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(Advent 2. Yr. A. Is. 11, 1-10; Romans 15, 4-13; Matt. 3, 1-10)
Did you know that Hertfordshire has over 5000 footpaths, totalling almost 2000 miles or 3000 km?
They are the responsibility of the County Council’s Rights of Way service, which ensures that landowners keep them accessible and reinstate them after ploughing, and that they are properly signposted; but the day to day maintenance is carried out by the Countryside Management Service, which works with the county and local councils and uses a team of volunteers to clear vegetation, and provide steps on steep inclines, and boardwalks where the ground is rough or waterlogged. The volunteers, known as Footpath Friends, not only join working parties to clear and reconstruct the paths, but also adopt a path each, and undertake to walk it four times a year, to discover any work that needs to be done, and report it, so that the Countryside Management Service can prioritise what needs to be done.
John the Baptist, quoting the words of the prophet Isaiah, urged the people to ‘Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight’. I see that as a sort of spiritual version of the work of the Countryside Management Service, clearing away the brambles so that the message of Christ can get through. John indicated that the way to do this preparation and straightening was to repent, because the paths needed to be opened for the Kingdom of God, a new reality that was coming near.
What did this mean for the people of his time? And what does it mean for us now?
The Kingdom of God, better translated as the Sovereignty of God, is not a place, but a new way of existing, thinking and being, a deep change to the very foundations of social relations, so that everything is submitted to God’s ultimate purpose and God’s sovereign will. Both the Hebrew and the Greek words which are translated as “repent’ (shub in Hebrew and metanoia in Greek) indicate this is not just an expression of sorrow for wrongdoing, but a radical reversal of the way we think, feel and act. It demands a complete renewal of life, turning from the old ways to the new, a rebirth into a new being. When we become part of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of God becomes part of us, and the new way of life it brings is meant to flow through us and out into the world.
Each of our readings from Scripture this morning tells us something about this new reality that is coming.
Isaiah, living at a time when the hope was that the kings of David’s dynasty would embody and enforce God’s purpose, describes the new reality using royal imagery. At the time this was written, the descendants of David had suffered defeat and humiliation at the hands of foreign conquerors. All that remained was a stump. But even so, the prophet expresses the hope that a new line, a shoot, inspired by the power of God’s Spirit, will emerge, and will transform the role of the king. Immune to propaganda and bribery, he will embody the values of the ancient covenants with God, giving justice to the poor and the weak.
Isaiah’s vision then expands the transformation that the new regime will bring from the life of the Jewish nation to the entire world. The new way of living and relating will spread from Judea to all the nations of the world, who will place themselves under God’s rule through the ‘shoot’ of David’s line.
Not only human nations, but the whole creation will be born again into the conditions that existed at the creation, when animals lived in peace with each other and with humanity. And lest we think that is far fetched, just remember how human greed and injustice destroys the natural world as well as promoting conflict in human society. Climate change and the destruction of the rainforests and the arctic,and the poisoning of the oceans has led to loss of habitats for animals, birds and fish, and sometimes, loss of entire species. Living according to the values of the covenant with God means caring for vulnerable creatures as well as human beings, and could transform the world.
Paul is writing to members of the Christian Church in Rome, a mixed group of Jewish and Gentile converts, who he assumes have already experienced the transformation brought by following The Way, the path signposted for them by Jesus Christ. Living under the sovereignty of God, they are to live a life that glorifies and gives witness to that sovereignty. They are to imitate Christ and welcome all, both Jews and Gentiles, regardless of their wealth or talents or any lack of them. They are to be filled with the Holy Spirit and show in their lives the joy and peace between former enemies that living in the Kingdom of God means.
As members of the Christian Church in our time, this passage challenges us. How good are we at showing to those outside our joy and peace in believing? How good are we at welcoming into fellowship those currently outside the church, not for what they could contribute, but solely for the glory of God?
Paul is full of hope and confidence that the Kingdom of God is already being lived in the Christian communities he and the apostles have established.
John, preaching before the ministry of Jesus started, has a much harder and more challenging message. Unlike Paul he is not an insider talking to the insiders in the faith. He is a one time insider who is now an outsider, and is challenging the insiders for their failure. He strikes at everything that gives the religious people of the time their confidence that they are first along the way into the Kingdom of God. Your membership of the Jewish people, descent from Abraham won’t get you there, he says. Neither will your rituals and sacrifices. The covenant with God is about much more than circumcision and sacrifices. Just like the outsiders, he tells them, you need a complete change of thinking and lifestyle; and as a symbol of this, he replaces the priest-supervised ritual of sacrifice in the Temple with cleansing with water, the ritual that was used when Gentiles converted. To those who don’t change he promises, through metaphors drawn from agriculture, a doom-laden future. No wonder the religious authorities were appalled!
Yet, according to Matthew, many of them came out to hear John, even though he attacked them in such violent language, and even asked for baptism. We can only wonder why they did so. Perhaps they were tired of the system, which, however dutifully they followed its rules, didn’t bring them peace of mind. Perhaps they were ready for a change. Perhaps they were willing to put their faith in an outsider, no matter how unpalatable and offensive he was, in the hope that he would usher in a changer for the better?
Does that sound familiar? What does that say to the church of today and the society of today? Are we committed to a way of life which has some Christian values at its heart, but, in practice, has moved far away from the challenge of Jesus’ teaching. If we have, is that why people will follow anyone who promises things will be different?
Unlike many of today’s leaders, religious and political, John doesn’t claim the role of ‘Messiah’ for himself. He is always pointing to a greater power, the future incursion of God’s Holy Spirit into the world embodied in the person of God’s Messiah. John sees his role as the Forerunner, the Footpath Friend, who is simply preparing the way for the greater things to come.
We are insiders in the Church of today. Do we put all our faith in our membership of the Church, and in coming to worship on a regular basis? Is that confidence in our own admission to the Kingdom of Heaven justified?
Or do we sometimes allow ourselves to be challenged by the voices of outsiders to reflect on whether we have really repented and changed our thinking and lifestyles, perhaps at some cost to our own comfort; are we really living under the Kingdom of Heaven? Does our repentance show in changed lives, or is it just words? Or do we still have work to do, clearing the paths of our own lives, our church lives, and the values of the society we live in, so that the Way of the Lord is clear for the message of the Lord to get through.
The Kingdom of heaven is coming near! The Advent challenge to us all is to prepare the Way for Christ to be born again in our hearts and in our world.
Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.