OVERCOMING BY GOD'S GRACE
Sermon delivered on the Second Sunday in Advent the 4th December 2016 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the St. Alban’s congregation of the Church of England, Cayman Islands in the service of the Holy Eucharist.
Scriptures: Isaiah 11: 1-10 Romans 15: 4-13 S. Matthew 3: 1-12
S. Matt 3:1f In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
The response to John the Baptist that we read about in today's Gospel shows that his message struck a deep chord in the hearts of those dwelling in Jerusalem and the surrounding regions. “Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him ...” They must have been deeply frustrated with their current state of life and possibly with the way they were being led by the religious and political Establishment of the day. Incidents in our day too occur from time to time, such as the “Brexit” phenomenon in Britain or the recent General Election in the U.S.A., that show how the general frustrations of a populace can be hidden for a time, and then all of a sudden some event or phenomenon can trigger a significant reaction. In the case of John the Baptist and his outreach to the Judeans, even when he said: "Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham," their reaction to him was positive. “They were baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” They were electing to follow a new way of life.
We have to reckon with the fact that while the frustrations that perhaps some of us are experiencing at the moment will be unwelcome to us, similar or worse sorts of experience are virtually lifelong for many people in the world, and so far as this is concerned we could with the author of Ecclesiastes comment that there is nothing new under the sun. John the Baptist, however, was seen by the dwellers of Jerusalem and its surrounding regions as having something that would at last address their condition. So we read that “Then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan, and they were baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” John succeeded in showing them that there was a new start for them to appropriate, a new way of surmounting their present condition, that he described as the imminence of the kingdom of heaven.
John's message was in sync with the ministry of God's Christ that was about to begin in the same vicinity, and St. John the Baptist may rightly be regarded as the last of the Old Testament prophets, although we read the record of his doings in the pages of the New Testament. John's message was connected both by its substance and its timing with the ministry of Christ himself, and all Christians see the Person and ministry of Christ as the universal salve, the Source of all our personal supply of those graces that can ever overcome the frustrations and difficulties with which we are at any time beset. In its own way, St. John the Baptist's ministry not merely proclaimed that help was on the way, but was itself the first dawning of the Light of the World. This was the dawning Light to which all the prophets of the Old Testament looked forward. In a sense to which Jesus himself drew attention, the former prophets were not as great or significant as John was, because what they looked forward to was not to happen in their own time, but in a time they could not specify. The prophet Isaiah, for example, in our first lesson today links the very Jewish-sounding “shoot from the stump of Jesse” - for we remember that King David was the son of Jesse - with the nations, the Gentiles. The prophecy declares that the nations will seek the signal of this branch of Jesse. Isaiah says about this Messiah that “the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.” A careful student of the Confirmation service will recognise these descriptions of the Spirit of the Lord as being those Spiritual gifts by which the Bishop prays that the Confirmand will be strengthened. The Septuagint translation of Isaiah's prophecy, quoted by St. Paul in his letter to the Romans, says, “The root of Jesse shall come, he who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles hope.” Isaiah's prophecy foretells that at last, the whole people of God, the Jews as well as the nations, will be directed and guided by one who is both righteous and faithful, as well as strong.
It is still easy for us after centuries of the Church universal to forget how revolutionary it has been, in spite of the positive reach of Old Testament prophecy towards this very thing, for Jews and Gentiles to co-exist as the people of God. Significantly, all these years later, this New Testament type of multiculturalism is still not strongly evidenced by very much of a specifically Jewish component within the Church. Yet as Christians we know we are called by the example of the New Testament itself to strive for that faithful harmony amongst people of all backgrounds and origins, and all personalities and characteristics, who are found within the Church's company. St. Paul said to Jews and Gentiles in the church he was writing to in Rome: “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Undergirding and unifying the disparate cultures he was addressing was the overriding aim of glorifying the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The words of St. John the Baptist about God being able to "raise up children to Abraham from the very stones" are significant also. For Jesus too towards the end of his earthly ministry spoke of the very stones crying out in praise of the Messiah should the crowd’s voices be suppressed by authority. Although John and the Lord Jesus were speaking figuratively, may the expression not also show us that hard and stony hearts wherever they may be found can be softened by the message of John and by the Gospel of the Lord. In the age of the rule of the Messiah, when the kingdom of Heaven is at hand, even the stoniest, both Jesus and John say, can be softened and moulded to become children responsive to God and His Christ.
I consider that the twin graces of (1) a universal communion of different cultures and types within the Body of Christ and (2) the Gospel's softening of hearts hardened by selfishness can be applied to the frustrations that we encounter in our day to day experience in these times, and we do well to remember the Source of these and the many other graces upon which we in the body of Christ are privileged to draw. That Source is the ministry of Christ Himself, who continues to minister from the heavenly throne, the Branch from the shoot of Jesse and the Light of the world that fulfilled the visions of the prophets, and that began in time to dawn upon the world to fulfil the words of the last of the biblical prophets, St. John the Baptist. Owing to this ministry that was prophesied and has dawned but will never set - the ministry of Christ, the Light that will not be extinguished - the grace of God, will indeed, defying many expectations, overcome the world.