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December 16, 2007

Sunday sermon

Today is Asperges Sunday, the day on which we will carry out a ritual sprinklinmg of the congregation and the church with Holy water at the Sung Eucharist. The liturgical colour for Asperges is Rose - a deep shade of pink, trimmed on the vestments with silver. The Deacon will carry a bowl of holy water while the Priest uses a bunch of Rosemary to splash everyone he can possibly spray with the water as the three minsters go round and through the church. It is also the day on which we remember that John the Baptist was sent to foretell the coming of Christ.

Asperges is a part of the preparation for the return of Christ to the world, which is what the season of Advent is supposed to get us into readying ourselves for. It is a ritual cleansing for eveyone and everything accompannied by the penitential psalm. Unfortunately these days it seems to almost get swamped beneath the commercial run up to Christmas. Strictly speaking we should not sing Christmas Carols until Christmas Eve - and there are a whole section of Advent Carols in most hymnals that never get sung these days, yet are theologically far more correct than many of our favourite "Christmas" ones. Well, that's my "Bah humbug!" over with. Sing away, but do spare a thought for the spiritual preparation we should be embracing as well.

Today I am Deacon for the Parish Eucharist and I am also the preacher. My sermon is in the extended post. I hope it gives some food for thought.

Advent 3 2007
Tewkesbury Abbey

+May I speak in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

“What did you go out into the desert to see?”
John the Baptist is one of the enigmatic figures of the New Testament. We are told that he was a cousin of Jesus and that he, by his own words, is a messenger, the voice crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” Though we call John a Saint he is, in reality, the last of the Old Testament prophets. So when our Lord asks “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” He already knows – the crowd had gathered because the people believed that they would hear and receive baptism at the hands of one possibly the successor to Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. They probably hoped, but did not expect, to encounter the Messiah. And certainly the Messiah they encountered was not one they recognised.

The people came out into the Wilderness looking for a leader and they found John. John gave them fire and brimstone, and a chance for ritual cleansing at the hands of one recognisable as a prophetic figure. A man of God. His followers felt they could recognise a prophet in him, they could connect to the figures in the Torah through him. He preached with fire in his voice and water as his cleansing tool – and so he stirred anxiety and enmity among the ruling class and eventually Herod.

St John’s Gospel tells us that when the Levites and priests of the temple came to him and demanded to know who he was he tells them bluntly “I am not the Christ.” They try again, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” And again he tells them “No!”

One can only imagine their annoyance when he finally uses the words of Isaiah to say

“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord.”

Many will have found this disappointing, many had, no doubt, begun to hope that this rather rough and probably rather wild looking man was the long awaited Messiah, after all, this was a time when “messiahs” were popping up everywhere. No doubt too, this was why Herod had decided to use John’s denunciation of his marriage to his brother’s wife as an excuse to put him out of circulation.

But, from his prison cell, John hears that Jesus has taken over the ministry and the crowds he had drawn. This Jesus he had himself baptised in the Jordan. And now doubt assails him, for the descriptions he is hearing don’t tally with what he is expecting from the Chosen One, the Messiah.

How often we, as human beings, fall into this trap. We draw for ourselves a picture, an image of how things ought to be, of how WE would like them to turn out. And when they don’t we are thrown into turmoil. The very foundations of our faith are shaken – because we have created in our own minds an image of perfection that is not met. Those followers of John the Baptiser must have felt the same disappointment when Jesus stepped forward and revealed himself as the one that John had foretold. Here was no conquering King in the Davidic tradition, here was a simple Nazarene, admittedly of David’s lineage, but a quiet spoken man who carried no sword and did not advocate its use to clear the land of gentiles and pagans. Who came instead speaking of a heavenly Kingdom, a Kingdom moreover that seemed to welcome every condition of man, not just those who followed the Law and the Prophets, ritually cleansing themselves and studying the Torah all the days of their lives. He was not what they expected, nor was he in any sense what John expected – and John was the prophet sent to prepare the ground for him.

Again, if we turn to St John’s gospel we see that the Baptist must have eventually seen for himself the revelation that the Kingdom he was expecting and heralding was no earthly one. For in last weeks gospel we were told that he said when challenged concerning his baptising with water.

“I baptise you with water. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

So why is John now sending to ask “Are you the Christ?”

Well, it would certainly seem that at this early point in Christ’s ministry, the evidence of the “fire” and the “Holy Spirit” was not yet apparent, certainly not to John’s disciples. They too, it seems, fell into the trap of seeing only what they where looking for.

I am sure that you, like myself, have sometimes looked for something we expect to see plainly only to be unable to see it anywhere. Sometimes we are looking so hard at the thing that we can’t see it. A case of being unable to see for the looking. Often that is how we manage not to see God at work around us. We have our own idea of what it should look like, must look like that we simply don’t see Him at all. Even when he is stood directly in our paths and working directly in and through us.

Shortly after our Lord sent his message to the imprisoned John, Herod had him executed, yet, in the message John does seem to have seen the hidden Christ and it seems that he died certain that his task, the task of foretelling, was complete.

We are called to be Christ’s hands, feet, eyes, and body here and to speak, live and show the Gospel to the world, just as John did. We are called to be ready to greet our Lord when he returns in glory – and that is what Advent is meant to bring us to preparation for. Are we prepared? Have we prepared? Perhaps more importantly, have we got our eyes fixed so firmly on the returning Christ we expect to see that we cannot see Him already among us?

WE must make sure that when He does return we do not have someone write of us:

“He was in the world, and though the world was made through Him, the world did not recognise Him.”


Posted by The Gray Monk at December 16, 2007 01:51 PM

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