Sermon at All Saints Coddington, Advent 2016
Isaiah 2.1-5; Romans 13.11-end; Matthew 24.36-44
Pam and I have spent much of the last few weeks in big cities, which has been fun, if a bit exhausting at times, but I must say, it is nice to get back to rural Herefordshire with a good bit of space and peace and quiet around us.
In the light of that, this morning’s reading about John the Baptist, living in the wilderness somehow attracting great crowds to come and let themselves be ranted at, left me perplexed. It’s so different from our world you wonder how it can possibly be relevant to us. The idea of wilderness beyond the settlement limits is completely foreign to us. And strangely, the fact is you very rarely see a crowd come together anywhere now unless it’s for a properly organised event like a football match or a concert. The rest of the time, everyone is going their own way, it’s all very fragmented.
And who are these Pharisees and Sadducees we heard about? They got the brunt of John’s tirade, so what had they done to deserve it? The conventional answer is that they were the legalistic holier-than-thou brigade who needed taking down a peg or two. No doubt the poor working class people in the crowd cheered John along as he raged against this confident, comfortable know-all elite.
But, read the same story in Luke chapter 3 and there’s a fascinating difference. There’s the same voice crying in the wilderness with pretty much exactly the same words. At the same groups? No, at all the people. Not just the unpopular elite. So what’s going on there? It’s almost as though Matthew is scapegoating the Pharisees and Sadducees while the common people stand by approvingly. Perhaps he saw himself as writing for that local Jewish audience who weren’t too keen on their religious leaders and would enjoy their discomfort. Luke, on the other hand, seemed to see himself as writing for a broader audience so didn’t see the need to spare the feelings of any part of the crowd. They all needed to repent.
There’s one further difference between these two versions of John’s ministry. Where Matthew has John going straight on to speak of Jesus and then to baptise him, in Luke’s account the people first ask John “what should we do?”
It’s a good response - if we’re serious about repentance, how can we make things better? I have to say, I do find these minor differences make Luke’s rendition a deal more positive for me. I can’t help wondering whether those ordinary folk in Matthew’s crowd went home thinking that it’s that elite, that needs sorting and at last someone is speaking up for us. If things aren’t great right now, at least we know who’s to blame.
You’re possibly picking up some modern resonances here already, but before I venture on to such tricky ground, let’s just stick with that question “what should we do?” for a moment. The lovely reading we had from Isaiah with wolves and lambs and calves and lions all getting on fine and tagging along after some toddler speaks eloquently of a better world to come. I don’t actually suppose that the predator-prey relationship is about to change any time soon, but leaving that aside, do we really believe that the world can get better? Can we see the kingdom of God coming closer? I have noticed that many of my contemporaries and younger folk I’ve spoken to recently are deeply pessimistic about the way the world is going. That may just be the bubble I live in of course, but it makes me think that we Christians do have a duty to remain optimistic, to hold on to our hope and to ask “what should we do?”
John, according to Luke, gives two simple answers - share your stuff and treat people fairly. Fair enough, but is there more? Maybe.
Now I don’t in any way want to imply that Burnley is a wilderness but a voice came out of Burnley this week that may be worth listening to, even for those of us who live in a place so unlike Burnley. It’s the voice of the bishop of Burnley writing in the Church Times, circulation 23,000 maybe. But his article is reported in the Times, the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail, so not a bad coverage in the end, and all reasonably fair I think. The article’s title is Heeding the voices of the popular revolution. Given that his major thrust is that the C of E isn’t doing very well at that, you can see why it has attracted attention. I do wonder too, how it’s gone down with some of his colleagues.
One brief section probably sums up his thesis:
To understand the self-identity and concerns of most working people in this country, we need to focus on three things: family, place, and work. The Established Church has historically had a great deal to say about these areas of life, but has now fallen strangely silent.
Personally, I can see what he’s getting at. On the whole, I understand and embrace what you might call a liberal agenda and I’m one of those who doesn’t think political correctness is such a bad thing. But when we ask how we think the world might get better, surely he’s right - the institutions of family, place and work will play a major part in that. So let’s speak up. Of course family is a good thing - it’s where most people find their support and their sense of worth. And place in the sense of community has got to be worth working for, to bring people together and to support those who have no support. But the bishop emphasises that place, in the sense of our nation, is also something to be properly thankful for. Yep, try living in a failed state if you don’t like it here.
“And when did you last hear a sermon on work?” he asks. The dignity of work and justice in the workplace. I would imagine that most of us have benefitted greatly from those two blessings. Not everyone is so fortunate.
I used the word ‘fragmented’ earlier - the church has historically been part of the glue holding society together. Our rural location is very different from John’s world and from Burnley but sharing and fairness, and the values of family, place and work are important everywhere. There’s a good podcast by the bishop of Truro on the church’s role in tackling rural poverty, which is well worth a listen and might help, as we ask God’s guidance in seeking to know “what should we do?” I can give you a link.
And if you are interested in pursuing the Burnley bishop’s thoughts by the way, you’ll find the article on the Church Times website for free - it’s outside the £80 per annum paywall. Alleluia!