Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity
11th Jul 2021
Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Trinity Year B.
John the Baptist and the call to repentance.
It is now a commonplace observation that with the advent of a truly multinational London there is a sense that the world has arrived here in a way it never has before. The coming of the Olympic Games in less than two weeks’ time will serve to signify on the big stage what is already apparent in fact. It will be seen in the arrival of foreign nationals whose compatriots already live here and who already regard themselves as Londoners. We are becoming led to the vision of a future world in which will see the enlargement and the dominance of massive cities, which will become whole worlds in themselves and yet related through the communications with the greater world around them. And so the world will become in a way small and yet will communicate with itself as never before. The hope is that this will introduce a true globalisation of interests and intentions and hope and peace, like the Olympic hope. One example of this is the recent defection of the Syrian foreign minister who can speak out to the listening world about how things are in Syria. He can tell it like it is. And he will tell it through what we call ‘twitter’. In the press of a single button, messages of hope, of warning and of instruction can be delivered to millions. The scale and scope of these things is awesome. But the danger with this communication is that it will largely be communication for its own sake – it will be useful, but it will not speak to the heart and the soul.
Communications at the time of Jesus Christ were of a very different order. The Judaean society of which Jesus was a part greatly prized a tradition of religious faith and understanding which was based on an oral, spoken medium passed on through the generations and revealed in scripture. Moreover this was shared by clusters of what we would now consider to be very small communities over a very long period of time. This tradition, enshrined in the Old Testament, provided a sure guide in the understanding of a God who was unnameable and yet recognisable. He was recognisable in his dealings with men and women, and he revealed himself primary in his chosen people Israel, and in the promises he had made to protect them and provide them with a future. At the heart of this tradition of God’s involvement and promise was the existence of the Old Testament prophets. These individuals were called by God to speak on his behalf to the people. They existed as God’s voices, warning and directing the people. They were foretellers of the future : they called the House of Israel to a renewed sense of its own destiny, and this came very often in the form of dire warnings of terrible things to come if the people did not mend its ways. (Jeremiah 26.23) They would also instruct the people in their religious duty, whether and would openly voice the displeasure of God in a society that was going to bad, or turning away from what God had destined for them. When Jesus in Matthew 16.3 criticises the Pharisees he does so from their boasted ability to show the fate and destiny of people from the movement of the stars. “But” he observes “You do not discern the signs of the times”. So Jesus is saying that prophecy, once the powerful guide of the community, has become blunted and meaningless. He is calling for a prophecy which is the one which truly discerns ‘the signs of the times’ with a deep understanding of the presence of God and of how God’s present speaks to this world in its present state. The Church must surely need those prophets who can speak in this way, especially in an age when we communicate so much, but give ourselves less space and time to reflect upon the meaning of is said and shared. If words are to outlast their speaking they must speak to that part of our nature which is God-seeking.
John the Baptist put an end to prophecy as he proclaimed the coming of the Christ. It was because he, more than any other prophet, who embodied his message and died for it. He was confused in the popular mind as a Christ figure. But his communication was one primarily of command, much in the vein of the prophets before him. In this command was the stubborn and insistent message that he was not the One, the Christ, but the forerunner, ‘the voice crying in the wilderness’, the one who realised his role as subordinate to Jesus “He must increase but I must decrease” John 3.30.
And what lies at the heart of St John the Baptist’s prophecy? Well, it is not possible to make this any simpler than to say that it lay in his call to repentance, the call which is the one great incarnating and humanising call. The call to say ‘sorry’ married with the call to self-examination and to the confession of sins. The call to forgive and to receive forgiveness. The call to keep it real. This was a radical departure from the old religious observances and duties and the goal of righteousness. This teaching was for the transformation of the individual soul and of whole communities. This was the communication of healing grace. This was lasting. It was a message which spoke directly to the heart and the soul of mankind. ‘Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’ ‘Repent, for the transformation of body and mind and soul into the likeness of God your maker, the merciful One, the giver of all grace and peace’.
Yesterday I visited one of our members, Joan, in a nursing home. I was led into a small sitting room where tea was being brewed. I had brought a Waitrose lemon tart and we shared it out. The women, all of whom were there for respite care, were all fairly anxious about the future. I was not dressed as a clergyman but when asked told the ladies that I was Joan’s Vicar. And then something broke into the conversation and it immediately became a conversation about God, and of how each woman in turn was able to tell the rest of us about how important Christian Faith was to them and of how much the life of faith meant to them in the present. This was very moving because unsolicited and honest. The fact of the experience of a life of faith, which is also a life of trusting in God and of ‘telling it like it is’ as a routine and undramatic and practical repentance. A real relationship with a real God, which even from the point of view of older age and a certain weariness and resignation, still existed for them as a light and a hope and a joy. I could tell that this was so, because as they spoke their faces shone. It was for this that John proclaimed repentance and upon which faith is sustained and enlarged. It is this, I believe, which will carry us joyfully and hopefully into our future, come what may.
The Moon in Lleyn RS Thomas
The last quarter of the moon
of Jesus gives way
to the dark; the serpent
digests the egg. Here
on my knees in this stone
church, that is full only
of the silent congregation
of shadows and the sea's
sound, it is easy to believe
Yeats was right. Just as though
choirs had not sung, shells
have swallowed them; the tide laps
at the Bible; the bell fetches
no people to the brittle miracle
of bread. The sand is waiting
for the running back of the grains
in the wall into its blond
glass. Religion is over, and
what will emerge from the body
of the new moon, no one
But a voice sounds
in my ear. Why so fast,
mortal? These very seas
are baptized. The parish
has a saint's name time cannot
unfrock. In cities that
have outgrown their promise people
are becoming pilgrims
again, if not to this place,
then to the recreation of it
in their own spirits. You must remain
kneeling. Even as this moon
making its way through the earth's
cumbersome shadow, prayer, too,
has its phases.