Dec 4th Sermon by Revd Sue McCoan at St. Andrew’s URC, Ealing
My sister and brother-in-law live on a smallholding, and the road that leads past their house is a narrow lane which becomes, a few hundred yards from them, a dirt track. It’s not so bad now – it’s been packed with stones to make it more solid – but in the early days, going to visit them was quite an adventure, especially in winter. Tractors and other farm vehicles would go along and churn up the mud into deep ruts, which would then fill with water so you couldn’t quite see what you were driving into. The best you could hope for was a car covered in mud splashes; the worst, that you’d drive into a rut deeper than you thought and knock your exhaust pipe. Several times a year, Will would go out in his own tractor and try to level out the ridges to make it safer.
In biblical times, most of the roads would be dirt tracks, marked out by local usage – by shepherds moving their flocks to pasture, or traders moving between towns to sell their goods. The tracks weren’t owned by anybody, and they would only be maintained by the people who needed to use them.
As a result, the roads were pretty bad. A journey of any length along such roads was an adventure and an undertaking to be avoided if possible. There was an Eastern proverb that said ‘there are three states of misery: sickness, fasting and travel’. Before a traveller set out on a journey he was advised to pay all debts, give parting gifts, return all objects under trust, take money and good temper for the journey and then say farewell to all.
There were just a few specially surfaced roads. These roads were originally built for kings and were for the king’s use. They were known as the king’s highway. They were kept in repair only for any journey that the king might want to make. Before the king was due to arrive in an area, a message was sent out to the people to get the roads ready for the king’s journey. We can imagine that was quite an expensive business.
The prophet Isaiah uses this image of preparing the king’s highway – not in today’s reading – as a metaphor for preparing for the return of God, probably referring to the return of the people from exile. The gospels pick up the passage from Isaiah to describe John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus. Isaiah speaks of a voice crying in the wilderness, so you can see why they would make the connection with John. And you can see, from this connection, that John the Baptist is preparing the way for a King.
What kind of king, though, is John expecting? Clearly not one like the tyrants of old, who flaunted their privilege and exploited their power. The passage from Isaiah that we did read this morning describes the kind of kingship that the Messiah will exercise. A shoot will come from the stock of Jesse – Jesse is the father of king David, so this is talking about a descendant of David, as Jesus was through his adopted father Joseph. On this descendant, this one who is to come, will rest the spirit of the Lord, a spirit of wisdom, knowledge, and deep respect and trust in the Lord.
This is a king who will rule wisely, who will not be swayed by what he is told, or what he is selectively shown; he will judge with righteousness, and ‘decide with equity for the meek of the earth’. Kings could be persuaded by offers of favourable allegiance; judgements could be bought, so that the wealthy could generally get their own way. Money talked then, as it does now. God’s Messiah, Isaiah says, will hear the voice of the poor on equal terms with anyone else; will pay particular attention to those who are often silenced; will judge each case on its merits, not on who pays the most.
Well, that sounds great. The Messiah will judge everybody fairly. Who could possibly object to that? The people who object to fairness are the people who stood to gain under the old system. I was reading just this week of the way the super-rich today are using lawsuits, known as Slapps – strategic lawsuits against public participation – to silence journalists, whistleblowers, and anyone else who might want to scrutinise their dealings. It’s not that they would win the case – there is often little legal foundation to them – it’s that the cost of fighting such a case is so massive that the very threat of bringing one is often enough to make most critics back off.
The Messiah speaks against such unfairness. In the middle of Isaiah’s description of wisdom and peace there is the second half of verse 4: ‘he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked’. This king is no pushover. He will speak the truth – including the truth that powerful people want to cover up – and that truth will be harsh indeed for some.
John the Baptist does not shy away from this more uncomfortable aspect of the Messiah. If anything, he amplifies it. John is not out to flatter, to win friends and influence people by telling them what they want to hear. He tells the truth he has to tell. Crowds of people are flocking to hear him, and having heard him, to accept the baptism he offers. But when the Pharisees and Sadducees come to him, pretending to repent and asking him for baptism, he’s having none of it.
In this context of talking about a religious king, a messiah who will represent God rather than an earthly monarch, the Pharisees and the Sadducees are the ones whose interests are threatened. They are the ones who study the Law of Moses, who know what the proper procedures are for repentance and atonement. They are the ones with authority. Why, they can trace their ancestry right back to Abraham. The last thing they want to hear is some scruffy nobody trying to say that there’s a new leader coming, and that the new leader will bring in the kingdom of heaven.
We don’t hear what the Pharisees and Sadducees say to John. But we can tell, from his reply, that they are trying to hedge their bets. ‘We don’t trust John – but just in case he is right, we’d better get baptised anyway, just in case’. No wonder he calls them a brood of vipers. None of their credentials, none of their history matters, if they are not repentant; going through the motions of baptism will make no difference. They need root and branch reform, and they need it soon. Because if they don’t accept forgiveness now, John warns, then when the new leader comes it will be too late. There is judgement here, harsh judgement – and the harshest is reserved for those who don’t think they need to hear it at all.
These are hard words, but we are not going to shy away from them either. Advent is a time of taking a long clear look at ourselves and facing those things that we would rather not face; time to prepare a way in our lives for God to come to us again. This is not to beat ourselves up and cringe; this is about facing the truth, so that we can make changes if needed.
Last week the Church and Centre management committees here met to discuss the centre finances in light of the rise in inflation and energy costs. It wasn’t doom and gloom; we faced squarely what the shortfall would be – and then we were able to work out what steps we needed to take to address it. God invites us to take this sort of honest look at ourselves in Advent. And the harsh words, remember, are not for the people who find they are falling short and want to do better; the harsh words are for those who don’t think they need to look.
If we go back to Isaiah, there’s just half a verse of harsh words – and nine and a half verses of wisdom, grace, justice, and peace. The call to repentance is a call to come back into that justice, grace and peace. To address what needs to be changed, to offer our shortfall to God, and then to accept the forgiveness God longs to give. So let’s take a short time of silence to reflect on these things now, and then I will lead us in a prayer of confession and repentance.
We hear the call to repent, to turn back to you.
Help us to look with honesty at our lives.
We bring to you the rough places in our lives, that we would rather you didn’t see;
We bring to you the uneven patches, when we are so inconsistent.
We ask for your forgiveness.
Work in us, and with us, loving God,
Help us to prepare a smooth path for you to come to us in Jesus,
For we pray in his name.