The language ‘kingdom of God’ is a problem today. Most obviously it’s a problem if you live in a republic. How do you relate to the image? One American Christian writer faced that difficulty and decided to paraphrase it in a way that he thought maintained the impact of the expression. He called it ‘the revolution of God’.
And even in a monarchy like the United Kingdom, we have trouble relating to the phrase ‘kingdom of God’. In our nation, the Queen acts on the advice of her ministers. The sovereign’s powers have been circumscribed over history. We, too, need to understand that when John the Baptist comes proclaiming the kingdom of God – the very theme that will be central to the ministry of Jesus – we are talking about a revolution. The revolution of God.
Indeed, ‘kingdom of God’ was revolutionary language in New Testament times. And our mission this morning is to consider what kind of revolution John was heralding, and which would arrive in Jesus.
Because make no mistake, if our Advent preparations consist merely of tinsel, presents and mince pies we have missed its true meaning. This is the season when we prepare for revolution.
And that is essential for us to grasp. We have taken it as a truism for so long that the kingdom Jesus came to preach was not the one that good Jews of his day longed for. That’s a truism because it’s true! But if we Christians aren’t careful, we become smug or complacent about that, and we miss the fact that the kingdom of God is still revolutionary for us. Why? How?
Firstly, the revolution of God is an outsider revolution. John is not part of the establishment. No priest or scribe he, even though he was the son of Zechariah who ministered in the Jerusalem Temple. John puts all that behind him and goes to the wilderness. No flowing priestly robes for him, he goes for true shabby chic (without having it professionally distressed) in his choice of camel hair and a leather belt. I have joked in past years that he might have been the inventor of the ‘Bush tucker trial’ on ‘I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here’ with his diet of locusts and honey, but actually he wouldn’t have been impressed at all by celebrities. In fact, given the scathing words he addresses to the Pharisees and Sadducees here I can’t see him getting on the phone voting to save them.
Here’s the way God’s revolution often works. It comes from the margins, not the centre. It is rare for God to renew his church and reform society in a movement that comes through the structures of power in the church itself. He tends to be at work on the outer boundaries. He tends to be stirring things up among those who do not have access to traditional sources of power or authority. He takes delight in using nobodies. It’s not just the aims of God’s kingdom that are revolutionary, it is the methods, too.
And if that is true, then it is time for hope to spring up in the pews of the church. Hope – and perspective. Do not wait around, expecting the ministers and Local Preachers necessarily to be the standard bearers of God’s revolution. I would love to be such a person, but God may not choose me. Do not assume that because of my office God will somehow automatically choose me. That is by no means necessarily God’s way. He may come in power upon and through those of you who think you are nothing in the eyes of the church, let alone the eyes of God. It’s what he did, using John the Baptist in the wilderness. It’s what he did, having his son born in poverty and laid in a manger.
So I invite you this Advent to consider the thought that you are as likely as anyone to be the kind of disciple that Jesus would enlist to do something significant in the revolution that we call his kingdom. Do not let the disappointments of everyday life blind you to the possibility that God may choose to use people who are among those who are unexpected, the ones who would never pass the selection criteria for the ministry, the ones who never pass exams, the ones who have never been in the limelight or held a significant rôle in society.
Secondly, it’s a homecoming revolution. Listen to the language of homecoming:
“Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.” (Verse 3)
The Lord is coming home, is the message. He is coming to take his rightful place on his throne. That is why we can say the kingdom is coming.
And it was relevant to John’s audience. These words are quoted from Isaiah 40, where the prophecies of Israel’s return from exile in Babylon begin. It is no accident that scriptures with that theme were relevant to John and Jesus. For in their day, the Jews believed they were still in exile. Not geographically, for they were in the Promised Land, but because they did not rule it themselves on behalf of God, but living under a foreign power, Rome, they felt they were still effectively in exile. Many felt God had deserted them. Some rabbis had said that after the final prophet in the Old Testament had spoken, the Holy Spirit had left Israel.
So imagine what it is like for them to hear that God is making a homecoming. He will reign – and the Romans will not. He will be present in his kingly power, not absent. This is good news. In fact, it really is good news in their terms, because the word ‘gospel’, which we translate as good news, comes from an ancient practice of proclaiming the great things the king had done. God’s return to Judah and especially to Zion is a Jewish form of gospel.
Yet now see these things not merely as Jewish gospel two thousand years ago, but in the light of the One who did come to Zion, Jesus the Messiah. He comes to reign. He comes and has the title ‘Lord’. He is Lord, and by implication, Caesar is not Lord. The Romans would not have the final say in this world, and nor will the powers that be today, be they political, military, economic or media. Like Jesus was to say to Pilate, they only have power because it has been granted to them from above. The true Lord of our lives and of the whole cosmos is Jesus himself.
So we rejoice that the powers of our day will one day have had their day, while Jesus reigns – not from Zion but from a hill outside where he was lifted up; not in a temple made by human hands but in the midst of a temple made of humans; not in the precincts of Jerusalem but at the Mount of Olives, from where he ascended and where he will appear again.
The authorities of today are put in their place. They can posture and pout as much as they like, but it is all vanity and we can laugh at it, because Jesus is the true Lord.
We can also resist their seductions, in the name of Jesus the coming Lord. It will anger them, and it will cost us, but their days are numbered.
And furthermore, if Jesus is the presence of God coming to us – Emmanuel, God with us, as we remember at this time of year – then we are no longer alone. God has no longer deserted his people. By sheer grace, God is with us. Yes, granted, God hides himself from us for seasons, but he has come to be with us and never to forsake us.
Thirdly and finally, it’s a revolution of repentance. Those who flood out from the big towns to John’s outsider location (verse 5) confess their sins and are baptised (verse 6). John says he baptises for repentance (verse 11). And when the religious élite come to seek baptism too – are they like modern politicians jumping on the coat-tails of a popular phenomenon? – he reserves his choicest insults for them:
‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The axe has been laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. (Verses 7b-10)
This is a kingdom where status counts for nothing. All that matters is the opposite of clinging to status: humility; the humility that leads to repentance. A repentance that does more than say sorry; a repentance that makes straight our crooked paths to be fit for the coming of the Lord.
This is a kingdom where no-one can rest on religious laurels. What could have been truer for good Jews than to trace their spiritual heritage back to Abraham? Yes, that strictly was where God began to form a pilgrim people for himself, but it could not be claimed as a badge. You could not hold up your ‘child of Abraham’ laminate on your lanyard and automatically be granted entry into God’s kingdom. There had to be substance, and that was shown by a willingness to change.
There has to be the substance of repentance for us, too, and it needs to be on-going. John could come to us and say, ‘do not think you can say to yourselves, “We have Wesley as our father’”’ We are not a heritage site designed for spiritual tourists, we are a colony of God’s kingdom.
Let us beware what we are building on. In one previous church, a group of people objected to the use of modern worship songs alongside traditional hymns. (Those who enjoyed the contemporary songs were more generous in their attitude to the tried and tested gems from the past.) The final straw for one of this group came after I had left that church, when they decided to replace the pews with chairs. She and her husband resigned their membership. Her understanding of faith was based on the style of her heritage, and certainly not on the spiritual substance of what Wesley wrote about in his hymns.
So let us ask ourselves this question: when was the last time we allowed God to challenge our actions, our thoughts, our words or our lifestyles? Have we permitted God to effect a revolution in our own lives, such that he may use as agents of his revolution in the world?
There are many popular images of the church. It is common to say that it is a hospital for the sick and the sinners, and I certainly understand the church like that. But I think we also ought to ask what kind of church we are. Would it not also be reasonable to conclude that the church is a field hospital, healing its wounded so that they may be strong for the battle with those forces that foolishly resist the coming revolution? Here God binds up the injured nobodies and sends them to herald his kingdom from the outside, not the centre. Here in the church, his revolutionaries know the presence of Jesus and acknowledge him as Lord, following his instructions in his presence.
Have we signed up for the revolution? Because that is what John – and later Jesus – called us to embrace.
Tomorrow will be a milestone for me: the iPad arrived on Thursday, and so in the morning I shall preach my first paperless sermon in the thirty-five years since I first preached as a teenager. Here it is:
There’s no doubt about it: if you put together your dream team for ‘I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here’, John the Baptist would be on it. The man who lived in the desert and existed on a diet of locusts and honey would be a shoo-in for the bush tucker trials. In a cage, having insects dropped on him? Breakfast. Being forced to eat the private parts of strange Australian animals? Lunch. Any fading radio or television personalities seeking to re-ignite their careers by endearing themselves to the public through their endurance of humiliation would be blown away by J the B.
But sometimes we don’t get much past that aspect of John, those elements of his lifestyle that we condescendingly assume to be eccentric. Who has not secretly sniggered at the gospel descriptions of him?
There is far more to him, in terms of the way he prepares the way for the Messiah – which is why, part-way through Advent, we skip thirty years beyond Jesus’ birth to passages such as today’s. These six verses, which we might mistakenly dismiss as a mere preface to the real action, are packed with significance for the coming of the Christ.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene – during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Verses 1-2)
‘History is bunk’ was the foolish saying of Henry Ford, the car maker. It is a sentiment echoed by the so-called New Atheists today, who sneer at our scriptures on the basis that it is crazy to base our lives on writings from the Bronze Age.
But Luke – not for the first time – locates his story in space and time. ‘This is the year that it happened,’ he says, ‘and these are the people who were in power.’
Why does this matter? Because the coming of the Christ changed everything. There are such things as events that altered the course of history, and Luke makes the bold claim that the arrival of the Messiah is just that – indeed, the greatest such event in history. This is what we are marking. There are certain parts of our Scriptures where it is of little account whether they are historical, but this is one of many – and the pivotal one at that – where the fact of history is critical to the truth.
Well, this is not an interventionist God but the work of a God who is always at work in history, and who did his most significant historical work among the human race when he gave up his only begotten Son.
It is this God who is committed to changing history. It is this God who cares about the historical circumstances in which we find ourselves. The God who announced his Son through John the Baptist during the reign of Tiberius Caesar, under the delegated authority exercised by Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip and Lysanias, and during the times of Annas and Caiaphas, is the God who is still at work in the reign of Elizabeth II, her Prime Minister David Cameron and of Mark Wakelin’s presidency of the Methodist Conference. Here and now, in December 2012, that God is present and at work for his kingdom through his Son and in the power of his Spirit.
What does that mean for us? God through Jesus is always committed to working for salvation. That includes now. Take a moment to reflect: where do we need to see God at work? Where does our world need to see God at work? The Advent message as John the Baptist heralds the coming King is that the King is still coming in salvation, because history is the arena where he works. That means us, just as much as the biblical story.
Our second theme is power. Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip and Lysanias; Annas and Caiaphas. It’s quite a list, isn’t it? John the Baptist announces the coming Messiah in a context of these powerful people.
The snag is, John isn’t impressed by the powerful and the Gospel writers certainly weren’t, either. Pontius Pilate chose to save his own political bacon rather than do justice. Herod saved his adulterous marriage by executing John. Annas and Caiaphas conspired in the arrest of Jesus.
John, on the other hand, works on the margins, in the countryside (verse 3) and the wilderness (verse 4), far from the centres of power, just as Jesus was born in little old insignificant Bethlehem, not in the capital city of Jerusalem.
It raises a serious question for us about how we view power and influence. Ours is a culture that refers to the President of the USA as ‘the most powerful person on Earth’. We talk about politicians being ‘in power’. It is also exercised by the media and by multinational companies. We defer to the influence of celebrities.
And before we look too far down our noses at this culture, let us remember that the church falls into the same trap all too often as well. We like it when a famous person becomes a Christian, as if their testimony were more valuable than that of an ‘ordinary’ person. We think the Church is more effective when we lobby politicians. We are under a delusion that the most important people in the Church are the ministers, and especially those holding senior positions.
Does any of this make sense when John exercises his ministry off the beaten track? When the only time we know he came into contact with the powerful was when he criticised Herod’s adulterous marriage and paid with his life? It’s hardly the kind of life that would feature in Hello magazine, or get press releases in the daily papers.
Knowing this, I am fond of the expression coined by one Christian that what we are about in the mission of Jesus is ‘the conspiracy of the insignificant’. It is the sort of thing going on at Corinth when the Apostle Paul reminds them that not many of them came from influential parts of society.
So take heart if you are one of our world’s nobodies. You are precisely the sort of person God delights to use in the spread of his kingdom, as he reverses the values of our world. If he even sent his Son to be born in an obscure town and raised in another backwater, if he grew up as an artisan rather than a power broker, what do you think that says about his potential to use you in his kingdom purposes?
However, that still leaves a question especially for some Surrey residents. We include among our number people who are influential in ways that the world recognises. Should such Christians give up their roles?
By no means necessarily. There are a few such people featured among the disciples of Jesus in the Gospels, and occasionally in Acts and the Epistles. They clearly remained where they were when they were called by Christ. The distinctive Christian call to such people is surely to subvert the world’s love affair with power by not using it in self-aggrandising ways, but by seeking to use such positions for the welfare of others, as a voice for the voiceless not a cheerleader for the privileged, and in the fashion of a servant, contrary to expectations.
Thirdly and finally, having been firstly among the historians and secondly among the politicians and the powerful, then we are now among the civil engineers. Our third theme coalesces around images of roadworks:
‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
“Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.”’ (Verses 4-6)
Straightened paths, filled-in valleys, mountains and hills flattened, crooked roads straightened, rough ways made smooth. As the arrival of winter here sees the increase of potholes in Surrey roads, so a Highways Agency project rather like this prophecy of Isaiah 40 that Luke quotes sounds very appealing to us.
But we generally interpret this as an image for the kind of message John the Baptist proclaimed, namely one of repentance. Although Isaiah 40 in its original context has a sense of smoothing out the way for God to lead his people on a highway back from Babylon to Judah, in the New Testament’s use in relation to John it becomes a metaphor for repentance. John is announcing that the King is coming, and so just as a town is cleaned up before a royal visit, so we need to straighten out the roads of our lives in order to be ready for Christ.
That much is certainly true. We need to get rid of our crooked ways if we are to be fit to receive the King. Advent needs to be a time of self-examination. Preparation for Christmas is not merely about completing the present-buying, writing the cards and finishing the annual letter. It is a time of spiritual preparation, which is why there are hints in earlier centuries of the Church that Advent was regarded as some kind of penitential season, almost like Lent. As the world is filled with lights outside, we need to shine lights inside to see how we are preparing our hearts and minds for the reign of God in Christ.
Yet let me suggest there is more to this than we sometimes suppose. There is here preparation that we need to do – ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight paths for him’ but this is not just about commands to us. The rest of the prophecy is about promise – ‘Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill laid low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation.’
Not only are we commanded to change, God promises change. I believe this means a couple of things. One is the gospel reminder that the call to change our lives is never meant to be accomplished on our own. We are incapable alone of making ourselves into the people God wants us to be. But his command to turn our lives around is accompanied by the promise that he will be at work among us by his Spirit to fulfil those purposes.
However, I think there is even more here than that. If God promises that we shall change from crooked to straight, from rough to smooth, then I suggest that is not only about growing in holiness. I offer to you the thought that there is much that is rough and crooked in our lives that is not necessarily sin. We carry burdens, brokenness, damage and pain from so much of life and I believe God also promises the straightening out of these sorrows and defects, too. Is that not what Jesus also came to do, as well as call people to repentance, as his cousin John did? Just as I long for the day when I shall no longer have to slalom around the regular potholes in our road – well, I can hope! – so I long for the day when God will complete his work of restoration in every way.
If you thought, then, that everything about John the Baptist was severe, I invite you to think again. Yes, there is the challenge to repentance, but it comes in the context of the God who is always at work in history – including ours. It comes as good news from the God who is pleased to work among the nobodies and on the fringes. It comes as part of a rebuilding package for every part of our lives.
Let us celebrate the ministry of John the Baptist and every way in which he points us and the world to Christ.
If I were ever to be on a TV show, I think Grumpy Old Men might suit me. Not that I would ever be famous enough to be invited, but I can be the sort of person who thinks that Ebenezer Scrooge was given an unfair press. It’s not simply that this is the time of year when Debbie gets out all the Singing Santa toys that she and the children love (and which can drive me mad), it’s this Second Sunday in Advent.
You see, the grump in me wonders why it got changed in the current Lectionary. You used to know where you were in the four Sundays of Advent. The first Sunday was about the Advent Hope – not just Christ’s original coming but the promise of his appearing again in glory. The second Sunday was about the promise of the Messiah in the Old Testament prophets. Sunday number three introduced you to the man with the extreme diet, John the Baptist. Then on the fourth Sunday it’s the Annunciation by Gabriel to Mary.
What went wrong? How come we now get a reading about John the Baptist this week as well as next week? Some of it has to do with the moving of Bible Sunday into October, although I’m not sure which came first. Perhaps a grumpy old man like me should appreciate two weeks’ worth of his fire and brimstone preaching, but actually I miss the emphasis on the prophets.
And no, it’s wrong to see the prophets as a job lot of grumpy old men. In the short term, they did warn people about the consequences of sin. But in the long term, they held out the hope of God’s future. In Isaiah’s case, that included the hope that God would send his Anointed One, that is, the Messiah.
So, then, what does this passage from Isaiah point us to in the hope of the Messiah’s coming? I want to take Isaiah’s original intentions and give them a distinctively Christ-centred flavour.
Firstly, let me take you to the manse Debbie and I had in the circuit before last. Known among local Methodists as ‘the Frost manse’, because David Frost famously lived there as a boy when his father was the local Methodist minister just after World War Two. The house had begun life, though, as the admiral’s house for the nearby Chatham Dockyard. Thus, although it was terraced, it was a large house. The downstairs study which Paradine Frost, David Frost’s father, had used when he was there, had by our time been converted into a huge kitchen. There was ample space not only to cook but also to seat several people around a dining table for meals.
There was a large window from the kitchen looking out onto the garden. Unfortunately, it didn’t let in much light, and we had to turn on the lights earlier and more frequently than might have been expected.
Why was this so? Because a large tree stood not far outside the window. Far enough away for the roots not to affect the house, but near enough to darken the kitchen. Eventually, we asked the circuit if they could send in a tree surgeon, which they did, and we gained more natural light when he had reduced it to a stump.
Isaiah begins by talking about a stump:
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. (Verse 1)
‘The stump of Jesse’ is a tragic statement. You will remember that Jesse was the father of David, and all Israel’s hopes had been in him. Yet this seems to suggest that David’s line has failed, even to the point where his father is named instead of him. The great tree has been cut down to a stump. ‘The stump of Jesse’ implies human failure and sin. Time after time, Israel and Judah had been let down by her kings.
Yet, says Isaiah, ‘from the stump of Jesse’ shall come ‘a shoot’ ‘and a branch shall grow out of his roots’. From a long line of human failure, God will grow his purposes. From generations of sinners, God will bring his Messiah. From iffy patriarchs whose morals crumbled under pressure, to Rahab the prostitute, to King David the adulterer and murderer, the ancestral line of the Messiah is filled with broken sinners. Within the purposes of God you get Moses who murdered a man and ran away, then protested when God called him that he couldn’t be a public speaker. You have Gideon, who was fearful and full of doubt. There is Jeremiah, who may well have suffered from depression, yet only Isaiah exceeds him among the prophets.
And so that is the first theme I want to take from Isaiah – the hope of the Messiah is one of God working through sinners. God’s purposes are accomplished through a people that one video clip I saw the other day called ‘The March of the Unqualified’.
This Advent, then, be encouraged by the prophetic hope that whatever your failures, whatever your weaknesses, whatever your disappointments, God is capable of working his purposes out through you. If you think that your sins have disqualified you from God and that you have shrivelled from a tree to a stump, then know that God is able to develop a shoot from your stump and a branch from your roots. The God of grace and mercy has come to shine his light into the world even through a cut-down stump.
Secondly, if there’s one thing I get very little of as a parent of young children, but which I would like to have more of, it’s rest. While – as I told Knaphill last week – I begrudgingly rely on an alarm clock in the morning, there are times when it’s not needed. We have two small human alarm clocks, and one in particular. Rest is something Debbie and I envy in others.
But the trouble with words is one of multiple meaning. Think of how you look up a dictionary definition for a word, only to face a range of options. And ‘rest’ is one such word. In the way I have just used it, the connection is with sleep. But ‘rest’ can also mean ‘stay’. I’d like to combine the two meanings of rest into one, of course: stay asleep!
But it’s this second meaning of ‘rest’, that of staying, which Isaiah uses here:
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. (Verse 2)
It’s not simply that the Messiah will have the Spirit of the Lord, it’s that the Spirit of the Lord will rest – that is, stay – on him. Generally in the Old Testament when the Spirit of God comes upon someone it is a ‘tumultuous and spasmodic’ experience. The Spirit usually comes dramatically, but only temporarily.
Therefore it’s a big thing for Isaiah to speak about the Spirit resting on the Messiah. Here is the one on whom the Spirit will come and remain. The Messiah will have God’s Spirit permanently. And when John the Baptist says that Jesus is the one on whom he saw the Holy Spirit come and remain, he is making a big claim – a claim that here indeed is the Messiah.
What does this resting of the Spirit upon Jesus mean for us? It ushers in the New Testament era of faith, where the people of the Messiah may receive the same gift. The coming of Jesus the Messiah is the coming of a new age, the age of the Holy Spirit, where Jesus, who received the Spirit permanently, gives the Spirit to his followers in the same way. There may still be dramatic experiences of the Holy Spirit, but the Spirit does not generally depart from a person any more. The Spirit may become distant when we grieve him by our sin, but the intention of Jesus in the messianic age is to give the Holy Spirit as a permanent endowment. In this way, Advent and Christmas look forward to Pentecost!
So be encouraged. Just as the Christ child is called ‘Immanuel’, God with us, so he comes with the promise of God being with us – ‘even to the close of the age’ – because he who receives the Spirit permanently gives the Spirit in the same way. Do not think that God has deserted you. As one Christian scholar puts it, even doubt ‘is a time of “disguised closeness” to God’. Or as the liturgy puts it, in a dialogue between minister and congregation: ‘The Lord is here.’ ‘His Spirit is with us.’
So far, then, we have good news twice over: firstly, that God works even through sinners and failures to bring his messianic purposes to fruition. Secondly, that the Messiah receives the Spirit permanently and gives the Spirit in a similar way to his disciples, so we may know that God is always present with us, even when we can neither see nor feel him. I want to draw out a third strand of this messianic hope before I close.
Just as we’ve thought about the word ‘rest’ as having more than one meaning, this third thought also depends on a double entendre. Not in the sense of a rude joke, but because biblical words are often so rich they convey multiple meanings.
There is one such word in our passage, and Isaiah uses it more than once: righteousness: ‘with righteousness he shall judge the poor’ (verse 4); ‘Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist’ (verse 5). Isaiah uses the word ‘righteousness’ of the Messiah here in terms of who he is, and what he does. Isaiah uses ‘righteousness’ for the Messiah’s dealings with people, and for the society he creates.
It’s a many-layered word, and at the heart of God’s righteousness in Christ is God’s covenant faithfulness. In covenant faithfulness through Jesus, God will make people righteous with him. Ultimately, we know he will do that through the Cross. But this righteousness is not just a ‘get out of jail free’ card for the Day of Judgment. God’s righteousness is also about the transformation he wants to bring to people, to societies, to the world and even to all creation. God’s righteousness is about personal and social salvation, personal and social transformation.
If this is what Jesus the Messiah came to do, it crosses the boundaries we sometimes erect in the church. On the one side we have those who say personal conversion to Christ is the be-all and end-all of faith. They say that society will not change until people are changed by God. On the other there are those who are almost cynical about personal conversion and say the big thing is social justice. Yet the righteousness of the Messiah doesn’t allow us to split personal conversion and social justice and play them off against each other, supporting our particular favourite. Jesus has come to call people to personal faith in him, and to share in his project of transforming the world.
And if that’s the case, woe betide us if we reduce Advent or Christmas to gooey sentimental thoughts about a baby. The baby who came did so through God’s purposes of using weak, sinful people. The baby who came would receive the Spirit in full measure and permanently, and came to give the Spirit permanently to those weak sinners that God delights in using. And the baby who came gave the Spirit to weak sinners to bring them to faith in him and to empower them to work for God’s kingdom.
The prophets don’t let us settle for a half-hearted, diluted hope. Let’s make sure we drink their hope neat.
We’re all equal, but some people are more equal than others.
So goes the truism. It’s not far from what John the Baptist says about himself and Jesus here. I’m not concentrating today on the material about showing the fruit of repentance, because I said something about repentance in last Sunday’s sermon about John. Hence today I have chosen to concentrate on the contrasts between John and Jesus.
It’s a mark of John’s humility that when he draws the crowds and the attention, he doesn’t garner the praise for himself. Instead, he fulfils his rôle as the forerunner to the Messiah by pointing to this cousin, who is about to appear on the scene. Preparation for John is Jesus-centred, and as we look at the three ways in which he says that Jesus is superior to him, I pray that John’s example will be one for us as we prepare this Advent for Christmas.
Firstly, Jesus is superior in authority. It may not have been the most watched movie in 1992 among many of our people here, but Wayne’s World, the affectionate spoof of teenage heavy metal fans, provides a way in here. Wayne and his friend Garth get to meet some of their musical heroes, such as Alice Cooper. When they do, they prostrate themselves before them and utter the famous catchphrase of the film, ‘We’re not worthy.’
John’s whole attitude to Jesus is that he, too, is not worthy: he says he is ‘not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals’ (verse 16). Removing a master’s sandals from his feet was ‘one of the most demanding and least liked’ of a first-century slave’s duties. ‘This is like a CEO saying he is not worthy to take out Jesus’ garbage,’ says one commentator.
In other words, as the same commentator continues,
Human beings are not Jesus’ advisers or equals; they are greatly honoured to know him and serve him. John does not draw attention to himself; instead he points to the superior greatness of the one to come. To direct others to Jesus is the call of God’s servant.
None of us, I’m sure, would ever remotely say we are Jesus’ equals. We too would say we’re not worthy. But however much we know that in our hearts, is it not true that sometimes we slip into the habit of being Jesus’ advisers? How many of us have prayed at times, virtually telling Jesus what his will should be? It’s a real test sometimes to change our prayers from requesting that our Lord do something we want to seeking his will and striving to pray in line with that. Yet how often when we look back after having initially being disappointed with his answer do we see that he knew best all along? We are not his advisers, because he as the Son of God has superior authority.
And not only that, we have our subtle ways of drawing attention to ourselves. It is a maxim among preachers that you cannot set out to show yourself as a wonderful preacher and at the same time demonstrate that Jesus is wonderful. We may not be as blatant as the corporations which like to wave their big cheques in front of the cameras on fund-raising telethons like Children In Need or Comic Relief, but we have our little techniques, and some of ours involve the use of money, too. Donations or buying equipment for the church are not always done innocently. Sometimes I have found the donors want to get a message across that they are admirable people. However, when they do, they rob Jesus of his glory, the glory that is rightfully his as the Son of God. John the Baptist would have none of it. Jesus has superior authority, and we should never undermine it.
Secondly, John tells us that Jesus is superior in blessing. Many people have problems conceiving of God as Father, due to bad experiences in their upbringings. I certainly never had a violent or abusive father as some have suffered, but I still found it difficult to think of God as Father in certain ways. Most especially it was a problem to accept that God could give abundant gifts to his children. That was because my parents were never well-off, and could rarely afford the treats for my sister and me that our friends often had. I remember Dad’s agony about buying tickets for my first football matches. I recall friends who had much more spent on them at Christmas. If God was a Father, then, that didn’t mean One who could give heaps of generous blessings.
However, with our children, it’s different. Debbie and I shall never be as affluent as some of their friends’ families are, but whenever Rebekah or Mark complain about something – whether it’s something they don’t have or something they perceive not to be very good – we can reel out a whole list of things they enjoy that we never did as children. Some of that is about economic and social progress, of course, but we won’t complicate young minds with those thoughts yet!
When it comes to John pointing to Jesus, he talks of the blessings that Jesus can give which he can’t: ‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire’ (verse 16). Leave aside the ‘fire’ reference for a moment, and think about this: you will know the verse in Matthew where Jesus says how much more your Father in heaven will give good things to those who ask him. When Luke writes that up (admittedly in a different context), Jesus says, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit. In Luke’s Gospel (and, of course, in the New Testament generally!), the gift of the Holy Spirit is a Good Thing. Jesus can bless you like no-one and nothing else in all creation.
That isn’t to say that the gift of the Spirit is simply for some selfish ecstatic bless-up, but it is to say this: what could possibly be better than the presence of the living God at the heart of our lives? That is what Jesus gives.
The other day a friend of mine asked this on Facebook: why do we give presents when it’s Jesus’ birthday, and Jesus is the best gift to the whole world? When I read it, I thought at first, oh Peter, you Puritan! But I know he isn’t the sort who would fail to buy something nice for his wife and children. I think he simply meant to say that there is nothing like the gift of God in our lives. We celebrate the gift of God in human flesh in our midst at Christmas. But beyond that, we celebrate the gift of God who not only lives in our midst but lives within us – the Holy Spirit. There truly is no better gift. Does that put our Christmas in perspective?
And to return to the word ‘fire’, that may sound troubling and perhaps in some sense it is, but that surely simply refers to the work of purging the darkness from us and strengthening us with divine power. After all, when Luke writes his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, and describes Pentecost, you’ll recall the Spirit comes like tongues of fire. And it certainly isn’t a traumatic experience for the disciples.
No, we have reason to believe all year round – not only at Christmas – that Jesus gives the best gift of all.
Thirdly and finally, Jesus is superior as Judge.
‘His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ (Verse 17)
Well, we were never going to get away with a completely comfortable sermon with John the Baptist on the case. There is no room in his preaching (or that of Jesus) for the idea that everybody goes to heaven. Both of them deny that. It is clear that where we stand with regard to Jesus affects our eternal destiny.
Not that it is a ticket to heaven and we then sit back and wait, of course. For the fire that came with the Spirit purifies those who follow Christ, and also weeds out those who are not serious about the demands of discipleship. Wesley was right: we are saved by the free grace of God in Christ through faith, but true faith shows itself by deeds of love. The division is between those who have a faith in Christ which leads to a changed life, and those who either claim faith but do not change or who deny Christ.
No, that doesn’t cover everyone, because John doesn’t consider here those who don’t get to hear about Christ, but he is dealing with a situation where he is preparing people for Christ and they will encounter him. Hence his focus.
Put it this way: I once heard a man say after many years of marriage that if he still loved his wife the same way today that he loved her on their wedding day, then their marriage would be in trouble. Real love grows and develops.
It is the same with faith in Christ. He draws us to himself, we entrust our lives to him, and that sets us off on a lifetime journey of change. It is only reasonable to look back and ask, “Have I changed? Am I continuing to change, by the grace of God?”
The good news in this part of John’s message is that God is a God of justice. He is so full of love that he draws sinners to himself, but scandalous as forgiveness is, he does not jettison his moral compass. But of course, if we recognise what he has done for us in Christ, then we shall want to change. And this is possible by his Spirit. All of which makes us wheat, not chaff, entirely by his grace.
Overall, then, John has again given us the Advent mixture of warnings and promises as he has made us focus on the superiority of Jesus. In bowing to the superior authority of Jesus, we stop seeking our own glory and have a passion only for his. In welcoming the superiority of his blessing, we find that Jesus fits us for the life of discipleship. And that means we need not fear his superior rank as Judge, for when we are open to the work of his Spirit in our lives, he makes us into wheat, not chaff.
Even among the warnings of John the Baptist, there is Good News.
 Darrell Bock, Luke (IVP New Testament Commentary), p73.
 Op. cit., p73f.
 Op. cit., p74.
Hope is in short supply right now. Increased unemployment. Home repossessions threatening to hit 1991 records. Banks, the backbone of our economy, in turmoil. Many suffering fuel poverty as gas and electricity prices stay high, even when petrol prices have reduced. You know the rest. We could do with some hope.
In the time of John the Baptist, Israel could have done with some hope. You’ve heard it enough times. In their own land, yet feeling like exiles, because they were occupied by Rome. Every now and again, someone popped up to offer hope in terms of an uprising. Every time, Roman legions quelled the rebels and executed them publicly.
Well, you root yourself in another time when the people of God needed hope. The time addressed in Isaiah 40. Most of God’s people had been deported to Babylon, and had been there a few decades by this point. A handful had been left in Jerusalem.
Then, a prophet in the Isaiah tradition turns up in Babylon, addressing the dispirited exiles and the desolate residents of Jerusalem. Using three metaphors from the physical world around him – wilderness, grass and mountains – he offers God’s hope to those lacking it and most needing it.
And this theme of hope complements what we thought about last week, on the first Sunday of Advent. Then, our theme was waiting. Today, it is hope, which is the content of Christian waiting. Had we read to the end of Isaiah 40, we would have heard – depending on which Bible translation we used – about those who will renew their strength by either ‘waiting’ or ‘hoping’.
So – without more ado – how does the Isaiah prophet help us to hope, using these images of wilderness, grass and mountains?
Last week, as we considered the theme of waiting, we wondered how we live when it feels like God is absent. Isaiah 40 is bold in response to this: you may feel that God is not here, but God is coming! He gives us a picture that is a bit like the building of a new road (hopefully without the environmental concerns we have about such a project in our society). Prepare God’s way in the wilderness, make a straight highway in the desert, raise the valleys, lower the mountains, and smooth out the rough terrain, and you will see God’s glory (verses 3-5).
So – in a time of God’s apparent absence, the good news is that God is coming. In a time of spiritual darkness, the good news is that you will see God’s glory. Music, surely, to the ears of disillusioned exiles in Babylon, and beaten-down people in Jerusalem. This is a message of comfort. Your punishment is over. Enough is enough (verses 1-2).
We may not know when things will change for the better for Christian witness in our culture, but we can hear similar echoes of hope in Advent. Our waiting and hoping is for Jesus who is called Immanuel, God with us. God is coming. We are not alone. Christ is coming. Christ came. The Father sent the Spirit of Christ. Our sense of aloneness is only apparent. It is not actual.
Of course, we must be careful: proclaiming that in Christ, God is with us, can make us sound like we have a religious superiority complex. This is not a matter of our deserving special rank. It is a matter of grace, God’s undeserved favour to sinners. The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost. It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. Jesus, God with us, came for lost and sick people – including us. Yes, God is with us in Christ. But we hold that knowledge humbly. And as we share it, we do so as one beggar telling another where to find bread.
And the wilderness was specifically to be a place where God’s glory would be seen. Would God’s glory be seen in raining down fire and brimstone? No. It would be seen as he led a raggle-taggle bag of exiles back home.
Similarly, Advent is a time when we wait in hope for the glory of God. His glory will be seen and sung about in skies over Bethlehem. His glory will be seen, in the words of Bruce Cockburn,
Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe
It’s a different kind of glory. It’s wilderness glory, a manger at the back of a house in Bethlehem, not a palace in Jerusalem. It’s the glory of God humbling himself into human flesh, one who later as an adult would not grant the wish of two disciples known colloquially as the Sons of Thunder, who wanted to unleash damnation on enemies.
Yes, come to unexpected dry places like a wilderness – like a manger – and find that God is present in strange glory. Come to Broomfield and find him? Why not?
When the prophet speaks about the people being like grass, I think he has wilderness grass in mind. It withers and fades in the heat of the wilderness, so when we hear about that happening when the breath of the Lord blows on it (verse 7), I think we’re meant to imagine that the Lord’s breath is hot and intense. The breath of the Lord, the Spirit of God, is not here life-giving but life-taking. The judgment of God had fallen upon the people with the Babylonian invasion and exile; now, like grass in the hot sun, they are withering and fading.
It’s not difficult to find similarities in later generations. In the days before Jesus was born, Israel was withering under oppression from Rome. In our day, we in the western church (especially in Europe) feel like we are withering and fading. What word of hope do we find here? It comes in verse 8:
The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
Whatever happens to us, the purposes of God are not thwarted. Whether we wither due to divine judgment on our faithlessness or whether it is general oppression or persecution, hear the promise that ‘the word of our God will stand forever’.
A story was told during the time when Russian communism ruled Eastern Europe. Soldiers raided the home of a Christian family and made some arrests. To humiliate them, they threw the family Bible on the floor. But a soldier noticed that one page didn’t burn. It contained the words of Jesus: ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.’ That incident was key in the soldier’s conversion to Christ.
There will be many attempts to destroy God’s word from its place in our society, and some of those attacks will focus on the church. But we are in Advent, the season of hope. The word of the Lord stands forever, and the gates of hell will never prevail against the church of Jesus Christ.
None of this is a reason for complacency, but it is a reason for hope. Therefore, it’s here to boost our faith and fuel our prayers for God to renew his wonders in our day.
So God is present in his strange glory, and he is speaking and will not be silenced. Those are grounds for hope, but they are not very specific. We need a vantage point. The herald, the preacher (who by the way is female in the text), needs to ‘get up to a high mountain’ to see things as they are and be several hundred feet above contradiction in preaching good news to discouraged people (verse 9).
What good news? That God is victorious over the enemies of his people, that he comes in conquest, with his people as his booty, and with the gentleness of a shepherd caring for ewes and lambs (verses 10-11).
Israel’s hope was the end of captivity in Babylon. The hope in Jesus’ coming was in his resurrection from the dead. Our hope, based on that resurrection, is that of God’s final victory when he appears again, not only to claim his own, but to renew all of creation, with a new heaven and a new earth.
There are always reasons in the world to make us gloomy. At present there is a plethora of reasons. There are also reasons to be pessimistic about the western church. You would think there were few grounds for hope. But when you get up the mountain to see things from God’s perspective, the situation looks different. You see hope in the promises of God, who has acted decisively in the past, who will do so again, and who one day will make all things new.
It’s rather like the old story told by Tony Campolo. People give him all sorts of reasons to be negative about the state of the world and the church. But his standard reply is, “I’ve been reading the Bible. And I’ve peeked to see how it ends. Jesus wins!”
So let the world write us off. Let our friends regard our faith as irrelevant. Let Richard Dawkins describe religion as a virus. But see God’s view from the mountain: Jesus wins. Let that fill us with Advent hope.
And while we’re on the mountain, let us – like the female herald in Isaiah 40 – proclaim it to all who will hear. Let us encourage one another in the church. Don’t be dragged down by the lies and limited perspectives of the world: Jesus wins.
And let us also proclaim it to a world sorely in need of hope. To people who thought they could trust in money, until the banks blew up. To people who gained their sense of identity from their job, until redundancy hit. To people struck down with disability or chronic or terminal illness, whose lives had been based on the vigour of their bodies. To all these people and many others, proclaim that Jesus wins. It is promised in the actions of God and especially in the Resurrection. We have a hope worth trusting in. Why be afraid? Why be dismayed?
You may recall I’ve said that my first circuit appointment was in the town of Hertford. There, the Methodists regularly quoted John Wesley’s Journal regarding several of the visits the great man made to the town on his preaching travels. They were fond of quoting one entry in particular, where Wesley was utterly discouraged. It said, ‘Poor desolate Hertford.’ Those words hung like a curse over them.
But you may also remember how I have talked of being involved in ecumenical youth ministry in the town. Somebody gave me the complete set of Wesley’s Journal, and I looked up all the entries on Hertford. They weren’t all doom and gloom. Some were, but one in particular wasn’t. In it, Wesley recounted coming to preach at a school in the town. To cut a long story short, he saw a revival break out among the children.
You can imagine the impact that story had on us as we gathered to pray about youth ministry. Never mind ‘poor desolate Hertford’. There was a heritage of Holy Spirit work among young people in the area. God had not been absent or silent. He had been gloriously present, proclaiming Good News.
So I want to say that the Advent hope is like that. It is time to cast off the darkness. The great Advent text in Isaiah 60 says, ‘Arise, shine, your light has come’. This Advent, might we just dare to believe and to hope in our God?
And might we find that in this hope we have something beyond riches to share with a world, whose own versions of hope have plummeted in value?