The Third Sunday of Advent 2021
Ripon Cathedral, Sung Eucharist, 10.30am
The Dean’s Sermon
Texts: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18
‘Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!’
But perhaps keep your facemasks on while you do it.
Zephaniah would need to qualify his appeal for rejoicing and jubilation if prophesying today on this Gaudete (rejoice!) Sunday.
‘Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem.’
The point is that better times are coming, and will be here to stay, hopefully! How often we have held that thought close to heart over the last year.
But with Zephaniah and God’s people, the point is that God’s judgement and punishment of his people – caused by their lack of love for him and lack of love for each other – were coming to an end.
The people’s lack of love for God had been seen in failing to worship sincerely and in failing to keep his commandments. Their lack of love for each other -and for God – was seen in their being a society which ignored the needy and excluded those who were different or trying.
Now God speaks to a faithful remnant – better days are coming, people will honour God – in worship and ethically upright living; and society will be more equitable and inclusive. The lame will be saved, the outcasts gathered in, and they will be allowed to live in their homeland in peace; Israel will be renowned and praised among all the peoples.
I wonder, could Zephaniah be so encouraging, so confident, if he were speaking to this country, England, today, in December 2021?
To be fair, the vision that Zephaniah had for Israel was a long time in coming. The ethical standards and the quality of care for the weak, and ailing, and outcasts, were not seen until the Lord himself intervened directly in his Son Jesus Christ. And for Jesus, the Lord sent another prophet in preparation – a returned Elijah as it were – in the person of John the Baptist.
It is John whom we focus on and honour on this the third Sunday of Advent. John’s unenviable task was to tell people the unwelcome truth: they needed to change. They were failing God and failing each other; and often they could no longer see what was wrong because they were so far from what was right.
But John seemed to embrace his task with enthusiasm, don’t you think? He pulled no punches, did he? He showed courage and determination and a directness that would probably not go down too well with those selecting candidates for ministry in the Church of England today. ‘You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’ so we hear John welcoming the penitent this morning.
We can just imagine the interview, can’t we? The candidate had been prepared very thoroughly for a Bishop’s selection conference by the Director of Ordinands – of the Diocese of Leeds, no less. The first interview, the first question, “What do you think the Church has to say to the world today?” And the answer comes back,
“You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
And the chances of being recommended?
Well, it’s one approach! It might be quite effective.
I wonder which part of the answer would lead us to question the suitability of this candidate. Would it be the first part, calling people ‘you brood of vipers’? Or the second, suggesting that the people of England today are making a meaningful attempt to flee from the wrath to come? Isn’t that to misunderstand our missional context?
When commenting on our Gospel passage, Tom Wright suggests that the unhelpful lectionary, finishing the reading at verse 18, misses the essential political dimension of this reading and John’s message – we might add, Christ’s mission.
‘But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things Herod has done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.’
The leader did not want to face up to the public consequences of his immoral character.
I wonder, when thinking about our own country. Have we adjusted our expectations of the integrated ethical standards – the integrity – of those who would hold public office; unless they speak from pulpits, of course, or, in some way, represent the Church.
There too often seems to be a generally accepted distinction made between our expectations of how a public figure might behave in their personal life and how they conduct themselves in relation to their public duties. Often, those who defend this lamentable position look back to the past, siting unending lists of individuals who demonstrate that it has never really been any different. ‘Llyod George was a good PM, despite everything’ someone said to me when I was mulling over this question.
This morning, St. John the Baptist, in the verse which is sadly omitted from the gospel reading, appears to be saying that this will not do. And one wonders whether, as a nation, we might just be ready to see the wisdom of this – as we reflect on live questions about our national life, including our political leadership and the health of the capital’s police force.
How could we ever complain, in some future hypothetical situation, of the country being in confusion and its international reputation plummeting, if we have so distanced ourselves from God’s calling of us that we think personal ethical integrity has no consequence for the public sphere; and if we the Church have lost sight of God’s coming reign having a claim on all dimensions of life.
John the Baptist clearly pointed out that it does, as seen in this morning’s gospel passage: to the tax collectors, to the soldiers, and to those with two coats.
Now, no one is perfect. That we know. Self-examination and amendment of life is constantly essential – not least for the Church. For example, it is absolutely right that in developing our safeguarding processes, we in the church have attempted, and continue to attempt, to put our own house in order? How can we have integrity as a community, as the very body of Christ seeking to further his kingdom, if we don’t.
And as individuals, as we prepare for Christmas; yes, before we notice the spec in another’s eye, we seek to remove the log from our own – asking for forgiveness from our loving God, and praying for grace to change our ways and be more Christ-like as we journey forward.
This self-examination and focussing anew on Christ is surely what leads to the messenger of the Lord encouraging us to sing aloud and exult with all our hearts.
This is what will make our celebration of Christmas all the more sincere.
This is what will enable us to heed the charge, ‘Rejoice!’