(Isaiah 35, 1-10; Magnificat; James 5, 7-10; Matthew 11, 2-11)
The panto season is here again! We’ve got ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ at Watersmeet, ‘Peter Pan’ at the Watford Palace and ‘Aladdin’ at Radlett, and lots and lots more at every theatre in the country.
One of the staples of traditional pantos is the transformation scene, where the poverty stricken hero or heroine – Cinderella, Dick Whittington, Aladdin – is magically transformed with the wave of a wand or the rubbing of a lamp into a beautiful, elegant, rich-looking individual.
Our readings today are about just such a transformation – that which was expected to come over the world with the Advent of the Messiah – at the End Times, the Day of Judgement, The Second Coming, or what Borg and Cossan call ‘The Great Divine Clean up of the World’. This is what Christians are preparing for – in anticipation and penitence – in Advent.
In our Old Testament reading, 2nd Isaiah is prophesying about the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon to Jerusalem in the 6th century BC. Permission to return home has been granted by the Persian Emperor, Cyrus, whom the prophet hails as God’s Messiah, God’s agent.
In the eyes of the prophet, it is not just the prospects of the exiles that have been transformed by the freedom to return to their homeland. The whole physical world is transformed too. The sick and disabled are healed; creation is restored to lush fruitfulness. As in the prophecy we heard from 1st Isaiah last week, there will no longer be any danger from wild animals; people will travel and live in complete safety. The conditions of the garden of Eden are restored with God’s ‘vengeance’, (which by the way, means not revenge, but justice for the oppressed; more like vindication.) God works for good, and to eliminate threats to those who honour him. So, the trouble and mourning of God’s people are transformed into joy and celebration.
In Mary’s hymn of praise from Luke 1, which we know as the Magnificat, a transformation of the world is also anticipated, with the coming of God’s Saviour. This canticle is one of the most revolutionary documents in the whole Bible, though it’s hard to hear that when we sing it to English chant! (There’s a modern hymn version of it, set to the tune of The Red Flag – or O Christmas Tree if you prefer it. That certainly brings out the revolutionary message!) The Magnificat promises a an economic revolution, a social revolution, a political revolution, and a transformation in the relationships between men and women. It talks about God turning the world upside down through the coming of the Messiah. Just as Isaiah prophesied, the Magnificat says, through his Anointed One, God will work to transform the world for the better.
In our reading from the Gospel of Matthew, John the Baptist sends a message from prison to Jesus, asking if he is the one whom God has sent. As we heard in last week’s reading, John expects the coming Messiah to separate the wheat from the chaff, to cut down the unfruitful trees and to burn the unrepentant in the wrath of God punishment.
Jesus replies, speaking about the transformation he is bringing by his ministry. Echoing the words from 2nd Isaiah that we heard earlier, he speaks of changes to the lives of the sick and disabled; but, in an echo of the Magnificat, he points out that the poor have received good news, that lepers and those excluded from society have been restored, and even the dead raised. He speaks only of the good he is doing; there is no talk of vengeance or punishment.
He also remarks, enigmatically, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me”. Is that, perhaps, because he is not the sort of Messiah that John and many of his contemporaries expected and hope for: not a supernatural being, a mighty warrior king, or a skilled politician or a revolutionary, one who would transform their world by violence, driving out the Roman occupiers and restoring the ancient glory of the independent kingdoms of David and Solomon? Is that why he praises John, but says that those who enter the Kingdom of Heaven through his preaching are greater than John and his followers; because he, Jesus, preaches the way of gradual, peaceful transformation, through lives of service, not violent transformation by human military forces, or supernatural intervention by God?
The prophet and the Magnificat, with poetic exuberance, describe the world being transformed all at once, by an act of God. But that is not usually our experience. It can sometimes be very difficult to see the transformation promised by Jesus’s coming taking place. I am sure that’s how we feel, as we watch the news on TV and read the newspapers, and see reports of wars and civil strife, murders, violence and robbery and cruelty to children, animals and minority groups. Where is the transformation?
It seems that the people for whom James was was writing in our epistle felt the same. They expected the Day of the Lord to come soon after the Resurrection; but as the years went on, and nothing seemed to have changed, they were becoming discouraged. James, always the practical one, counsels patience and trust. Just as the farmer trusts the cycle of nature, where, year after year, the seed is sown, and germinates unseen, he says, so the believers must trust the promise of God and the witness of Christ that the transformation will come. He, too, points back to the prophets, who did not always see an immediate fulfilment of their prophecies, but continued to trust; and he warns that judgement day is already here, as the believers live out their faith, most particularly in their relationships with one another in the community. He tells them not to grumble at one another. Now there’s a real challenge for any Christian community!
So what do these passages say to us, as we mark Advent 2013. Are we ready to have our world transformed? Are we ready to be transformed ourselves? Are we ready to be agents of transformation?
Some passages of Scripture imply that God’s great transformation of the world will come all at once, when the world as we know is changed by intervention from outside time and space; but there are other passages which imply that the transformation has already begun with the life and death of Jesus, and continues whenever people follow him, accepting God’s sovereignty over their lives, and working to bring in God’s Kingdom.
I believe in that second understanding of judgement and the End Times, what Marcus Borg calls ‘participatory eschatology’. Each Advent, I believe, we are prompted again to look back on the transformations that have resulted from people trusting in God’s promises and working to achieve the divine purpose for the world; and as a result, to dedicate ourselves anew to doing the same.
One of the three strands of our current diocesan initiative is entitled ‘Transforming Communities’. So this Advent, I invite all of us to ask ourselves “What can we do to transform the communities in which we live – local communities, national communities, world communities – so that they mirror more closely the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus came to teach us about?”
How can we help to heal those who are blind – physically, spiritually, or blind to the needs of others? How can we help people to walk, or to walk tall? How can we include those who, like the lepers of Jesus’s time, are excluded from our communities because they are felt to be dangerous, or unclean, or because their way of life is not what the majority is comfortable with? How can we improve communication between opposing opinions, so that those who are deaf to each others’ needs and beliefs are able to hear each other? How can we help to raise people from lives which are a living death, because of exploitation or addiction? How can we bring good news to the poor of our country and the world?
And do we trust enough in the ultimate triumph of God and his Christ to keep on working for the transformation of our world, even though nothing seems to change, and sometimes the task seems hopeless.
Because it won’t be a sudden and dramatic change, like it is in the pantomime; but hopefully, the transformation when it comes, will be much more real and lasting.