Return to Index or Sermons

Advent 3, Yr A, 12/12/04, St Mark's
Isaiah 35.1-10: ... the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing
Ps 146.4-9: Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for  their help.  (OR: Magnificat)
James 5.7-10: Be patient, for the coming of the Lord is near.
Matthew 11.2-11: John's messengers to Jesus; 'What did you go out to see? least in kingdom is greater than he.'

Collect: At your first coming you [Christ] sent your messenger

Post-Communion: Kindle in us the fire of your Spirit that when Christ comes again we may shine as lights (1011-101= 910)  

Summary: We have reasons to be optimistic, lighting a candle, rather than pessimistic, cursing the darkness.

Let me pose a question and then put it in a first-century context.
           Are you an optimist or a pessimist?  Are you glad that a glass is half full so that there is still plenty of pleasure left to be had in its contents, or are you sad and worried that it is already half empty, with the dismal prospect that soon there won’t be any left?
         
Or, to put it in a broader perspective, do we view the world as basically full of opportunities to be grasped or as largely full of problems which we cannot solve?  Once again, the contrast between whether we view life with optimism or with pessimism.
         
Now, current in Jesus’ day, and from roughly a hundred years before until a hundred years after that, there were many writings that are called apocalyptic.  Apocalyptic means ‘brought out of hiding’, that is ‘revealing’, such as the Revelation or Apocalypse of John at the end of the New Testament.  And in the New Testament we also have what is called the Little Apocalypse in Mark, which Matthew and Luke also reproduce.
         
Much of this writing corresponds in a sense to the samizdat, or underground literature of the dissidents during the Soviet regime, that is, it was, in effect, protest literature written by those under political subjugation, which is how many Jews felt under Roman domination in Jesus’ day.  The feeling tended to be one of impotent outrage.  The world is going to hell in a basket, and there is nothing we can do about it, except hang on tight.  All we can do is a holding action at best, until God steps in.  And then, to put it simply, all hell is going to break loose.  God will destroy this rotten world and create a new heaven and a new earth, and put all of us righteous people in it.  This event has not yet arrived, but we believe it is just around the corner.
          This is a major part of the context in which John the Baptist and Jesus lived and proclaimed the drawing near of God’s kingdom.
         
And periodically down through the centuries something akin to apocalyptic fervour has risen time and again, especially when people have felt that the world has become a hopeless mess.  There is much of this outlook, for example, in Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose literature depicts the United Nations Building in New York as the Tower of Babel and as a sign that Armageddon and the end are near.
          There is even a bit of this note in our reading from the Letter of James with its emphasis on being patient and not grumbling, for the coming of the Lord is near.
   
      Even our Advent has something of this in it, as illustrated by the traditional themes for preaching in this season, namely, death, judgement, heaven and hell.  If death, judgement and hell can evoke not only feelings of penitence but also a sense of impending doom, not unlike pessimistic apocalyptic, then the prospect of heaven can uplift us and ring with joyful promise.
   
     It is this note of promise that we hear in our reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah with its assurance that the Lord will bring his people to joy and gladness.
   
      And there is a point that I would like to pick up from today’s gospel.  It is simply this.  Jesus closing words to the crowds call into question what it was that they were seeking when they went out to the wilderness.
   
     That is, Matthew's reading points toward finding the unexpected.  Do we seek the right thing in the right place?  What is the outlook with which we seek? 
         
There is a real sense in viewing the Western Church ’s outlook as being pessimistic.  It starts from the premise that we are lost sinners in need of a saviour.  Its theology concentrates on the Cross in terms of forgiveness of sin.  If we had not sinned, then God would have had no need to send Jesus and would not have sent him.
   
     The Orthodox or Eastern Churches have a much more optimistic view in which the sending of Jesus as the Incarnate Word is the capstone of our humanity, and this has always been part of God’s plan from all eternity.  To overstate it a bit, there is a pessimistic streak in the Western Church and an optimistic streak in the East.
         
And we Anglicans traditionally have had a foot in both camps.
         
When we turn to Jesus’ message, we find that it is: The Kingdom is breaking in, but not the way you think: it is inward not outward, for, in Jesus’ words, ‘the kingdom is within you’.  And St Paul says that what matters is  kaine ktisis, ’new creation’. But what has changed is not the situation we face, but rather our capacity for facing it.
         
If we have expected or wanted God to change the situation confronting us, forget it.  What he has done in and through Jesus of Nazareth is to hold out the real possibility of changing our capacity for facing it.  We who are in Christ are those who have every reason to be ultimately the optimists.
         
As we prepare to celebrate the birth of him whom we proclaim to be the Light of the world, let us remember to act on this:
         
It is far better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.