Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Advent II
December 7, 2010, 9:24 am
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: , ,

Sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, December 5th 2010

“Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” For once, the Book of Common Prayer, the Book of Common Worship and the Roman Missal all agree on the Sunday Epistle. This second Sunday in Advent used to be “Bible Sunday”, although the new Calendar has moved it. But Advent is pre-eminently the time for looking at the ancient Scriptures, to see how they all point towards Christ.

St Paul’s Letter to the Romans was written as a kind of manifesto, to introduce himself and his teaching in advance of his planned journey to Rome. The Jewish-Christian community there might have heard misleading reports of his orthodoxy- Paul was a controversial figure- and so he sets the record straight. Everything he believes, and everything he teaches, is founded upon the Word of God, the Jewish Scriptures familiar to his readers.

Cardinal Ratzinger (as he then was) wrote this some years back: “The God of the Jews’ Bible- which, together with the New Testament, is also the Christians’ Bible- who is sometimes a God of infinite tenderness, sometimes so strict as to instil fear, is also the God of Jesus Christ and of the apostles.” Or, as St Anthony of Padua put it even longer ago, “The God of the New Testament is one and the same as the God of the Old Testament, and is indeed Jesus Christ the Son of God. We may apply to him the words of Isaiah: I myself that spoke, behold, I am here. [Is 52.6]. I spoke to the fathers in the prophets; I am here in the truth of the Incarnation.” [SSF 1.35]

St Matthew quotes Isaiah in this morning’s Gospel: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” In preparation for the public ministry of Jesus, John the Baptist called the people to conversion of heart. We can only receive the Word of God when we are aware of our own inadequacy, our own need for it. Those of us who are professionally religious- clergy and church officers- must be especially mindful of the Baptist’s rebuke to the Pharisees and Sadducees, the professionally religious of his day. We all need conversion, we all need to recognise our inadequacy. To claim Abraham as an ancestor is not enough; to rely on one’s official position is not enough. There has to be personal conversion. personal openness to God.

Christianity is not simply a philosophy of life, it is an encounter, a relationship, with the Living God who has been at work in human history from the beginning, and who appeared personally in history two thousand years ago in Palestine. Jesus did not emerge from nowhere, he was already present in the Word of God that Israel knew. There is only one Word of God, partially revealed in the Scriptures, fully revealed in Jesus Christ.

Cardinal Ratzinger reflected, “It is obvious that the dialogue of us Christians with the Jews takes place on a different plane from dialogue with other religions. The faith to which the Bible of the Jews, the Christians’ Old Testament, bears witness is not a different religion for us; rather, it is the basis of our own faith. That is why Christians read and study these books of Holy Scripture… with such great attention and as part of their own heritage.”

St Paul, in today’s Epistle, writes, “Christ has become a servant of the circumcised” (the Greek actually says “a minister, or diakonos, of circumcision,” which might refer to Christ’s own Jewishness) “to “confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” In other words, in the plan of God Jesus is the goal which all human history, especially that of Israel, led up to; and the fount from which God’s grace and mercy might flow out to all humanity.

“A shoot shall come out of the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Isaiah looked forward to an ideal King of David’s line, unlike the kings of his own day- Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah- who were all, even the best, deeply flawed. The King who was to come would have the Spirit of the Lord upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding (and so on), so that he would judge righteously, defend the poor and put down the mighty.

The prophet looked for a peaceable kingdom, where the wolf should live with the lamb, the lion and the fatling together, and a little child should lead them; when the earth should be full of the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the sea. In a sense, we are still looking. This is Advent, the season of expectation, the season of the not-yet. But we have even more confidence than Isaiah had that this will come about, because we believe that in the little child of Bethlehem God has already given us the ideal King. In that child grown up, crucified for us, God has reversed the downward path of human history, and in the Risen Lord he has opened the way to heaven.

Advent is a very good time to renew our resolutions to read the Bible regularly, systematically and with insight. It is a pity (I think) that the new service-book has changed the Collect for this day. Never mind: this was the old one:

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience, and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou has given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.


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