4th December 2016
Romans 15. 4-13 & Matthew 3. 1-12
With – Canon David Stranack
‘Prepare to welcome the Jesus who fulfils the Old Testament in a way that is different from what many including John Baptist expected’
Today is the second Sunday in this season of Advent which is our penitential period of preparation for Christmas. This is marked in our worship, as in Lent, with the liturgical colour purple, the lack of flowers in church and some parts of our service which are said instead of sung. This provides a great contrast with our forthcoming celebration of the birth of Christ.
Another great contrast is to be found in the Bible itself. In the Old Testament we read how God was preparing the world for his dynamic and personal intervention in the history of mankind. Beginning with Abraham, God’s plan was to work through the chosen people Israel and to reach out to all nations by promising, through his prophets, salvation through the coming of Jesus.
In our reading from St Paul’s letter to the Romans 15. 4, he says, ‘Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.’
For St Paul those things written, ‘in former days’ were of course the writings of the Old Testament. These writings, he says are for our instruction.
We can see in the Old Testament many different understandings and descriptions of God.
The Hebrew’s understanding of who their God is and what he wants from them changes visibly over the course of the old Testament. ‘The writers of the various books of the old Testament were writing about their relationship with God,’ and we have to be aware that ‘their own understandings and motives do colour the text’.
The people of the Old Covenant, the children of Israel in their better moments tried to serve God in the best way they knew but we also see that in the practice of their faith they frequently became careless or unfaithful.
There are also times when the writers describe God as telling them to do quite horrendous deeds to their enemies which to a great extent contradicts what we know from Jesus as the real attitude of God.
However we can learn much from the mistakes they made as well as from their faithfulness. We are indeed blessed that we can now know from our understanding of God in the New Testament that their interpretation of events was often mistaken and the need for Jesus to come and set the record straight is clearly evident.
A good knowledge of the Old Testament is however still very important as it provides a great resource of faith, prophecy and wisdom as well as poetry, law and history but it is helpful to consider such writings through the clearer perspective that Jesus gives us as he fulfilled those Scriptures. [Matt.5.17]
Above all the Old Testament is very important for us as the preparation for the coming of Christ which it powerfully foretells.
Jesus himself frequently referred to the Old Testament scriptures, and the Gospel writers, especially Matthew, often showed how Jesus fulfilled what was foretold about him by the prophets.
In addition to Moses some of the most significant and faithful writers were the prophets. They were people of great faith who longed to establish God’s ways. They often warned the people that if they continued to turn their backs on God they would bring disaster upon themselves.
It was in just such a period that men like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel warned the people that because they had turned away from God they would surely face imminent disaster.
But at such times of great suffering or fear, the prophets also proclaimed a message of real hope, a message that God would not desert them but would return and rescue them.
600 years before Jesus, Jeremiah foretold that there would be the New Covenant [Jeremiah 31.31-34] He says: ‘The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. …… this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people…’
Isaiah in chapter 40 also prophesied words of hope, that God’s messenger would come to prepare the way for the Lord. That book became known as the ‘book of the consolation of Israel’, because of the hope it expressed.
‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
‘Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
‘Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed….’
And in today’s Gospel reading we heard how those words were fulfilled by John the Baptist, who stands out like the last of the Old Testament prophets, as he declared that Jesus would come to reveal the true nature of God and bring in his Kingdom.
John called on the people to repent in preparation for the coming of God’s kingdom and the coming of the Messiah, the Christ. The symbolic washing in Baptism in the river Jordan was to be the outward sign of this preparation and the new clean beginning.
John cried out, 2 ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.’
But what would be the nature of this Kingdom?
Many of the Jews longed for the restoration of the ancient kingdom of King David. It was expected in those days that the long-awaited Deliverer of the Nation and the one who would fulfil the Old Testament prophecies would be a descendant of King David.
So the expectation of many was that such a Messiah would expel the Roman forces of occupation and restore the ancient nation state of Israel.
Even John did not have a very clear idea of what Jesus would do. As we heard, John said of the Messiah, 11 ‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
But then Jesus came forward and lined up in the crowd waiting to be Baptized by John – much to his astonishment.
Later still, when in prison, John sent his disciples to Jesus and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? (11.3) It was as if Jesus was not quite the Messiah that even John the Baptist expected.
This lack of understanding shows how necessary it was for Jesus to come into our world to reveal the truth about the real nature and character of our loving and merciful God.
Jesus was different from what was expected of a Messiah, and the kingdom he came to bring was not a national or territorial kingdom. As Jesus said to Pilate on the eve of his crucifixion, ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’
Jesus came into this world to call us to join God’s Kingdom which is the spiritual realm we can enter through faith in Jesus Christ. It is a Kingdom of perfect love and compassion. We have no right to enter into His Kingdom but only by the freely given grace of God.
Membership is God’s gift to those who put their faith and trust in him and to those who are prepared to be cleansed and purified by the forgiveness we need to seek and which we can receive because of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
God longs for us to be at one with him because of his great love for us, in spite of all our weaknesses and failures. His love for us is so deep and so wonderful and he longs for us to say, indeed to pray, ‘O come to my heart Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for thee.’
So during this period of Advent we too are called once more to prepare ourselves for the celebration of the miracle of Christ’s incarnation. We too are called to prepare for the coming of God’s kingdom.
But how are we to prepare? Perhaps I can draw an illustration from nature. It has been a wonderful autumn. The wonderful colours of the leaves have stayed for us longer than usual and have been truly inspiring.
But now they have gone and the flowers in the gardens have suffered from the first frosts. It is time to tidy the garden, cut down the dead growth and sweep up the leaves. We do this knowing that in a few months’ time there will be new green shoots and new life in the garden and in the countryside.
In the same way it is time in this advent season to tidy up our lives, to look at our priorities, to search our consciences and to look to see where and how we are letting God down. Have we got into bad habits or let good habits lapse? What are those things which are separating us from God? Do we have the courage and the humility to acknowledge our failures before God?
If we do that spiritual preparation, then at Christmas, when we sing these familiar words, we can really mean them:
‘O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.’
May Christ truly be born in each of us again at this time to renew us as his disciples that through his love, forgiveness and grace we may indeed belong to his Kingdom. Amen.