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

Monday, 18 December 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass Advent 3 2014

Isaiah 61.1-4,8-11
1 Thessalonians 5.16-24
John 1.6-8,19-28

The gospel reading this morning is edited. It’s two separate bits from the great opening of John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word”, lifted out and put together, so that we read the account of John the Baptist as a continuous story. The Baptist’s story is framed by the bigger story, the story of the Word made flesh, the true light that enlightens everyone.
John the Baptist is a sub-plot in the story of who Jesus is. Without Jesus, there would have been no John, and the entire point of John is to point to Jesus. He is not himself the light, but has come to testify to the light.
And it’s important that John knows this. He can’t bear witness to Jesus if he thinks that it’s all about himself instead. This is why he is so insistent in saying who he is not: not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the Prophet.
Instead, he describes himself in Isaiah’s words, ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “make straight the way of the Lord”’. Just a voice. A voice speaks, and then is carried away on the wind and is gone. It is transitory. John seeks no permanence for himself. He is not starting a John the Baptist movement. He knows that his task is to speak to his time and place, and then to stand aside for the One who is to come after him.
There are parallels between John’s mission and the mission of the Church. Today’s Collect, the opening prayer, refers to this:
“O Lord Jesus Christ, who at your first coming sent your messenger to prepare your way before you: grant that the ministers and stewards of your mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready your way.”
The “ministers and stewards of your mysteries” are in the first place the bishops, priests and deacons of the Church. But, in the broader sense, we are all stewards of the mysteries of Christ. Every member of the Church is an ambassador for Jesus, and each one of us has the task of preparing the way for him in our own life and work, in our families and communities, in whatever way is appropriate to our state of life.
And today the Church prays that we may do this like John the Baptist. “grant that [we] may likewise so prepare and make ready your way”. Sometimes it’s said that we should be careful what we pray for, as we might get it. Well, this is a challenging prayer.
It means, firstly, that our story is set in the bigger story, the story of Jesus. There would be no Church if it were not for Jesus. Our task is to point to him and not to ourselves.
A Church that gets caught up in its own internal agenda is failing to prepare and make ready the way of Jesus. When that happens, the Church becomes the story, instead of Jesus. And the story then is so often one of conflict and other human stuff. Where’s the good news? It’s been lost in the row.
Secondly, the Church, like John, is to seek no permanent structures or institutions. True, the Church does have an eternal permanence, in Christ, but in this passing age its expressions are to be adapted to the needs of the time. Its mission it is to be like a voice crying in the wilderness.
That’s not how it always works out. We can get rather attached to structures and institutions, and not want them to change. Indeed it’s easy to think that the way the church now is the way it always has been, and always must be. Too often “tradition” means wanting to go back to what we were doing about 50 years ago, and that is deadly. But properly understood, “Tradition” means “handing on”, not “looking back”; it is dynamic, active and evolving, open to the future.
There are certain things that are given to the Church, that in themselves do not change: the scriptures, the sacraments, the apostolic teaching and ministry. But how they are used and applied can vary widely in different times and places.
For instance, we have bishops, priests and deacons, the ministry we have received from the Apostles. But we don’t have to organise them in dioceses and parishes, units of administration from the Roman Empire.
The Church of England continues these structures because they still have a use, but also encourages newer “expressions of the church” in parallel with the old, to be flexible and adaptable for the needs of society today. We have a good example here with Grace Church engaging in mission alongside our historic Parish Church.
There’s nothing new about this. The religious orders in the middle ages fulfilled a similar role, groups such as the Franciscans breaking out of the old structures so as to be free to engage in wider mission. The Church’s task always is to remain engaged with a changing world, not to establish any permanent form that gets trapped in one era of history
The third thing that John the Baptist teaches the Church is perhaps the hardest. It is letting go. When we have done the task that God calls us to, are we then prepared to let go and leave the results to God? Results that may perhaps be not at all what we expect.
John himself struggled with this. When Jesus began his public ministry, John’s work was over. But he couldn’t keep quiet, and got into trouble with King Herod. He was thrown into prison. And there he seems to have had a crisis of faith. He sent a message to Jesus asking “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
John, in his preaching, had clearly expected the Messiah to bring wrath. The chaff would be burned with unquenchable fire. And yet that wasn’t happening. Things were not working out the way John had expected.
But he had done his task, and Jesus was fulfilling his mission in his way. It was not for John to decide what that should look like. “Blessed is the one who is not scandalised in me”, Jesus said to him in reply.
Those who have gone before us in this local church have done their task and we inherit the fruits of their labours. What we do may not be what they would have expected. And we too must hand on our mission to future ambassadors for Jesus, the real meaning of tradition. But can we let go? Because letting go, once we’ve done our task, is leaving room for God.

Like John the Baptist, then, the Church faces three challenges. To point to Jesus and not to ourselves. To proclaim the eternal truths afresh in each generation, not seeking to become attached to any particular historical expression. And to let go, to make room for God to act in the way God wants to. Which may be quite different from what we were expecting. But this is what it means to make straight the way of the Lord as John the Baptist did. “Grant that the ministers and stewards of your mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready your way.” Amen.

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