CATASTROPHE AND COMFORT

Sermon delivered on the Second Sunday in Advent the 10th December 2017 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban’s Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.

Scriptures: Isaiah 40: 1 - 11     2 Peter 3: 8 - 15a     S. Mark 1: 1 - 8

S. Mark 1: 7f S. John the Baptist said, “After me comes He who is mightier than I ... . I have baptised you with water; but He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.”

In the Gospels Jesus is shown to have accorded the highest respect to the word of John the Baptist. The witness of John the Baptist to Jesus, the fact that he told people that here was the coming Messiah, is given the same degree of importance as the witness of the Old Testament scriptures and in a similar class to the witness of the works that Jesus Himself did. Although the figure of John may be rather shadowy and indistinct in the New Testament, we would not do justice to him, given the regard in which Jesus held him, if we did not consider his work and show how it has something to teach us in our own time.

John was subjected to being questioned by the religious hierarchy about his person. For them, who he was, what his religious credentials were, what his status was, were the burning issues. Jesus Himself, we are often told, was subjected to the same kind of scrutiny. Jesus argued that if they did not recognise the source of John's authority, they would not recognise His own. For Jesus spoke of John as Elijah returned, turning the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, provided people accepted his message. The religiously orthodox of the time were expecting that last word of the prophets (to be found in the book of Malachi) that Elijah would return before the great and terrible day of the Lord, and reconcile the hearts of children and fathers.

John himself is never seen to claim any personal status. He was never seen to make claim to be Elijah returned or any other expected Messianic forerunner. Who he was in Scriptural terms had no relevance to him. So far as he was concerned, Scripture pointed not to him but to someone other than him. According to John's Gospel he did not claim to be anything but an anonymous voice. In Isaiah Ch. 40 we read of a voice that proclaims a preparation in the wilderness of a pathway for the God of Jerusalem - a pathway in the wilderness along which the exiled people of God would be shepherded home. This is language which taught that the broken covenant between God and His people was about to be renewed. John's activity of baptising was itself demonstrative of covenant renewal, and it was highly forceful and dramatic in conveying its meaning. Jews of the Holy Land had never before been called upon to be baptised. Baptism or "washing" was at the time one of the things a Gentile had to undergo to become a Jew. It may also have been applied to Jews returning to live in the Holy Land after being defiled by living in Gentile lands and therefore living to some extent in a Gentile manner. But now John was announcing God's word that the Jewish community at home had been so disobedient to God's laws that they too had lost their Jewishness. They too had to come back into the land again via the waters of the Jordan, confessing their sins, in order to be cleansed of their unrighteousness. The time was short. The axe was laid to the root of the tree. "Repent and be baptised. Go to the Jordan and enter the land again, renewed. Reaffirm the covenant with its demands. The Messiah will come soon. God's Kingdom is at hand." Thus did John the Baptiser prepare the way of the Lord, making straight in the desert a highway for God. John awakened the Holy Land Jews in a way no one before for several centuries had done, to a moral appreciation of the covenant. The age of the eighth century prophets was returned, with renewed force and urgency. For this time, the coming Messiah really was just around the corner, was indeed standing among them unrecognised.

THE COMING OF CHRIST IS GOOD IN ITSELF
Last week we considered the integrity and rationale of the Advent event, and saw that it was there not ultimately for the purpose of providing us with a test, but for the eternal vindication of what is right and wonderful. Since we know that Jesus is good, then His Coming must always be good, from the eternal perspective. However concerned we might be about whether it is good for us, our primary consideration ought always to be that it is good in itself. Prophecy can pick up that consideration and express it, as I consider it does in our Old Testament Lesson today. It begins with the words, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” The God who is coming will gently restore His people. The imagery is that a level road will be forged for Him through the craggy rocks of the mountains and valleys of the wilderness. There might, though, be some for whom this action will not be good. If parts of the prophecy can be applied to the defeat of the cruel Babylonian captors by the Medes and the Persians, there must still have been those Jews who had profited in their Babylonian captivity who would not want such a change to take place. It was a disturbance in their life that might not be good and wonderful for them, and yet it is proclaimed by the prophet here as good and wonderful in itself. A genuinely prophetic apprehension of the Coming of Christ will always include this note of Comfort. It is good and wonderful in itself. And we would not want to be in the position of finding that something that is good and wonderful in itself, is bad for us. If that is the case, then we need to be changing our own life’s position in a hurry. Essentially, that was the prophetic message of John the Baptist.

THE DISTURBING AND COMFORTING MESSAGE
That too is the message of the New Testament Lesson from 2nd Peter. In one sense it is a disturbing message. The deluge of Noah’s time that is described in the verses before the start of our lection is expressed in the reading as an image of a worse destruction to come: one of dissolution by fire. “The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.” Yet we are not just idly waiting for it to happen, like commuters at a bus stop. The writer characterises the waiting and watching lifestyle as “hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire.” That waiting and watching lifestyle is to be one of holiness and godliness. One might well ask, “Why would one want to hasten such a catastrophe?” We have to get back to the primary consideration, that whatever its effects might be, it is a good in itself. This is expressed in verse 13. “According to His promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” So we are challenged to be ready for that, not being driven away from the Hand of the Lord by fear, but being compelled towards it through faith. Our lifestyle will be affected by that fundamental attitude or orientation. Being compelled through faith, we must be zealous to be found by Him without spot or blemish, and at peace. There are so many, though, who are being driven, Jonah-like, in the opposite direction by fear, who think they can avoid the Hand of the Lord and His Call, by flight.



UNCOMFORTABLE REALITIES, WITH A GOOD AND WISE AUTHOR
St. John the Baptist’s prophetic message was both disturbing and a source of comfort. He said that one was coming who was mightier than he. From John’s mouth, the description of the Coming One’s baptising with the Holy Spirit was more than a little frightening. In St. Matthew’s Gospel it is rendered as baptising “with the Holy Spirit and with fire”. We are called by such expressions, though, to amend what is amiss in our lives and get ready. The symbol of this in John the Baptist’s ministry was being baptised into the lifestyle of the true and guileless Israel. We too are called to confront the uncomfortable realities of our own life’s situations, and not to run away from them. The symbol of that is to be a steadfast walking in the sign of our Christian baptism. Our assurance is that however severe some deluge in our life might be, it is caused for a good purpose and by a good and wise Author. The Holy Spirit’s work may be uncomfortable but it is unfailingly good. The message of the Advent of Christ is one of Comfort at the most fundamental level of all. We have the opportunity to be changed from being “in Adam” to being in Christ, and in fulfilment of such to gain the prize. Our coming to the rail for Communion is a testimony to heeding that call to such a change.

QUESTIONS

1. From the eternal perspective the Final Coming of Christ is neither past nor present nor future. Discuss.

2. Identify some circumstances of your life in which you could choose between turning against the “waves” [of the deluge] towards their Author in faith, and flight.