Sermon given at St. Andrew’s 17th December 2017 by Revd Sue McCoan
Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11 John 1:6-8, 19-28
So, it’s the third Sunday in Advent. Only 8 more praying days to Christmas. I hope your Christmas preparations are all going well and not too stressful.
The lectionary is quite mean to us during Advent. The first Sunday has readings about the darkness of the world, and Joseph spoke to us about watching, waiting and being alert. The second Sunday is about John the Baptist and his call to repentance. It’s all about our need to get ready, to prepare space in our hearts and lives for the coming of Jesus – and, like any clearing out and cleaning up, it can be hard work and not much fun.
But today, on the third Sunday of Advent, we get a glimmer of light. The shiny bath-tap of hope emerges from the limescale of darkness and sin. We read about John the Baptist again, but this time we read from the gospel of John. And unlike the other three gospels, John doesn’t talk about John the Baptist preaching repentance. He speaks of John being a witness to the light. From the verses we didn’t read, it’s clear that this light is the light of Christ, the Word of God.
The light is coming – how exciting! – and John the Baptist is the one who knows what this light is and what it means. He is the one who has been given the task of sharing what he knows so that everybody can see it for themselves.
In Luke’s gospel we read that John’s father, Zechariah, was told all this by an angel before John was even born. John would be filled with the Holy Spirit from birth, and would prepare a people fit to meet their Lord.
That’s quite something for a parent to be told; quite something for a child to live up to. And that’s why I think they handled this wisely as they brought John up. Because when we meet John the Baptist as an adult, he has a very clear sense of who he is, his place in the world and particularly his place in God’s sight. He is quite prepared to take himself off to the Jordan, to start preaching, to invent a new kind of baptism, and to proclaim the imminent arrival of the light. And he is prepared, even as he does all this pioneering work, to recognise that when the light does come, he will step aside, and his work will be done.
He cuts a remarkable figure. He has come to the attention of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, because he is making such an impression on the people who hear him. Look who they think he might be: the Messiah; Elijah; the prophet (that’s a reference to Deuteronomy, God promises to raise up a prophet from among the people).
John the Baptist is of such calibre that he could be mistaken for Elijah, for the prophet, even for the Messiah himself. He has followers – we hear later in the gospel of people who call themselves his disciples. If he were a lesser man, this kind of acclaim might go to his head. He could build on this; he could have a great ministry here. But he is very clear: the one who is coming is far, far greater than me; so much greater that I’m not fit even to untie his shoelaces.
So John the Baptist uses his gifts, his charisma, to point to the greater gift which is Jesus; to point to the light of the world.
If we have been following the readings for the last two weeks, and taking them to heart, we will have done a fair bit of introspection. We may have faced uncomfortable truths about ourselves, and about the way we are living. We may have come to feel, if we’re honest, that much of the time we’re not doing very well in our life of faith, that we’re not reading the bible all that often, or praying all that much, or whatever. We can get to feel quite down. It’s not bad to get to that point – more healthy than sailing along on a cushion of complacency. But today we are reminded that that’s not where God wants us to stay.
God knows that we will fail and fall short. We can’t become holy by our own efforts. But God looks upon us with eyes of endless love and offers continuing forgiveness. When we are able to face our darker side, we are then in a position to see ourselves more clearly as God sees us – as his beloved children. Like any children we are delightful at times and exasperating at others – but we are always loved. And we can be confident in the love of God as Thomas Edison was in the love of his mother.
We can see that God has faith in us, as she did in her son. (It’s thought, incidentally, that Edison was dyslexic, which would account for him not getting on well at school despite his obvious intelligence). We can see that God is prepared to work with us, coaching and schooling us in the art of living gracefully and graciously. Like Edison’s mother, God is ‘so true, so sure of us: and we have something to live for, someone we must not disappoint.”
When we live in this light, in this security, then we are able to say, ‘this is not about me and how well I am doing, or what people think of me. This is about me being able to point to the light, which is the light of Christ’.
When I started in ministry, I worried no end about whether I was doing it right, whether I was a good minister; until one day somebody pointed out, that was the wrong question to be asking. The question to ask is: how can I be a blessing to someone today? How can I point another person to the light of Christ?
It’s a huge relief, because it means we don’t have to be perfect, we don’t have to be sorted. We’re not trying to attract people to ourselves. (Come to church, you could be like me). We are pointing to Christ. (Come to Jesus, you could be like him).
So for these last few days of advent, as we walk towards the light that is coming into the world at Christmas, let us hold our heads up; let us claim our loveliness in God’s eyes; let us look to be a blessing to others; and may we in our words and actions point people towards Christ, so that they can enjoy the light and loveliness for themselves.