SERMON: God’s new creation, coming to birth even now

SERMON: God’s new creation, coming to birth even now

A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on 12 December 2021.

There’s something unsettling about the season of Advent, or at least I think there should be.

At first sight Advent seems to be about ‘getting ready for Christmas’, counting down the days and weeks and making sure we’ve got everything done in time – we open a new door each day of our Advent calendar, light a new candle each week of our Advent wreath.

But that’s not all there is to Advent.

When we come to church during Advent, and at home if we use devotional resources during the week, these are not simply preparing our minds and hearts for Christmas.

At church the hymns and readings may be familiar to us, but they’re often disconcerting. Today for instance we’re confronted by a wild, uncouth figure with an uncompromising message:

‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.’

John the Baptist: a rugged, difficult character who eventually fell foul of the authorities.

Where’s he come from?

A few weeks ago I reflected with you on the life choices that were available to people during the time of Jesus.

I outlined how Galilee where Jesus began his ministry was an oppressed region suffering chronic political instability and that there was widespread resentment and frustration because the country was occupied by Roman troops.

Both politically and economically the region was unstable. Large wealthy landowners demanded high rents as well as part of the harvest from their tenants. Tenants got into debt, particularly if harvests were poor; and what were they to do?

So I suggested that families were often torn apart – with some disappearing abroad to seek a new life, others going into the hills to join the armed resistance, some taking to the streets to beg and avoid imprisonment, and others fleeing into the wilderness. And this is the option that John the Baptist seems to have taken.

He may have been part of the Qumran or Essene community who lived in the desert. They rejected armed resistance but instead opted for a radical religious life in community, praying for God to intervene. One of their great heroes was the prophet Elijah from the Old Testament. And in the gospels we hear that that’s exactly who John the Baptist reminded people of – Elijah with his zeal for God.

John the Baptist comes from the wilderness.

Those of you who were here for the Eucharist on Wednesday will have heard me talk about the idea of liminality.

Take a building, for instance. The hallway or porch is a liminal space because it’s an in-between place – either on your way into or out of the building. It’s not a place where you linger.

Another example would be an airport. You haven’t reached your destination when you get there, rather it’s a threshold that you pass through in order to arrive somewhere else.

The pattern is one of orientation when we’re in our familiar surroundings, to disorientation when we’re in a liminal space, leading to reorientation when we’ve found our bearings and are in a new frame of mind or place or time.

John the Baptist is a liminal figure because he’s an in-between person. He doesn’t inhabit the world of our day-to-day lives but comes from elsewhere – the wilderness.

And he’s also a liminal person because he’s in-between the Old and the New Testaments. He comes out of the pages of the Old as another of the prophets but he’s firmly in the pages of the New preparing the way.

So he’s a liminal figure. He doesn’t fit in – and that’s the point.

He challenged people to change, invited them to be baptized as a sign of their changed way of life, and announced the arrival of someone who was going to change everything – it was music to the ears of a suffering and oppressed people.

No wonder the crowds flocked to him. And no wonder that when they did John the Baptist confronted them:

‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.’

John the Baptist: an unsettling person during this unsettling season of the Church’s year.

But perhaps we’ve had enough of being unsettled.

We’ve had nearly two years of uncertainty and disruption, and it goes on. Things are not how they were pre-pandemic, nor have we yet arrived at a post-pandemic world. We’re living in an in-between place, a liminal place and it’s hard.

But we can learn from this liminal figure of John the Baptist who appeared at such a difficult time in Israel’s history, with a message of hope and challenge.

We too need to live lives worthy of repentance.

We too need to live and work for God’s new creation, coming to birth even now in our tired and weary world.