Sermon preached by the Reverend Canon Richard Ames-Lewis
The season of Advent is many things. It’s preparation, it’s expectation, it’s waiting, it’s longing. For example, my six year-old grandson Daniel is both prepared and expectant. He has had his letter to Father Christmas written and ready since at least October half term, complete with illustrations of exactly the red driverless car he is ordering, please, for his stocking. All he has to do now is wait and long.
In our homes we may express this waiting and longing in various ways – burning down an Advent candle by a centimetre a day perhaps, or opening each day the door of the Advent calendar, or lighting a wreath with candles to mark off the Sundays of Advent as Christmas comes closer.
In all these ways the season of Advent helps us to travel in a spirit of expectation, not just of God’s love demonstrated at Christmas, but in expectation also of God’s final judgement at the end of time, when the Lord will come again to judge the living and the dead.
But how to do this when, all around us, the festive season has begun and Christmas is said to have already come? How do we sustain our sense of watchfulness, our hoping and our longing? Speaking for myself, I think I tend to insulate myself from the commercial hype by retreating into the safe bubble of Church life, to use Advent to keep Christmas at bay until we actually get there. Is this an escape, or is it an attempt to go deeper in search of expectation?
I think it’s a bit of both. And I am very grateful for the church’s liturgy for helping me. As you know, Advent marks the beginning of the Church’s Year, and with this comes the beginning of a new year of readings. This year we are embarking on what we call “Year B”, the second year of our three-year cycle. “Year B” is the year of Mark, with the cycle of Gospel readings following St Mark’s Gospel.
Last year was “Year A” the year of Matthew, and next year will be “Year C” the year of Luke, after which we shall return to “Year A”, and back to Matthew again. There is, incidentally, no year of John, but we will find, since Mark is a short gospel, that during this year we will have plenty of John woven in. I am grateful that it’s Mark again. I am very fond of Mark. He writes his gospel in his own way, short, dense and pacey; and he displays an awareness of evil unlike any of the other gospel writers.
Basically, his gospel is written as a three act drama, Act 1 in Galilee, Act 2 on the road to Jerusalem, and Act 3 in Jerusalem itself. Today’s passage is the Prologue to these three Acts, and it’s set neither in Galilee nor in Jerusalem, but in the wilderness. He starts with the words “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” This is good news: that’s what the word Gospel means, good news of release from the burden of sinful humanity, good news of forgiveness and reconciliation, good news of the love of God so overwhelming that he sends his Son, Jesus to save us. And then Mark is straight in with the quotation from the prophet Isaiah which we heard in our Old Testament reading, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”’
Whereas the gospel of Matthew opens with our Lord’s genealogy, and the gospel of Luke opens with the infancy narratives, the gospel of Mark takes us back to where it all began: deep in the Old Testament’s treasury of prophecy and expectation; and whereas the gospels of Matthew and Luke enchant us with the Christmas stories of Christ’s birth, that of Mark confronts us with the mysterious figure of John the Baptist, modelled on the prophet Isaiah.
You see, Mark doesn’t have Christmas. That’s something worth pondering in Advent. There is no account of Jesus’s birth in Mark’s gospel. There are no shepherds or angels, no stable or star; not even a mother and child. It’s as though Mark is telling us it doesn’t matter how Jesus was born or who his parents were. Jesus’s authority comes not from his birth, but from his encounter with John the Baptist. And John the Baptist’s authority comes from his call by God to fulfil Isaiah’s prophecy. He is to be ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”’
John the Baptist appears as from nowhere. He makes the wilderness his backdrop, and proclaims a new message never before heard. He says “Repent and be baptised for the forgiveness of your sins.” And people from the Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem go out to him; they are baptised in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Something new is happening.
Mark is at pains to describe John the Baptist. John is wearing unusual clothes: camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist – that sounds pretty uncomfortable. He is eating unusual food: locusts and wild honey – that sounds extremely simple. It gives meaning to his message. Every preacher knows that you cannot preach poverty from a rich home, you cannot preach simplicity with a wardrobe full of silken clothes, and you cannot preach fasting when you have a well-stocked larder. Here’s another thought for Advent: the festive season is totally wrapped up with our concern about how we spend money, what we will eat and what we will wear. How are we preparing ourselves with all this?
But most strikingly Mark describes John’s self-understanding. John knows his place in the divine scheme. He knows he is preparing the way for one who is coming after him, in comparison with whom he is as nothing. In a beautiful image he describes his relationship “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” Just think of this image for a minute: the simple Roman sandal – a flat sole with a thong of leather attaching it to the calf – which the master would require his slave to take off before washing his feet. Only the lowest slave would perform this task, but John is not worthy even for this. As for his baptism of repentance poured out with Jordan water: it’s only provisional – for the one who is coming will baptise not with water but with the Holy Spirit.
And so we find, in Mark’s version of the story, that Jesus comes forward to be baptised by John. The Spirit descends like a dove and a heavenly voice says “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And then what happens? The Spirit immediately drives him out into the wilderness. The very wilderness where John appeared becomes the wilderness where Jesus embraces his calling.
It seems to me that this whole Prologue to St Mark’s gospel can be read as an extended Advent meditation. It provides us with several themes.
First the theme of the wilderness, the environment in which it all takes place, and where Jesus’s ministry begins. In the wilderness a way of life can be lived and preached, stripped down and freed from ambition, stress and noise, and embracing silence, stillness and simplicity. Where can we find our Advent wilderness where we may meet the voice crying out “Prepare the way of the Lord”? We do not have to go out into the desert, though that is an extreme example. Perhaps we can create in our own homes a miniature wilderness, a cleft of rock in which we can find our simplicity and our silence. But we are also surrounded by other contemporary wildernesses in our society: the wilderness of homelessness, or the wilderness of deprivation or the wilderness of loneliness. Many touching places of sorrow crying out for the coming of the Lord, are also bound up with our Advent hope and longing.
Then there’s the theme of repentance. As we imagine meeting John the Baptist we are driven to reflect on our personal and corporate sinfulness. And such repentance drives us to take stock of the way we live. What is a proper Christian lifestyle in the 21st century? How should we spend our money, chose our clothes or decide how to eat and drink? In what ways can we be sure that the way we live proclaims both to us and to others “Prepare the way of the Lord”? Are we a fitting medium for the message?
Finally, a personal theme. I was ordained priest on the 24th June, the feast of the birth of John the Baptist. This anniversary has always been precious to me, because of the privilege God bestowed on me that day. But also because John the Baptist has given me a model of priesthood. He himself is not the one. He prepares the way for Jesus. He must decrease and Jesus must increase. What an appropriate model for priesthood, but a model which is also appropriate for every Christian. We all called to ‘be a voice crying out in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord!”’
So this is our Advent task as Christmas approaches. We wait and we long. Maranatha, come Lord Jesus!