with practical love, not just prayers and good intentions, towards the poorest and most vulnerable in our community.

Today’s reading from Isaiah is a clear proclamation about justice. It is no coincidence that when Jesus began his public ministry he went to Nazareth and he too read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, just like John. In Luke 4 we read
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’

So when we examine what it is that Jesus is concerned about we find that justice is essential to the spirit of God.
God wants the poor to hear glad tidings.
God wants the broken to be healed.
God wants to free those in captivity.
God wants a year of jubilee – a year of God’s favour toward the poor.

This is what the message of Jesus is all about and it is an essential part of the Christmas message. Christmas makes absolutely no sense whatsoever if we do not see it is as part of this great challenge by the prophets like Isaiah for justice in the world, a challenge which was subsequently taken up by John and then by Jesus. Christmas is a time when the poor get ‘glad tidings of great joy’

How do we prepare for the coming of Jesus?

We do it as we learn to be generous with ourselves towards others. At Advent we affirm our commitment to rejecting the world’s ways of violence, selfishness, greed and indifference to the needs of people around us. It is a tragedy that Christians are so often seen as concerned only with spiritual stuff, calling for conversions.

Jesus calls for social justice and of course that requires a radical commitment of the heart and mind. We proclaim Christ’s coming in our church services when we pray and sing, but it becomes true in our changed lives, our concern for the poor, the weak etc., otherwise these are just empty words.

The Archbishop has called for prayer. Prayer doesn’t magically feed people, what it does is to cause change because prayer shapes our priorities so that they become more like God’s priorities.
Prayer leads to action, because Jesus Christ calls us to help people, to feed the hungry and give a drink to the thirsty.
This Advent may our prayers move us as to be God’s living witnesses, proclaiming God’s love