St Mary’s Nantwich
8am, 9.30am, 10.45am 8/12/19 – 2nd of Advent
(Isaiah 11.1-10, Romans 15.4-13) Matthew 3.1-12
Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees, says John the Baptist. It’s an image of judgement. Should this tree stay because it is bearing fruit? Or should it fall because it has never produced anything good?
On Thursday, many hands will hover over ballot papers. Your own hand, unless you’ve already voted, or you’re too young to vote. Pencils will be ready to fall and make a judgement.
In one way, Advent is a good time for a General Election because judgement is one of its great themes. Not that our Advent Gospel will give any direction on how to vote. But it will help us to understand why it is possible for us to bear the responsibility of deliberating and deciding. It will remind us that we can judge only because we ourselves stand under judgement. And it will remind us what we have in common, prior to any differences or disagreements.
Many people, including the churches, have pointed to the division in the nation associated with the prolonged political upheaval. The fear I think is that this has been something deeper than the kind of political disagreement that we’ve known all our lives. It has at times been a rift which affects relationships at all levels, down to individual families. For some, it has been to do with their sense of identity and not merely their preferences and opinions.
John preached to the people of Israel, and that people have something to teach us today. The Jews are notable for their capacity to argue with each other. One of their old proverbs says, ‘Two Jews, three opinions’. Central to Jewish teaching is the Talmud, a collection of writings separate from the Scriptures, which records debates and disagreements between hundreds of rabbis over many centuries.
Yet, the Jewish people have kept a stronger sense of identity, over a longer period, than perhaps any other group, while at the same time suffering more prolonged and intense hatred and horror than any other.
It is an identity rooted in the Shema, words from the Law, from the book of Deuteronomy, which are central to all Jewish prayer: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.
There is one people because there is one God who calls them his people. Nothing was more important than to remember this. The passage goes on:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door-frames of your houses and on your gates.
One God. And so the first and second commandments follow: You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol.
One God. No idols. That’s the Old Testament in four words. One God. No idols.
It was an extraordinary breakthrough in faith and in thinking, and the greatest danger to our unity as a nation is not the current political disagreement, but something deeper – the loss of that faith in one God which lies at the heart of all the Abrahamic religions.
Many today think that their identity, who they are, is primarily a matter of one’s own decision and choice. But it’s worth reminding ourselves how we ever got to make any decision or choice.
How did you ever speak or think? You weren’t doing either at birth, and that didn’t change because of your initiative. You began to speak because you were spoken to. You didn’t make sense of the world on your own. You were given that sense by the people who loved you and nurtured you. You didn’t give yourself value and worth. You were, I hope, given that by others. And you made no judgement about the world without first being judged and seeing others judged.
And what is true about us as individuals is equally true of humanity as a whole. Without a word which comes from beyond us, we are left only with idols. Gods of our own making, which inevitably are reflections of ourselves, offering no new life, and no hope of any word which gives us a common identity.
John the Baptist is the last of the Old Testament prophets, as well as the forerunner of Christ. He calls the people back to their foundational faith. He prepares a way for the Lord. He says, ‘Repent for the kingdom of God is near. Change your hearts’.
It’s a message which struck a chord, because the text says the whole of Judea and Jerusalem came out to him. People were individually baptised, but pictured here is a national turning to God. God had never just called a lot of individuals. He had always called a people, a community, a nation whose life together according to the law would reflect his mercy and love.
Then. remarkably, John calls part of his congregation a brood of vipers. They were the religious leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were relying on Abraham being their ancestor, and not relying on the call of God today. They had forgotten that it was only by his call that God became a father to Abraham, and that Abraham had become fruitful. They had closed themselves off to any new word, and that went right against their tradition.
The irony here is that John was giving people a sense of their common identity by being a disturber, someone from outside the establishment, a badly dressed eccentric prophet. Someone who would create division and disagreement and lose his head for it.
Because a truly common identity is never found by conformity to a rule created among ourselves. It is found through an openness to a word from beyond us which can both judge and heal, both unsettle and comfort.
That’s why we have Advent. Without it we risk Christmas being just like any other Christmas. Without a change of heart, without a renewed sense of our poverty, without a reminder that truth is a gift and not our creation, there’ll be no straight path for the Word to come and address us in a fresh way. We will simply recycle our well-worn sentiments, our tired clichés and our frayed piety.
That may still make a happy Christmas, but according to John, the real test is how much fruit is produced. How much are we growing in that gift we’ve received of taking responsibility, and making decisions, and exercising judgement. Not just that we are wiser next year in placing our crosses in any election that may happen. But that we have learnt better to be one people, not because we all see things the same way, but because we all look to the one truth who is more than anything we can yet see.
And if that is true, then a lot of our fear of division is gone. Because our differences are combined with a proper humility. And it won’t matter if we sometimes realise we’ve been plain wrong. We may have firm convictions, but we’ll also be aware we have more to learn. Christ won’t be our possession, but we’ll belong to him. We can be open both to his Holy Spirit, and to his fire.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.