Sermons from Rev Canon Dr Ian Davies
Sunday 7th December
When I lived in the Unites States I was amazed at how – especially at this time of year – the shops would beautifully box and wrap with ribbon the most inexpensive gifts (which most of mine were!). It must’ve been such a disappointment to dig though the impressive packaging to find something cheap and useless. But not a bit of it in our gospel reading – it’s the exact opposite. God’s present to us - the good news of the coming of Jesus Christ begins with John the Baptist – and it’s shockingly packaged in the form of a wild-man: long-haired, dishevelled, dressed in the skins of wild animals (which wouldn’t exactly been fragrant!) wandering in the desert wilderness eating honey and locusts, and then crying out to the people – “Repent - The Kingdom of God is at hand”. Many of the prophets that we remember today must’ve looked and acted a bit weird – let alone the things they claimed was their message from God!
Repent. The Kingdom of heaven has come near. Now we’ve said this before – that word ‘repent’ is a message associated perhaps (and wrongly) with those well meaning guys with ‘repent the end is nigh’ on the back of a sandwich board; perhaps with a kill-joy feel to it. (or like the aggressive guy who thrust a tract in my hand outside the Quadrant last week saying I ‘needed salvation’ without even looking at me – or listening when I pointed to my collar said ‘yes I love Jesus’ – “ah but are you born again?” It worried me - and seemed so reminiscent of the kinds of messages you get outside chapels sometimes – and one not so far away that has billboard messages with “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” – and “the wages of sin is death” – and then right next to these in big lettering – “Why don’t you make this church your spiritual home” – aargh – as if?!!
So we must make sure we don’t get it all wrong when we consider the message of John the Baptist – or indeed Jesus who followed him saying much the same thing – or those quotes about the human predicament from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Perhaps when we hear John and the prophets before him like Isaiah and Malachi speaking about ‘preparing a way for the Lord in the wilderness’, we conclude that we are the ones who must do all the work of levelling out mountains and hills and smoothing rough places? But that is not the message that John proclaims – it’d hardly be good news if it all stands or falls by us and our efforts, would it?!
Matthew’s great concern (as we shall see the more we get into his gospel account) is to show Jesus against the background of the Old Testament – both belonging to its history and fulfilling its promises. Right from the outset in its opening genealogy – the family tree – Jesus is launched as ‘the Messiah, son of David, son of Abraham’. Matthew’s key theme is that the coming of Jesus into the present is grounded in the hopes of the past. So John the Baptist’s message, like that of the prophets down the ages - and completely consistent with what Jesus himself taught and lived out - is a word of grace. All that’s happened up until this point, all the promises aren’t supposed to be a dull warm-up to the real action– because the record of God’s dealing with his people in the Old Testament is brimful with grace, hope and love - and all the talk of making paths straight is not about what we have to do as part of our dogged repentance. Rather it is all about what God does in us as a result of our turning to him for help and forgiveness; as a result of us acknowledging our need for him in our lives, and determining to walk in his ways.
The Apostle Paul argues in Romans particularly that if you see Jesus in the context of all that God has done in the past, you see his skilful fingers at work – always weaving the diverse threads that look so random & disordered into a lovely pattern – a pattern that (as Jane Williams puts it): “coalesces around that central figure of Christ – and Isaiah too has seen that God can do the stunningly unexpected things that turn out to make sense of all that has gone before: a King from the line of David! Isaiah sees with the eyes of faith a new reality to the one that is being presented around him.
In a place of imperial darkness and wars and rumours of war – these words speak of a new vision to entice a beleaguered and hopeless generation. This is not some form of escapism but a call to imagine the world as God imagines it. It’s not some form of wishful thinking but a call to live out a new reality in the present one. Isaiah’s words are the inspiration for those well-known speeches that offer hope (like Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ - and in fact this is a very similar poem to the one found in Micah 4:2-4)
Here’s the great news of the Christian faith: the news that makes it so much different than most other belief systems in this world – it’s that God is the One who reaches out to us and always takes the initiative.
This isn’t a faith about having to do this and do that; it’s not about following rules; and it’s not about trying to earn God’s acceptance by trying to be good – (and as far as society’s concerned this Christmas, it’s not about being boring or scrooge-like– we all had a great time yesterday). But it is about finding a proper, substantial and lasting cause for the wonderful mood of celebration!). Like the words of the refrain in the Primary School Infants Concert a while ago: “there’s something special going on...”
So let’s get this one straight: it’s God who levels and smoothes the rough roads of our lives (and we all have them). It is he who lifts us up and straightens our meandering paths.
So then what’s our bit this 2nd bright Sunday of Advent? Well what we are called to do is to respond to repent, to believe, and to walk the road that God has prepared for us to walk: the road that leads us to him and him to us. The specially smoothed, lovingly levelled road.
(Now then – of course this all begs the question about John’s message) So what is repentance? (it’s the New Testament word metanoia) If we’re going to understand repentance, the first step is admitting that we might have been going headlong the wrong way - that we’re all lost, and needing to stop to consider where we are.
I thought I had a pretty decent sense of direction – until my Sat Nav took me off the main road to Carmarthen on the way up to Mwnt – a beautiful little beach on the Cardigan coast - in the summer. I thought – oh what a picturesque route – until it turned itself off because the battery had run down! So asking for directions, admitting you’re lost is the beginning of repentance.
Okay so far so good. But you don’t really deal with the problem of being lost until you actually change direction, and start going a different way. That’s the next step: taking the advice we’ve received, acting on it and actually turning the car around and going in the direction that we’ve been told to go in – despite the old Irish joke – “well if you want to go there I wouldn’t be starting from here.”!
When we decide to go in the direction God calls us to go and then actually do it, God promises to take care of the rest. He prepares the road for us and (wonderfully) accompanies us on the journey that leads…ultimately to himself.
And actually if Jesus is to be believed, it’s even more than that! God actually runs down the road towards us - like the father of the recklessly wasteful son - who hitched up his robes and ran to meet his long lost child when he’d finally regained his senses and decided he was better off at home, with the hope and the peace, the love and the joy that he’s always needed but just couldn’t find - when he was out there on his own, relying on his own resources. I’ve been that prodigal many, many times in my life – off doing my own thing with no regard for God whatsoever.
So repentance involves acknowledging that we’ve been wanting to run things ourselves; that we’ve been our own ruler or allowed other powers (other ‘arglwydds’) to be the lord of our little meadow our ‘gwaun’ [Note for those reading this on the website: ‘Waunarlwydd’ (Gwaun – arglywdd) means ‘Lord’s meadow – which was probably a landowning squire years ago but we like to think it could be ‘The’ Lord!]
Repentance involves putting those influences, those powers behind us, and “submitting” to the Lordship of Christ – Gwaun Arglwydd – with a capital ‘A’. It’s about allowing God into our lives to take over the reins: allowing him to set our agenda and then following – trusting – him, as and where he leads.
Now having said all this – and because there’s no avoiding the challenge of today’s message - let’s go back to the beginning point. The message of the prophets like John is a good news message of grace.
The transformation of our lives is not something we do (or ever can do, whatever the self-help manuals and self-improvement literature tells us). This is something that God through his Holy Spirit does for us, in us, as we walk the road he’s prepared.
What we are called to do by John is to admit our need for God, to acknowledge that there are areas in our lives where we are on the wrong path, and to turn around - and to begin to walk the path he sets before us - in joyful obedience to his will, because we love him – and because we know his way is the best.
God has always intended for us to come and swim in the warm pool of his forgiveness; to be immersed in his grace and mercy (that’s all about favour and goodness that we know we don’t deserve – and can’t earn!) and then to walk in ways where true joy, not ephemeral happiness, a quick ‘high’ or adrenalin rush - is to be found.
God so wants us to be in a loving, healing, good relationship with him – and with each other as members of his family. In fact God wants that so much, that he gave himself to us without qualification or reserve – in that child born in Bethlehem; in Jesus destined for a cross.
So last week it was all about waking up – being alert – because the King is coming. Today’s challenge is to repent, turn round; consciously change direction, turn towards God, and enjoy the relationship with Jesus he’s always longed for us to enjoy.
And all the honour and glory goes to his name, now and forevermore. Amen