Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent 2016

4th Dec 2016



“Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees”   Matthew 3.9


Last Sunday, Advent Sunday, marked the beginning of a new church year. In this new year, Matthew’s Gospel will predominate. Matthew’s Gospel begins with Jesus’ family tree leading back to the first man, Adam and through the lineage of King David. For Matthew the past and the present are interwoven in the life of Christ. He is led after all to see Jesus as the fulfiller of the past as expressed in the words of the well-known hymn ‘Tis Good Lord to be Here’:


Fulfiller of the past,

Promise of things to be,

We hail Thy body glorified

And our redemption see.


Out of Matthew’s regard for the past emerges something which is very present indicative. For the redemption of which the hymn speaks in the coming of Christ, is likened to the startling image of the axe lying ready to strike at the roots of the tree, which is the blind allegiance to the past. His severest criticism is levelled at the Pharisees and the Sadducees, members of what one writer has called ‘the spiritual aristocracy’ as he challenges them boldly:


Do not presume to say to yourselves ‘we have Abraham as our ancestor’


The call which Matthew makes is the one which is couched very much in the present. Now is the time for us to awaken to Christ and to the new realities which are manifest in Him. It is in the person of John the Baptist, ‘the voice crying in the wilderness’, that the call for a radical spiritual awakening is made most empahtically. A call to shake off the shackles of indifference and moral apathy and to build a new society in his image.


Last week I met the Queen at Goodenough College and was reminded of the one person who was permitted to address her simply as ‘Elizabeth’. He was Nelson Mandela, who died three years ago tomorrow, and was, like john the Baptist, a prophet for our time, although he preferred the term ‘servant’. But like John the Baptist centuries before him, the Man and his message were one. And the message emerged out of a crucible of suffering and trial. Both these men learnt to live completely in the present and saw the present time, and not the wasted past, as God’s time; a time of transformation, bringing with it the promised coming of a divine society, to be realised and recognised in every human life. Both for Nelson Mandela and John The Baptist the repeated expression is one of repentance, of saying you’re sorry. In this lay the reaching out for a society which might learn to be reconciled to itself in real expressions of unselfish and courageous trust.


The vision attests to the healing power of forgiveness. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was the arbiter for the future of a battered and wounded and yet potentially vengeful angry and divided South Africa bore the direct imprint of Mandela’s vision. Its genious lay in offeriung real forgiveness and restoration for past criminal acts in return for truth-telling. This move to what became enshrined as 'truth and reconciliation' became the moral bedrock on which the new South African state was to be built. The spirit of such reconciliation is echoed in today’s second reading from St Paul to the Romans, when he says:


May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ.


To be 'one with another' is to reflect the being and love of God, who is One. The message to us at the beginning of this Advent season is the one which places The Christian Hope firmly in the active and transformative present tense. Are there areas in my own life, I wonder,  which would benefit from some truth and reconciliation, and how might that be best expressed by us as honestly and as actively as possible? It is all too easy to live a comfortable life at ease with ourselves, and the such ease can become complacent and self-serving. God is the One who, through the Baptist and through Nelson Mandela sees through all this and calls us out of all this, out of ourselves and into a new consciousness of our co-dependent humanity.


Here are Mandela’s own words, firstly in relation to a trial decision to put him to prison in 1963:


During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realised. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die. (Nelson Mandela, words following the pronouncement of the death sentence against him).


And then on his release from 27 years in prison, addressing crowds from the balcony of Cape Town's City Hall on Sunday February 11, 1990


I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all. I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.


And so we are pledged on this and all days in the words of John the Baptist, to


…Bear fruit worthy of repentance



For even now, for us, the axe has been laid at the root of the tree of past wounds and the Advent challenge to a new awakenness is being laid down.