Sermon delivered by Rev Sydney Maitland on Sunday 6 December, 2015.
Malachi 3: 1 – 4
See, I am sending My messenger to prepare the way before Me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His temple. But who can endure the day of His coming, and who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and the fuller’s soap; He will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver … then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord
Philippians 1: 3 – 11
Paul’s confidence in the Philippian church – the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. His prayer: that their love may overflow more and more with knowledge and insight, to help them to determine what is best so that in the day of Jesus Christ they may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness.
Luke 3: 1 – 6
John the Baptist in the wilderness – proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins: prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.
They were cousins and almost certainly knew each other, and John the Baptist understood that he was only the herald of one far greater than himself.
Whereas John spent his time in the wilderness proclaiming a message of coming judgment and the crowds went out of the cities to hear him, Jesus travelled around and went to where the people were, often to the annoyance and scandal of the guardians of the peoples’ moral and spiritual lives.
But where John prepared the way for Jesus, it was Jesus who had to walk it. Both suffered opposition and both died for the expediency of the rulers of the time.
John had died when at a drunken party Herod had to save face in the presence of his daughter’s particularly provocative dance and having made a hopelessly extravagant promise.
Far better to execute a known trouble-maker than to look weak in the eyes of his distinguished guests, even if Herod was personally intrigued by John’s message.
Equally, Jesus was sentenced by Pilate who was losing control of the streets of Jerusalem, and that would not look good before Caesar.
Both John and Jesus delivered their messages clearly and without fear or favour. Both suffered opposition and both died under judicial abuse.
But there was more than external circumstance, for both had been called into a sacrificial ministry, having been born miraculously.
But John was a man of the Old Testament and did not live to see Jesus’ resurrection. Indeed, for all I know he may have been the first person to greet Jesus in the underworld, receiving Jesus’ message and entering new life for himself at that point.
But this exercise in “compare and contrast” is all very well, but how does it affect us and where does it lead us?
In being the forerunner of Jesus, and living as His Herald, John was indeed living in extraordinary times.
The land was occupied by Rome and ruled by some spectacularly corrupt and harsh tyrants.
The people were divided between the competing parties of Pharisees who controlled the synagogues and the Sadducees who controlled the temple. The Pharisees drew strength from the law while the Sadducees were secured by the temple sacrifices. Both opposed the Herodians who they despised and the Zealots whom they feared and hated.
This was not a land of happy campers therefore, yet this was the land where Jesus and John had their ministries.
Now look at our own time, with a society living beyond its means but unwilling to do much about it. Public infrastructure is corroding and public servants demoralized.
The culture is deeply pessimistic, cynical and mistrustful while dismissing the message of hope and of life which the Christian church proclaims.
Too good to be true? Pie in the sky when we die? Fine for Goody-two-shoes? Hypocritical and judgmental, that is when it is not being obscurantist?
This is not exactly a happy hunting ground for the church either, and yet, and yet, and yet: there is something that can draw attention, and that is the visual aid.
It is not enough to talk a good story when people need to see it, in action and on the ground.
Paul wrote to the Philippians with utter confidence. First he was convinced that God who had begun a work in them would indeed bring it to completion, leaving no aspect of their lives together unhealed and uncleansed.
God who had started this work was certainly going to finish it, and they would know His life within their worship and their relationships and ministries.
But secondly, Paul was confident that God who had called them together to worship and to serve before Himself was well aware of those whom He had called. For those whom He called are those who heard, and in hearing they responded and in responding their received and in receiving they were renewed.
God had called them into a lifetime of being His lights in the world, and into a life of learning and growing together in Him.
So Paul prayed that their love may overflow more and more with knowledge and insight, to help them to determine what was best in times that may be confusing and uncertain.
So what makes us so different from the Philippians? Well, not a lot, at least not in the essentials.
Perhaps we are better off with the lessons of history of the church, the fullness of the scriptures and of the sacraments.
But most of all we have one another, we have the assurance of the Holy Spirit, and the complete salvation of the Lord.
And that’s a lot that is going for us.