Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent
8th Dec 2019
THE SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT (Year A)
“Even now the axe is lying at the root of the tree” 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 love of the past emerges something which is very present. 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, against the blind allegiance to the past. His severest criticism is levelled at the ultra conservative Pharisees:
Do not presume to say to yourselves ‘we have Abraham as our ancestor’
The essential call which Matthew makes is the one which is couched in the present tense. His call to us lies in the ‘now’ of our existences. Now is the time for an awakening in Christ to the new realities which have been established in Him. And it is in the person of John the Baptist, ‘the voice crying in the wilderness’, that calls for a spiritual awakening. A call to shake off the shackles of spiritual indifference and lethargy and to rediscover in and among us, and in and through the life of God’s Church to find more God.
Some while ago I met the Queen at Goodenough College and was reminded of the one politician who was permitted to address her simply as ‘Elizabeth’. He was Nelson Mandela, who was both among many other things, a visionary prophet of John’s character. Like John the Baptist centuries before him, the Man and the message were one. But they could only become one where the life which had been lived and the word which had been spoken had emerged out of a crucible of suffering and trial. The most important thing to say about both men is that they lived totally in the present and saw the present time, and not the past, as the time of transformation. This transformation, the promised coming of a new order, was to be realised in every human life. But it was not to be easy. It was to be offered in truth telling and in honesty. Both for Nelson Mandela and John The Baptist the repeated expression is one of repentance, and in Mandela one of courageous trust.
These two expressions are not so far apart. They both attest 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 way, which was to offer, at a time when victory over apartheid had been won, forgiveness and restoration for past criminal acts in return for truth-telling. This became the bedrock on which the new state was to be built. And its living roots lay in a Christian understanding. This understanding tells us that for life to be possible at all it must be God’s life, and God’s life is the one which seeks the renewal of hearts and minds and the restoration of mankind to the likeness and the being of God himself, and our true freedom. For the South African Truth and reconciliation Commission, the past was a nightmare, and an over-identification with the past and its horror had the power to maim and distort the present. But forgiveness and reconciliation and truth telling in the present had the power to heal and to transform. There could be no other way. And this Way was the one followed by John the Baptist in his wilderness every bit as much as it was imbibed and founded in Mandela’s mind and body and soul in that prison on Robben Island. It is best expressed in the watchwords which emerge out of our New Testament Reading from St Paul’s letter to the Romans :
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.
God is the One who, through the Baptist and through Nelson Mandela calls us out of self-satisfaction, out of ourselves and into active concern for my neighbour who will always represent ‘the greater whole’ and a bigger and more advanced humanity.
Here are Mandela’s own words, firstly in relation to a trial decision to put him to prison:
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).
For even now, and for us, as for John the Baptist, the axe has been laid at the root of the tree. At a time when political promises fly through the air, great and costly promises made to convince us of a ‘better’ Britain we come this morning to the prophet’s vision of a world transformed not by a barrage of semi-empty promises but by the a movement of a courageous heat and its passionate, resounding voice.