Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 5 December 2021.
• First Reading: Malachi 3: 1-4 (I will send My messenger who will prepare the way before Me)
• Canticle: Luke 1: 68-79
• Epistle: Philippians 1: 3-11 (Paul’s prayer: their love may abound more and more)
• Gospel: Luke 3: 1-6 (Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for Him)
The scene seems to be particularly bleak. Think of a featureless plain strewn with rocks but bereft of trees or any other plant life. Then add in a good Scottish autumn day – dull, dark and damp. This is perhaps the idea of a barren landscape, stripped of its gaiety.
Then think in terms of our own culture: we may excel in various kinds of sport and entertainment but our values and culture are more about blaming others, finding fault in all, and in commenting on the various false starts of our leaders in almost all aspects of policy and its implementation.
You could add in the odd war, or ignominious retreat from a campaign, leaving the field to the opposition. Supply hold-ups at home and bitter but pointless arguments on almost every foreign and domestic issue.
This is not a beautiful scene – it is more one of anxious foreboding in the light of the choices already made or which may yet be forced upon us.
This is more like the political and cultural desert of our times and yet the gospel lesson is about a time such as this.
A cultural and moral desert, foreign occupation, indifferent local rulers (at best), and the overall atmosphere of resentful acquiescence to whatever is going on.
But it is a time exactly like this that is crying out for good news. It is looking for a place of spiritual comfort and relief – a place apart from the universal condemnation and criticism of the times, a place of colour and light and harmony. Where love is not just a form of sentimentality or the demands of the desperate, but is shown in real relationships and a sense of mutual caring.
This is a place where people belong – not just to a society or a social group but to God, treasured and cherished by and in His own person and commitment.
This is a love of utter self-giving, holding nothing back, and willing to do whatever it takes to open to us the way back into His fellowship.
And this is the vision of the man sent from God to proclaim the coming of One, specially anointed to kingship and to suffering, sent into that social and cultural and moral morass that passes for society.
John the Baptist was sent out not even knowing who he was looking out for. He was only told ‘You’ll know Him when you see Him. It will be the One on whom you will see the Spirit of God descend and remain.’
John was not given an easy task. He was a teacher and would have some disciples but the message was firm and uncompromising. Today it would probably get him imprisoned. ‘Stirring up hatred, disturbing the peace, incitement to …..’ There were no miracles, no wondrous signs.
But John was also speaking in the light of some wonderful promises by God.
The Anointed One was indeed coming and times would never be the same again. He would be for all the people of God, both to comfort and reassure and to rebuke and correct. He would heal and forgive and yet He would also show up the self-destructiveness of the leaders, power-brokers and influencers.
Above all He would take to Himself the self-will and the destructiveness of all of human nature, He would be both the penalty and the cure for this rebellion against God.
And this was never just about the Jews as if they were uniquely rebellious. They were and are just as human as anyone else with the same temptations and weaknesses to self-will, self-preservation and self-destruction.
As the people chosen by God they would excel in all things, both the works of war and the arts of peace. And history has shown this to be so.
But God has never abandoned His people, and never will. Those who put their trust in Him will not be forsaken, even when living in a bleak landscape that I was talking about earlier.
The words of our lessons are of hope, and it is a hope to fortify both the church and the society in which it is set and those who will receive it.
And if God called John the Baptist to tell His word to the people of his day of the promises and of the coming of God then the same message is needed in the cultural and political deserts of our own day.
Where the culture speaks of condemnation, the gospel proclaims forgiveness. There the forces of politics have a drive of destruction then the Gospel is of new beginnings and new hope.
There the self-preservation instincts of today’s administrators are founded on blame cultures and met only by the most exhaustive assessments of cost-benefit and almost every kind of risk that we can imagine, the gospel message is one of a boldness that inspired Paul onto his missionary journeys without forward planning or advance preparations.
Paul went forth trusting in the power of the message he was carrying. His vision for his churches was one of abounding love, filled with knowledge and depth and insight.
A sense of being founded and built upon the reality of Jesus Christ. And in this we are far better prepared that John the Baptist could ever hope to be.
For the promises of God are sure and His word is everlasting.