8 December – Prepare the way of the Lord

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Advent 2

Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Rob Gallacher

“You brood of vipers!” I get the impression that John the Baptist was not too impressed with the attitude of those Pharisees and Sadducees, the cultural leaders of his day. The point he held against them was that they didn’t act. They didn’t “bear fruit worthy of repentance”. They thought they were all right because of their past, they were descendants of Abraham, and that was all that mattered.

Matthew presents John as Elijah come again to announce the coming of the Messiah. The belt, the camel’s hair, the diet, all paint a picture of Elijah. And Elijah set the pattern for being critical of the prevailing culture. Though the lectionary points us to Isaiah for a description of the messiah: – a shoot from the stump of David, a branch that will bear fruit, … with righteousness he will judge the poor. … Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist. … And the whole of creation will be transformed. The wolf shall live with the lamb … They will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.

The pattern for preparing for the Messiah is first exposing unrighteous attitudes towards the poor and then taking action to relieve poverty. But it is also interesting to note that John was actually executed for his criticism of the marriage of Herodias to Herod Antipas, while Elijah didn’t like the marriage of Ahab to Jezebel.

In his address to the Anglican Synod recently, Archbishop Freier pointed to the marriage debate as “the issue of our times”. The Anglican position is at variance from recent legislation about marriage equality. This leads the Primate to make several points:

  • Our society no longer looks to its Christian roots on moral issues,
  • The Church must point to the coming reign of Christ, and witness to the judgement of Christ in order to transform the culture around it,
  • that witness needs to be expressed in actions that minister to the poor and oppressed.

Without this last point, action on behalf of the poor, there can be little impact on our multi-cultural society. John the Baptist was right about that. There is plenty to criticise in the world around us, from banks to cricket balls, and the attitude of ‘Whatever it takes”. As Thackeray put it in Vanity Fair, “We live in a world where everyone is striving for that which is not worth having”. But just verbally resisting corrupt practice or progressive legislation, only paints the church as reactionary. There is a need to create evidences of the reign of Christ, signs of that which is to come. “Your kingdom come on earth as in heaven”.

Meredith Lake has stirred up a lot of interest with her book, “The Bible in Australia”; – two literary awards, favourable reviews and insightful interviews. I heard her give some examples of the way the Bible has influenced Australian society, and they fit the pattern of seeing something wrong, calling it out, and then doing something about it.

In 1849 there was a Bible Study Group meeting in Sydney. They were discussing poverty in the light of Scripture, and came to the view that belonging to a provident society and having life insurance would give hope to the poor. So they founded the AMP. A decade later another Bible Study Group thought poverty was still a blight on society. They saw the need for the poor to have a means of building up their savings. They started the Bank of New South Wales, which we know today as Westpac. Fast forward another 20 years. There was a committed and fired up Wesleyan layman, whose name I didn’t manage to get. He was critical of the previous approaches and argued that the only way to relieve poverty was through a just wage. He became instrumental in the foundation of the Australian Workers’ Union.

We have the history. Abraham is our father, if you want to use John’s phrase. But appealing to the past is useful only in so far as it inspires us to act in the present. Each Sunday, in our liturgy, we say: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”. We call it the Easter Mystery. It is a tiny creed. Note the change of tense in the verbs. “Christ HAS died”. We have an unshakeable heritage from the past. “Christ IS risen.” We live in his company and can act with confidence in the present. “Christ WILL come again. We have the vision of the reign of Christ to guide our actions in the present. The vision that the prophet Isaiah put so poetically: “With righteousness he shall judge the poor …. The leopard shall lie down with the kid. … They will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.” It is a whole new creation.

So hear this voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord”. “All the people were going out to him”. It is not surprising that people, then and now, should fervently long for authority figures and institutions that they can trust. “They were baptised, confessing their sins”. That is the place to start, with the plank in your own eye. John’s baptism was for repentance because the kingdom is near.

Then “Bear fruit worthy of your repentance”. Act on behalf of the poor. Restore the sanctity of marriage. “Do not … say, “We have Abraham as our Father”. It is not enough to live in the past. “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down.” Royal Commissions will see to that. “One who is more powerful than I is coming.” Do not reduce the messianic vision to a set of statistics, focus groups or a marketing survey. “I am not worthy to carry his sandals.” That was the task of a slave. John sees the difference between himself and the Messiah as even greater than that between master and slave. (When Ghandi was in prison in South Africa he gave General Smuts a pair of his sandals. Many years later, when Ghandi was leading his non-violent protests against British rule, General Smuts sent them back, with a note saying he was not worthy.)

“He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” The Holy Spirit is the power that moves us from conviction to action, and the fire is that which gets rid of all the useless baggage we carry. It is the presence of Christ in our midst that enables judgement between the wheat, the good fruit, and the chaff which is blown away or burned.

So, this present Advent, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”