Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass, Advent II 2015

Baruch 5
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

Today Luke announces the preaching of John the Baptist, the voice crying in the wilderness, quoting Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”. That quotation is Isaiah speaking to the people of Judah in exile in Babylon, in the 6th Century BC. They had been carried there years before as captives, Jerusalem and its temple had been destroyed and their land left behind, desolate and far away. But Isaiah gives them a promise of return: as in the exodus from Egypt long before, the Lord himself will go before his people and prepare a way for them.
This is one of the themes of Luke’s Gospel, which will be read at Sunday Mass in the coming year: the return from exile. The people of God are in a state of exile, of alienation, of captivity in a strange land. And the Lord himself will free them and bring them home. And the story that Luke tells in his Gospel is that Jesus is the Lord who is coming to redeem his people.
Now it may seem strange to think of the Jewish people as being in exile at the time of Jesus. They had come back from Babylon centuries before and were physically living in their ancestral lands and in Jerusalem. The temple had been rebuilt. But Luke paints a picture of continued spiritual exile, oppression and dispossession.
Luke announces the ministry of John the Baptist by naming everyone who was in power at the time. This was a convention in the Old Testament prophets when they were about to proclaim a message from God, for example Isaiah begins his prophecy by saying, “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord”.
But Luke names many rulers, not just one, and this tells us about the situation of the people at the time of John the Baptist. The Kingdom of Judea no longer existed. Rome had put an end to that and divided the territory in four, with a Roman governor in charge in Jerusalem. For the Jewish people that great sign of God’s blessing, living on their own land, had been taken away. Their nation no longer existed. The only king was Caesar in distant Rome. The temple had become a corrupt and oppressive institution rather than a means of drawing near to God. No wonder the people felt they were in exile in their own land.
They were at their lowest ebb, demoralised, divided and overthrown. Yes, the prophets of old had promised that God would remember them and save them. But that was so long ago. Had God forgotten his people?
It is into this situation of total loss and dispossession that John the Baptist comes, the voice crying in the wilderness. And the people thrill with excitement, because here at last is a prophet. After centuries of it seeming as though heaven was shut and God had gone away, God, at last, in the fullness of time, had sent someone to speak words of hope to his people.
His message is simple: repentance, for the forgiveness of sins. Not substituting one political system for another, or rising up in revolution. No, sin is at the heart of the problem, because sin is fundamentally alienation from God. The exile and dispossession of the people in the land are but symptoms of this deeper malaise.
God in Jesus is coming to forgive sins. This is liberation! It is the one true liberation that all people need, both the people of Judea and the people of the Gentile nations, then and now. Sin is what overthrows and divides society, just as it overthrows and divides our own hearts. The land of Israel is a metaphor for the ground of our being, which is God. If we are in a state of sin we are living in exile from God within ourselves.
What good news it is that sins can be forgiven, that we can be reconciled with God and with one another. And how much God wants to forgive us! Forgiveness flows unceasingly from the loving generosity of God, the Creator who alone can bring life out of death and that which is out of that which is not. 
Forgiveness is God’s doing, not ours, but we need to see what God is doing and join in. Repentance is the key. Repentance means turning around, changing our mindset, our whole approach to life. And that opens us to God’s grace, to his creative power remaking us in Jesus. This is the good news that Jesus brings, for which John is the herald preparing the way.
This is good news for all the people of the earth. Jesus has come to restore Israel, the chosen people, and through Israel to extend the blessings of God’s kingdom to all people. All flesh shall see the salvation of God, says Isaiah. God’s promise, the good news of his kingdom, is for all people, and Jesus has come to deliver on that promise.
This is the grand movement of Luke’s story, as he tells it in his Gospel and in Acts. Jesus is the Lord and Messiah who has come to restore his people Israel, and through Israel to bring all people, all nations, home from their exile into God’s kingdom. And the way into God’s kingdom is repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Turning away from all the ways of exile, of oppression and alienation, and learning instead to reflect God’s righteousness in the world.
That call, that good news, is for us too. The experience of exile is both around us and within us: all the ways in which sin and loss and dispossession affect us and our world. In Luke sin is never just an individual private thing, it is always bound up with how people live in the world, how our relationship with God affects and shapes society. But the call to repentance comes in the wilderness, on the margins, away from the centres of earthly power, because that is where God’s attention is, too. Where are the voices crying in the wilderness in our own day, and what are they saying?
Exile and dispossession are physical realities for millions of people in the world today. And the gospel tells us clearly that the solution has to begin with repentance. Repentance of the inequities and injustices that keep poor nations subjugated to the rich. Repentance of the hardness of our hearts in the face of so much desperate human need. Repentance of the violence that mars our world, which Western nations seem quite happy to support when it suits while bombing it when it doesn’t. We must believe the Gospel! There can be no end to violence without a much more radical change of heart.
The Gospel calls every one of us to that change of heart, to conversion, repentance for the forgiveness of sins, not only for our own sakes, but for the sake of the world. God in Jesus offers to all humanity a new beginning, the forgiveness of sins, true liberation.

But forgiveness for a divided and overthrown world has to begin with receiving forgiveness ourselves. As someone once prayed, “O Lord, convert the world – and begin with me!” Repentance is not a one-off choice, but a life-long path. But God’s mercy is without end and he never tires of forgiving us. In this season of repentance and preparation that message comes to us afresh, with the same urgency as when John the Baptist proclaimed it in the wilderness. Repent! Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight… and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

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