18 Dec Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Year B
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17th December, 2023
What’s the most subversive thing you’ve ever done? Maybe a question to answer over coffee – or something stronger – later on, but I’d like to suggest that at least one answer to that question might be simply being here this morning.
Subversion is all about trying to overthrow the status quo, and so I’d like to argue that today’s readings are all subversive, in their different ways. In Isaiah, we hear a call to abundant joy; even if this text is post-exile, i.e. once the Jewish people are back “home”, I’m sure there was a lot of work to do to rebuild even a basic level of existence, never mind even beginning to heal from the trauma of exile. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul is guiding the infant church into ways of being that look to Jesus Christ as Lord, not whoever the current emperor happens to be. And in John’s gospel, John the Baptist is, as we might expect, very definitely not about business as usual.
So let’s start with Isaiah. The passage we heard today is an insistent, joyous romp through the promised goodness of God: the prophet in the power of the Spirit sees the brokenhearted being bound up, the captives freed, the Lord’s favour, the oil of gladness, praise in place of weariness, ruins rebuilt, justice, overflowing blessing, the garments of salvation, precious jewels, new shoots springing up, beauty for ashes. It makes me tingle with excitement, and it also makes me ache for the day when all this will be true, will be visible. The day when justice will indeed roll down like rivers, and when God’s people will stand as oaks of righteousness.
This phrase, “oaks of righteousness”, is an interesting one. It appears in some translations, and in others is given simply as “the planting of the Lord”, or “trees of righteousness”. Here at Mucknell we have quite a few trees, and one of the things that I have been noticing this year is that there is no one way to be a tree. I spent some time this spring down by our old oak tree, and I noticed that just nearby were some silver birch trees, which, while not as tall as the old oak, had put on some serious growth. The oak and the silver birch have very different approaches to being a tree, and both are beautiful: the silver birch reaching out towards the sky as quickly as it can, growing tall and slender and elegant. It’s hard to believe they’re less than 15 years old. The oak, on the other hand, several hundred years old, shows its years in its wide truck, its thick branches, the habitat it surely provides for all kinds of creatures. Asking which is better, which is right, is ridiculous. Neither is better. Both tell us something about God, about creation, about ourselves too, perhaps. Both have their place in any woodland, alongside many other species also. The planting of the Lord is most definitely not a monoculture. The oak reminds us to put down roots, to grow strong and sturdy. The silver birch speaks to me of reaching out eagerly towards God, towards the light. There is no one right way to be a tree, and there is no one right way to be a Christian, either, nor to celebrate, nor to express joy. For some of us, it’s the all-singing all-dancing glitter disco ball that is our Isaiah reading. For others it’s something quieter, sparer, perhaps, but no less deeply experienced. We may feel that deep, subversive joy as we gaze upon the oak, or the silver birch, or spot a robin flitting about the garden, or as we sit in front of a candle, or receive communion, or share a cup of tea with a dear friend – or a stranger.
As I mentioned, it’s generally accepted that the passage we heard today from Isaiah was written once the exiles had returned home; the prophet then may be trying to set the people on the right path as they begin a new stage of their journey with God, reminding them of God’s bountiful goodness. Paul is sort of doing the same thing in the reading we heard today from 1 Thessalonians, generally considered to be among the earliest of Paul’s letters. This is the Christian faith beginning to be laid down and worked out and taught, at least in recorded words. The three short phrases that open the section we heard today are deceptively simple: “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances”. Deceptively simple because each is the work of a lifetime. We are called here to lift our eyes towards God in every circumstance, no matter how bright and shining, no matter how dark and painful, no matter how ordinary.
This is, on the face of it, an utter scandal. How can we possibly rejoice when we live in a world where violence goes unchecked, where we see appalling scenes in the news, where people today will be reliant on food banks to feed themselves and their children, where so much is just wrong?
I absolutely am not saying that we should not weep, rage, scream, shout. The world can be an awful place – our lives too are often painful, as we pass through the valley of the shadow of death. But two things are important.
Firstly, nothing that goes in our world is invisible to God. Nothing. A lot of people find the feast of the Holy Innocents, remembering the infants killed by Herod in his rage-filled hunt for Jesus, deeply disturbing. Yet in watching the news from Israel and Gaza, hearing especially the stories of the murder of children by both Hamas and Israel, it has been in my mind. It says to me that even the most awful thing can come into churches and be placed before God. Horrific as it all is, it is not foreign to God.
And secondly, nor is it – nor is any situation, small or great – the final word, the final judgement on us and on our world. For all the evil in the world, there is also so much beauty, so much care, so much goodness, that never makes it on to our screens. It is just as real. But over and above both, the final word belongs to God, as John the Baptist acknowledged: “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me.” The one who is coming after me. John knew that he was not the messiah. Important though his mission was, it was not the end of God’s revelation, but rather the beginning.
This then is our subversive joy: we await our Saviour and we know that with him comes redemption, forgiveness, the truth that is God with us, God with actual real living skin in the game. God who will and who has defeated death. God who, as Pauls says in 1 Thessalonians, is faithful, and who will accomplish in, through, around, over, underneath us, in ways we may never see, what it is that he has called and made us for. We can wait with joy, with hope, with eager longing, because we know that we belong to God, and have found in God a love, a refuge, a meaning and a richness that nothing, not even death, can take away from us.
There seems to be a search going on in our culture for some kind of narrative, some kind of story that can give coherence and shape and meaning to our lives. We who have found it, who have found in Christ, with Christ, through Christ, the ultimate story, the one that defeats death not with violence but with love, can indeed lead subversive lives, lives that are fuelled by a deep, deep joy as both the ground of being and the goal of all searching. We can lead such lives, and we must. Time is short, and we have been given so, so, so much. In Christ, as God’s beloved children, we are rich beyond imagining, so let us use the anticipation of this final week of advent as a training ground, a rehearsal, a honing and focussing of the hope and the love to which we are called, that God’s purposes may be fulfilled in us. “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.” Amen.
Image: Plummer, Lauren. Advent Candle, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57132 [retrieved December 18, 2023]. Original source: Lauren Plummer, https://www.linkedin.com/in/lauren-plummer-mts-ma-006738129/.