Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent
Readings: Isaiah 11:1–10, Romans 15:4–13 & Matthew 3:1–12
“Prepare ye the way of the Lord”, say the lyrics of the self-titled song from the musical Godspell.
But what does it mean to prepare the way of the Lord?
If John the Baptist were answering that question, he would say that we should repent; that is, we should confess our sins and ask for God’s forgiveness. ‘Repentance’ and ‘sin’ are not words that are commonly used in everyday language nowadays, and when we do hear them, we probably associate them mostly with the notion of judgement and punishment. And for that reason, they are words that make a lot of people feel uncomfortable.
A mentor of mine once told me that a “good sermon should comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable”. I think the sermon that John the Baptist gave in the wilderness would have done that. It definitely would have “afflicted the comfortable” – the comfortable in this case being the Pharisees and Sadducees.
The Pharisees separated themselves from anything non-Jewish and carefully followed both the Old Testament laws and the oral traditions handed down through the centuries. The Sadducees believed the Pentateuch alone (the first five books of the Old Testament) to be God’s Word. They were descended mainly from priestly nobility, while the Pharisees came from all classes of people. The two groups disliked each other greatly, and both opposed Jesus. John the Baptist criticised the Pharisees for being legalistic and hypocritical, following the letter of the law while ignoring its true intent. He criticised the Sadducees for using religion to advance their political position.
So let’s remind ourselves of what John the Baptist said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
John knows that he’s a threat to both groups, especially to their control of the Jewish people, and rather than waiting for them to attack him and his call for people to repent and be baptised, he goes on the offensive and attacks them. He opens his attack with the words, “You brood of vipers!” Many people in ancient history thought that vipers were born by hatching inside their mother, then chewing their way through their mothers’ wombs—killing their mothers in the process. So to compare people to a “brood of vipers,” was the same as calling them parent murderers—which was one of the most despicable offences a person could commit.
John also knows that the Pharisees and Sadducees claim to have a special relationship with Abraham, so he turns his attention to that, claiming they are no more special than the rocks in the wilderness which, if God chose to, He could also make into children of Abraham. John then suggests that people who claim to believe God, but don’t live for God, are like unproductive trees that will be cut down and used as firewood.
Finally, John mixes images of judgement and hope to point people forward to the advent of a new age that can be reached only by them finding a way through the “spiritual wilderness” of their lives, and living through judgment into hope.
In the Letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul tells us that Scripture was written for us so that we might have hope. The Scripture he refers to is the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament. And one of the passages he refers to is the passage from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, where hope comes in the form of a prophecy concerning the coming of the Messiah, who will be a descendant of King David. ‘A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.’ Jesse was of course the father of David, so this verse is suggesting that from the surviving descendants of David’s father Jesse, there will come a Messiah, which is the “shoot that will come from the stump of Jesse”. And in the genealogy of Jesus, which is at the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew clearly demonstrates that Jesus is descended from King David. Isaiah describes how the Messiah will take care of the poor and needy, who have been neglected by the world, and how he will transform the world so that all of creation will live together in harmony as God originally intended.
Paul prays for harmony in the church in Rome. He prays also for unity in the church, which at the time was experiencing division. If the church is united, that unity testifies to the glory of God. But if the church is divided, then it detracts from God’s glory, because it means the church is focussed on matters of human interest rather than on God’s will for humankind.
We still find the same thing happening in the church today. There is division within the Anglican Church of Australia over the issue of blessings for same-sex marriages. So rather than the face of the church being one that radiates the love and glory of God to the rest of the community, the face the church is presenting to the wider community is one of human beings fighting over who is right and who is wrong.
One would have to argue that this is not the best way to prepare for the coming of Jesus. Perhaps the sermon that John the Baptist preached in the wilderness is appropriate to those leaders of the church today who are more concerned with their own interests than they are with God’s will? John’s message is clear, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. John’s words challenge us to prove by the way we live that we have truly repented of our sins. Or to put it even more simply, our actions should match our words.
What John the Baptist, and Advent remind us, is that repentance is about God’s desire for our lives to be consistent with the life of Jesus. Which brings me back to where I started this morning, and the question: “How do we prepare the way of the Lord?”