Sermon 4th December, Advent 2

Readings Matthew 3 vs 1-12, Romans 15 vs 4-13


Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.

Matthew recalls the words of Isaiah as he speaks of John the Baptist’s call to repent and be baptised. In the advent story, we jump forward 30 years, far beyond the birth of Jesus.

It’s an old, old style of writing that we often see in modern films today. You start a story off in one place, and then just as the reader of the viewer is getting into the story, you divert to another character who gives a different view, a new angle on the story or jump into the past or future. In modern detective or adventure stories the new character often at first doesn’t even seem linked to the first, adding mystery and drawing the reader in deeper, but in this case, we know the link, the story of Elizabeth, yet we’ve jumped ahead almost 30 years even though we haven’t heard the whole story of Jesus’ birth yet.

Prepare ye the way of the Lord. I remember the first time I heard that now famous song from Godspell using those words, and now I can hardly hear this passage without the song going through my head. Preparation. Perhaps a word we don’t use much in our advent services, as we often speak more of expectation.

At home, of course, we prepare for Christmas, the decorations come out of the loft or other storage, we start buying and sending off presents, we think about the food we need to order in, prepare to go to or receive relatives, plan parties.

There’s so much to do, and we worry we’ll never get it all done. And then there are Christmas services and carol singing to fit in.

To fit in.

I wonder sometimes if our preparation has gone off track a little. Not quite the “straight path” Isaiah said we should prepare. Not quite the repentance John the Baptist called for. I know I can become as guilty of this as anyone, although, of course I have to “fit in” preparing the services as well as to come to them!

We become so involved in the secular world’s view and traditions of Christmas that perhaps we find “fitting in” the true “reason for the season” a bit tricky, there’s just not enough time left.

When John the Baptist called for the people to repent, it’s notable that the Pharisees and Sadducees came along too. Did they recognise they had something to repent in their concentration on rites, rituals, and laws, or had they come to see what John was up to, throw barriers and criticism in his way?

John had pretty harsh words for them, much as Jesus did later, so I think perhaps these religious people of the day weren’t coming to John for the right reasons. In much the same way as much of our preparations might not really be for the right reasons. It’s all to easy to lose focus, to forget why we are truly celebrating.

And what we’re celebrating is momentous, world changing.

The creator of the Universe loving this world so much, weeping for the state it had got into, mourning the loss of love and unity in the world, so much so that he sent his own Son. He created out of himself a divine yet human man, Jesus, to bring humankind back into a loving relationship with God, to wipe away all the wrongs, the disunity, the lack of love by showing the ultimate love, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and the victory over death in his resurrection.

Amongst all the narrative of angels and Mary, stables shepherds and wise men is that astounding truth.

It’s no wonder John then was calling for people to repent- the secular road ahead was a winding road with many forks and crossings, the road John called the people to could only be made straight through repentance, literally turning away from all worldly things and turning to Christ. And repentance would not be a one-off act, yes baptism signified the dying to one life and new birth in the next, but the call was for continued repentance, in order to maintain the straight path, because the reality is that it is all to easy to wander off in the wrong direction again.

This reality is reflected in Paul’s letter to the Romans, as he calls on the new Christians in Rome to keep on this new path that leads to Christ. There was to be no more division in the reality of being a follower of Christ, no Jew and Gentile, “accept one another” Paul says- clearly, they had been having difficulty doing that, old divisions, old attitudes were threatening to force them off the straight road they had first set out upon.

And yet 2000 years later how familiar that still is in the church today as denominations hold out against each other and within churches members disagree or polarise themselves about one thing or another  leading to division.

Not accepting each other, not accepting we are all different, not accepting that backgrounds, views, and ideas can be different does not reflect the way Christ accepted all, Paul is saying, it causes us to stumble and veer off the straight path, the path to Christ.

So this advent, as we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth and hear the nativity story again, a little diversion to John’s call for repentance in order to prepare the way, to make a straight path for him is a good thing. Just as we confess our sins and ask for God’s mercy each time before we come to the Lord’s table, as we shall in a few moments, so as we prepare ourselves in this advent season for Christmas, let us recognise our need for repentance, our need for unity, our need to be one body of Christians, despite or indeed because of our differences, accepting one another for who we are before Christ, who has accepted us all.

For if the world does not see us as one in Christ, then how are they to ever venture on that straight path to Christ themselves, how are they ever able to prepare that straight path for Christ and themselves recognise the need to repent and turn to him, away from the evils of this world.

John needed to be away from the busyness, the sophistication, the religiosity of the city and the temple.

He went into the wilderness, to live simply, to recognise his needs could be supplied by God, and only when he was prepared to be that reliant on God could he himself then call on the people to repent. And they too had to go into the wilderness to hear him, to be baptised, reflecting perhaps the journey into the wilderness of their ancestors, the need to recognise that until they relied on God alone, repentance was not possible.

Let us take time to seek our own wildernesses, our own need for reliance on God, our own sense of repentance and turning back to the Christ who was born humbly in a stable so that our relationship with the creator of the universe can be made complete, so that our love can be perfected, so that the path to our saviour can be without diversion and that we can, with a  pure heart praise and glorify the Christ child, the Son of God.