Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 17 December 2023.
• First Reading: Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11 (The Spirit of the Lord is upon me … proclaim good news to the poor, bind up the broken-hearted, proclaim freedom to captives, … the year of the Lord’s favour)
• Epistle: 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24 (Rejoice, give thanks. Do not quench the spirit)
• Gospel: John 1: 6-8, 19-28 (John: the voice of one calling in the wilderness: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’)
We have been thinking about expecting things – looking forward to better and happier times, the projects for the future and that warming anticipation of things to come.
But it begs the question of just what we are looking forward to? Our secular organizations all have mission statements, planners have their aims and objectives, politicians offer their manifestoes, and developers offer artists’ impressions of their projects when completed.
But some of the most radical programmes have resulted in an industrial scale of murder and imprisonment, the impoverishment of the people – certainly the imprisonment of their spirits and sometimes of their bodies as well.
The French revolution led to a massive scale of blood-letting and in England the Commonwealth regime of Oliver Cromwell did not long outlast his death, while the country was ready to welcome Charles II, the merry monarch.
And that is before we even think about the predations of the Nazis, Communists and their sympathizers.
But have a look at Isaiah’s vision of the kingdom yet to come. It starts with the healing of the people – the poor are given a hope and a future, the broken-hearted and the prisoners are met within their own places of grief and sorrow. None of their situations is trivialized and all points of anguish are important in the sight of God.
And that leads to a raising of the national spirit. Comfort for those who mourn the decay of the national character. The crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, garments of praise instead of the spirit of despair.
Even the spirit and character of the national outlook is given a new kind of vision.
Then it moves into actions taken. Ancient ruins rebuild, ruined cities restored, the rehabilitation of the barren and devastated places.
After this comes the renewal of justice. Robbery and wrongdoing are countered, and the people again know themselves as the people of God’s covenant. They would be reunited with their God, both personally and as a community and a society.
And this is not some human contrivance: it is the gift of God in action among the people and upon the earth.
But then John the Baptist also has a vision and a hope. He is emphatically not the Messiah, not the One to come, but he was pointing the way.
This was a coming that the people would see for themselves. They would see and hear, they would touch Him and know Him as one of their own kind and people – even when He was also the Holy One of God. Far more than a prophet: more the Word and Wisdom of God on two feet, living and breathing among them.
John may be proclaiming the One to come – but from a place far removed from the city lights and the glamour of public events. His vision was taken up with the fulfilment of a promise made to Israel: that a descendent of King David would walk mightily among the people and would face up to their oppressors with simple and clear proclamations of the things of God.
No need for armies or political parties, no need for publicity campaigns or rallies. The proof of who and what He was would be there for all to see – and to make their own response to as well.
The One to come was not a programme or a manifesto – nor a philosophical work. Rather, one to heal and teach with the word of His mouth and the authority of His person.
That would be quite sufficient for His purposes.
Writing to the church in Salonica in northern Greece, not far from the borders with modern Turkey and Macedonia, Paul still has that sense of expecting things.
The expectancy is still there, now placed within the life of the church.
His starting point is rejoicing: a far cry from the carping and criticism of modern organizations. It looks for celebration and joy – rather than excuses to be offended by others. It is a church with life within it more than compliance. It is centered on Jesus Christ and the life in the Holy Spirit as opposed to the trappings of modern organizations.
And so Paul looks for the workings of the Holy Spirit: that the people may be filled with His grace and that they may live in His life.
This is the centre of their lives of prayer and worship and as a Christian community. It is defined by its faith in Jesus Christ – more than lives of civil and canonical regulation.
He still expects them to discern what is evil and to reject it in all its forms. But he also looks for the indwelling of the peace of God, sanctifying their personal and corporate lives.
As we face uncertain times we all have seen hollow promises offered and then modified, qualified, stretched and redefined. And we can make our own conclusions on them.
But the alternative in the One who sees, listens, cares and acts.