Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 4 December 2022.
• First Reading: Isaiah 11: 1-10
• Psalm 72: 1-7, 18-19
• Epistle: Romans 15: 4-13
• Gospel: Matthew 3: 1-12
I wonder how we would feel if the life of the church came to a standstill 400 years ago.
Even if society, politics and the economy had developed, the voice of faith was unchanged for 400 years. The liturgy and organization of the church holding to the attitudes and technology of the society and politics of 400 years past.
Now think of the life of faith in the Holy Land at the time of Tiberias Caesar. The land occupied by Rome, the temple administered by leaders of the tradition, who were more interested in survival than revival, but if money could be made and a comfortable living secured, then so much the better.
At that time, the voices of the prophets had been silent for some 400 years, and the practice of Judaism lived largely on inertia, supported by the more legalistic practices and teachings of the synagogues which developed after the return of Jews from exile.
No authentic voice calling the people back to God and only some desultory voices trying to be ‘relevant’ amid the theological compromises of the time.
New social attitudes might be slotted in and given some recognition but no real spiritual renewal.
Now think about John the Baptist. A lonely voice in the wastelands of Israel, living an austere lifestyle but with a heart burning for God.
A man touched by the Spirit of the Lord and speaking out amid spiritual indifference from the religious establishment, bordering on suspicion at his religious enthusiasm.
They would send out their observers to listen and watch but not interfere. Yet they would report back – with a strong sense of discomfort. It was not just that John had some sharp things to say about them but that the poor people, with none to speak up for them, were listening rather carefully. Now they were not being singled out for condemnation or blame.
But John was still speaking against a prevailing opinion. The sanctimonious superiority of the Pharisees must have got to him to some extent, but it was their indifference that really mattered.
It was not just that John was speaking out when others who might have done so were keeping quiet – that is something we know all about today – it is that there was an urgency and an electricity in what he said and how he said it.
It was a voice of authority, utterly convinced that Another was coming who would outclass all that John had said and done.
This one would speak with an instinctive knowledge of the scriptures and of the ways of God, but more than that, His life would shout it out from the rooftops and His actions and signs would be even more forceful.
John was the warming-up act to the main show, the commissionaire to the House of the Lord. In time he would subside but that was not yet.
But John belonged to the Old Testament, the last of the prophets. He was born 6 months before Jesus and died before Jesus as well – before the atonement of the cross and Jesus’ glorious resurrection.
I sometimes think that he was the first person to meet Jesus when He died on the cross and came into the underworld.
But John’s message was important for another reason. It was open to all in the land who would listen to him but it was most readily heard by those with none other to speak or act for them.
No political parties or social movements. The poor were left to themselves to survive as best they could.
But here was one who would speak to them, and in addressing the rulers and the rich, who would speak for them.
Give justice – cease the oppressive burdens. Not a call for social revolution – only for fair, honest and godly dealing in all things.
Attitudes to the poor had not changed materially in the years of the very early church. Still an easy target for inadequate rulers and a source of recruitment to their armies.
But the early church had something that the culture did not: the poorest and most unimportant in society had their place in the church. The word of salvation was never closed to them and they could yet find a role and a contribution to the community of faith.
They too would find a place in the prayers and the teaching of the church – at least, in a church that was still young at heart and joyful in the Lord.
It might change when the church became encrusted with its own importance and its bureaucracy had become overbearing. When the survival of the institution became more important than the life of faith.
For us the task is still to maintain that life of faith and to ask God to renew it when it falls into silence and survival.
Even if the voice of the prophets has been silent and our structures are more interested in what is fashionable, it is still our task to keep that electricity of the gospel in being and to ask for the renewing work of the Holy Spirit among us as we need it.