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

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass, Advent 2 2016

Isaiah 11:1-10
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

The Old Testament records God’s revelation of himself to his chosen people, Israel, and all the ups and downs in their relationship. It’s more than a thousand years of the story of a people. From the time of Abraham and Sarah, through slavery in Egypt, Exodus to the promised land, prosperity and downfall, exile and loss.
The last of the prophets, after the exile in Babylon, speak words of consolation about a universal vision and a coming Messiah who will gather all people into his kingdom – Jew and Gentile. But it is an enigmatic vision. It gives hints but not a precise shape of what is to come.
The Old Testament ends with the Prophet Malachi, who signs off with this: “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.”
And then – nothing. For century after century, there were no more prophets, no words or visions from on high. The prophetic witness was complete. The words of Malachi and so many others were there, written in the scrolls, kept alive in the memories of God’s people. But they were words awaiting God’s time for them to be fulfilled.
And then John the Baptist came. The passage in Malachi about Elijah gave people the idea that the coming of the Messiah would be heralded by a prophet, like the prophets of old. Some thought he would be literally Elijah, come back to earth after his mysterious disappearance in a whirlwind in the Second Book of Kings.
And suddenly, after centuries of silence from heaven, here is John, looking like a prophet, acting like a prophet, speaking like a prophet. No wonder everyone was going out to see him.
Many of the prophets of old acted out signs to show what God was doing, a bit like a mime artist. John does the same. He goes out into the wilderness, dresses in improvised clothing, and eats only what he can gather. He is enacting the Exodus, Israel’s escape from Egypt and their wandering in the desert for forty years.
This acted sign comes with both a promise and a challenge. The promise is that God is acting to save his people, just as he did by freeing them from slavery in Egypt of old. The challenge is that the Exodus and the wandering in the desert were a time of testing. Israel put the Lord their God to the test, setting up golden idols to worship, demanding water and manna and quails, and so on. And God put his people to the test, purifying them through their forty year probation in the wilderness.
So even before John speaks, what he does is sending a message: God is acting to save his people, but he is also putting his people to the test. And uncovering the ways in which they have been putting him to the test.
Which may account for the rather unpromising reception accorded to the Pharisees and Sadducees. “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!” Why so harsh? The Pharisees and Sadducees were part of the religious establishment. They were leaders and guides of the people. But John clearly thinks them inauthentic.
These leaders are warned to “bear fruit worthy of repentance”. Do not presume, just because you are descendants of Abraham, or because you observe the Law, that God will favour you. Your self-righteous self-importance is putting God to the test. The Kingdom of God is at hand, and everyone’s response must be repentance. Whether you are a respectable religious leader, or a tax collector or a prostitute. You are all in the same boat, and the same response is needed: a radical change of heart.
What brings this message of repentance into focus is John’s warning about wrath. “Wrath” in the Bible is closely related to desire. It is craving, insatiable desire that eats us up and torments us. This is always rivalrous desire, wanting what others have, trying to grab and hold on to what we feel we lack, leading to envy, violence and hatred.
Repentance is the conversion of our desire. Repentance means turning around. From wrath, the death-bound desire that closes us in on ourselves, we turn around so we can imitate the desire of God which is open, generous, and loving. If we are open to God’s desire then we are open to receive his life, to be baptised with the Holy Spirit.
John’s baptism is about the first part of this, repentance, the conversion of desire. But John looks to the One who is to come, to Jesus to give what he himself cannot give - the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, the life of God.
The Kingdom is at hand, and therefore we must repent. The Kingdom changes our priorities, the way we live in the world and with one another, the way we live towards God. We cannot rely on having Abraham as an ancestor. Or on any other “automatic” guarantee of salvation. Be that living a respectable life, going to church, or whatever. No external sign can substitute for the true interior conversion of our desire. But our conversion of desire is only made possible, and commanded, because the Kingdom of God has come near.
John bears a message for God’s people.  But like the prophets of old, of which he is the last, it is an enigmatic message. He proclaims the coming Messiah, but does not see the mysterious and contradictory way the Messiah will live his vocation, taking him to the cross. John is the forerunner, but of something he cannot yet imagine. How things turn out in fact will be very different from John’s expectations, as we shall see next week.

But his message remains, and remains valid. The Kingdom of God is at hand, repent! Our death-bound desires, turned in our themselves, need to be converted to the imitation of God’s overflowing, utterly generous and self-giving love. And this is how we, like John, prepare the way for the Lord, and for his Kingdom, in our lives and in our world.

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