Isaiah 11.1-10; Psalm 72; Romans 15.4-13; Matthew 3.1-12
REPENTANCE AND RIGHTEOUSNESS
‘An acceptable people in thy sight…’
Introduction: ‘Wild Preachers?’
Today’s collect, (or the BCP one on which it is based), to which you have added your Amen, prays that the clergy would be like John the Baptist! Perhaps people would take more notice of me if I wore clothing made of camels’ hair, with a rough leather belt around my waist, and I survived on bush tucker!? Dirty, smelly, loud, eating with my fingers…Is that what is called for? It does not seem to be a strong suit in Anglican history, although Sidney Smith, an early 19th Century Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, London, once said of someone that ‘He deserves to be preached to death by wild curates’. He was not a friend of the Evangelical Revival
What is it to prepare the way for the Lord, Jesus Christ? How would we at St Jude’s do this? How might we promote a moral renewal of the community of Randwick, so that there was a glad anticipation of Christ’s return? John the Baptist was uncompromising in his calling sin for what it is, and in urging people to change their ways: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near!’ To the religious he said, ‘What are you doing here: Get lost! You already know what God wants of you!’ [’You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance!’] So Matthew, Mark and Luke bear witness to John’s preaching. The Gospel of John summarises John’s task in different language: ‘he came as a witness to testify concerning the light, so that through him all might believe’ (John1.7). So then, the Collect prays that your preachers will testify to Jesus as the light of the world.
- Hearts that turn
The prayer is also that we preachers be effective in turning hearts (not heads). I wonder how effective we are. How often have I (or those whose preaching you have sat under) turned your heart? I know I have turned some, by God’s grace, but the common resistance in many to the act of preaching suggests that our hearts may not be all that ready to turn, and that the preaching is not very skillful. And these two weaknesses may form a vicious cycle, where each reinforces the other. I confess that I find it very hard to listen to other preachers’ sermons. Of course we have to work much harder at preaching today, with such competition from other media. Comedians have made sport of ineffective preaching (Rowan Atkinson; the 1948 Show etc). But even a couple of hundred years ago, most communication was in this form. Earlier, most could not read, and if they could, they could not afford to buy books. We must commend those in our age who try to use other media, like novels or films or plays, to communicate Christian truth (eg Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ; the novels of Tim Winton, Annie Dillard, Marilynne Robinson etc). But what do our attitudes to hearing sermons say about us? If our hearts are disinclined to listen and turn, when sitting in church, how serious is our prayer that the hearts of others should turn? The Collect at least directs us to prepare ourselves to listen to faithful preaching.
- ‘The Wisdom of the Just’
The prayer is that ministers would ‘turn the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just’, the expression used by the angel Gabriel when announcing the conception of John the Baptist to Zechariah, his father (Luke 1.16-17). What is ‘the wisdom of the just (=righteous)’? Certainly, at least, it is a condition acceptable to Jesus, the Son of Man, who is coming ‘in his glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead’. So again we should think of wise bridesmaids, and servants wise with the talents (=opportunities) given them; those not just late invitees to the heavenly feast., but dressed appropriately for taking our place.
The prophecy of Isaiah read as the reading of the Old Testament today gladdens our hearts; we want such a ruler:
“The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord…He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he will kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins“(Isaiah 11.2-5).
The psalm today, Psalm 72, likewise hopes that the king of Israel will be like this. This is the kind of ruler we all long for. Yet we are puzzled by Christ himself, who is more lamb than lion in his earthly manifestation as Jesus, but who still never pulls back from the picture of a radical reorientation of everything in what we call the day of the Lord, or Judgement Day. But it is clear that as a community of faith we are to be those never embarrassed by the sudden appearance of our Lord in our midst and not presumptuous of his gentleness.
Jesus is both Light, and Fire. The Word, heard and received gladly, is light that restores, guides, leads. This is the Shepherd at work. But ignored or repudiated, the Word is a fire that burns, that consumes. Here is the farmer at work: ‘his winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, and will gather his wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3.12)’.
- Where are the People?
How will we turn the hearts of the disobedient? John the Baptist drew large crowds out of the cities to a bush jamboree. John Wesley claimed that the world was his parish, and preached in the open air, as did George Whitefield. Billy Graham stands in this line. The genius of the parish concept and system is under question and threat today (though not by me). Contemporary and commercial models abound. If we are serious in our Amen to this prayer, what are we prepared to do to see it answered? This is an important time in this parish’s life. What kind of pastor, preacher, priest, prophet, evangelist are you hoping for in Andrew Schmidt. Will you tie him up in limiting expectations? Or will you want to partner with him in finding integrity in your praying of the Collect for this Day and this Week ? [Pray Collect]