Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 13 December 2020.
• First Reading: Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11 (The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has appointed me to proclaim good news to the poor)
• Psalm 126
• Epistle: 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24 (Rejoice in the Lord, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances)
• Gospel: John 1: 6-8, 19-28 (The ministry of John – ‘Not the Messiah’ – the voice on one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’)
Nations have their flags, political parties have electoral manifestoes, clubs and businesses have their aims and objectives, and then Jesus would take this lesson from Isaiah as His vision.
It was written to the exiles in Babylon some 500 years before His birth and at a time when there seemed to no hope and no future. And more than promising a return to the homeland and a renewal of the cities and the temple, it was promising something deeply personal.
It was far more than a plan for taxing others or passing laws for others to obey. There were no massive public works projects and nothing even to match King Solomon’s fortresses. Instead it was about a personal renewal and a personal release.
This was a vision for the restoration of a whole people and for how their restoration would begin in the sight and in the purposes of God.
God would plan and God would act. He would intervene for His people and commit all that He had for their sakes, even and perhaps especially when they did not deserve it and could never earn it.
It was a vision for a sovereign will which God Himself would exercise.
Instead of winners and losers, all who sought Him would win. Likewise, instead of victors and the vanquished, all could find victory. Instead of the glorious and the crushed, all could find glory and all who responded would enter it to one degree or another.
And that glory would be something reflected from the very throne of grace itself.
And this was always God’s plan for the whole of humanity. It would have to start somewhere and a people would be prepared to receive it and express it. Sometimes despite themselves, they would take the message on into the whole of the world and the whole of creation.
And the Spirit of the Lord would achieve in mankind what it could never even imagine let alone fulfil in itself. That would be part of the miracle.
And then shortly before Jesus appeared in public there was His cousin John.
John had a full and uncompromising message: REPENT for One is coming who would do far more than John could even hope to do.
John may make the Pharisees and King Herod uncomfortable but Jesus would meet them head on. John may die having proclaimed a message but Jesus would fulfill the message with His death.
What John was doing in the wilderness Jesus was doing in the cities. And with that He was raising the dead, healing the sick, restoring the outcasts and forgiving sinners.
And that was enough to enrage any self-respecting arbiter of the public morality. Especially the forgiveness bit, and supremely when claiming to be God.
But for John there was something else for he was determined to point to Jesus and away from himself. Jesus would increase and John would decrease. John may start preaching what Jesus would expand upon, and John’s death in prison, for expediency sake, would also point to Jesus’ fate.
But John was emphatic in something else.
In our occupations, we may stress ‘My place, My status, My job’ and in the church we may stress ‘My ministry’. But John stressed nothing for himself as it was all about God.
Self had no place in John’s message and it was all about self-giving, self-offering: never about self-realisation or self-fulfillment.
Perhaps Paul brings these two threads together as he calls on the church to be wholly centred on what Jesus had done for them and how they might continue to serve Him.
First, it was to rejoice. It was to engage fully and wholly with what Jesus had already achieved and with the new place that they now had in the presence of God.
Their role was to love God and to worship Him, day and night, in plenty and in hunger, in safety and in peril. God would not just set the agenda, He would be the agenda. It all starts with God and in this it is the words and actions of Jesus which express what God was always desiring among His people.
Then it was to pray – at all times. For some this is itself a lifetime’s work and vocation and in the church we are indeed blessed by it and in it.
Next, it was to avoid quenching the Spirit, especially with their plans and agendas. It is so easy for our own enthusiasms to run away with our imaginations and then to expect all others to follow.
And then it would be to allow God to meet His people in all their situations and needs, their trials and difficulties, the things they do not understand – and perhaps in the things that they understand only too well, especially when it is uncongenial or even costly.
For this is all part of God’s work in Jesus in sanctifying us. And yes, it is indeed a full-time job.