Sermon by Fr. Joshua Bell SSC, 2nd Sunday in Advent
Readings: Isaiah 40.1-5, 9-11; Mark 1.1-8
When I was an ordinand, training for the priesthood in Cambridge, there was a Norwegian man who used to stand at a junction in the town centre. He was a street preacher, and he didn’t seem to preach on behalf of any church but only on his own authority. He styled himself “The heaven or hell man” – because his question, to passers-by, was “Do you know your destination, do you know where you’re going after you die?”
Most people ignored the Heaven or Hell Man, and a few times he was moved on by the police, after some of his more objectionable preaching was reported to them.
In Cambridge, in 2018, the Heaven and Hell man stood out – he was like a fish out of water. But he would have fitted right in, had he been alive at the time of Jesus. Imagine, if you will, that you are a Jew in the first century BC – living under occupied rule, your freedoms being taken away. Your only hope, your only thing to cling on to, is your religion – which tells you that God will send his messiah, his chosen one, to rule as King.
And so a great many people appeared, as we hear John doing, as wandering preachers, some more wild than others, but many of them proclaiming that the Messiah was coming, or – more often – that they themselves were that messiah.
We hear about some of these in the book of Acts, and the historian Josephus talks about four in detail – but describes the country as having “ten thousand disorders”.
And people listened. This is what the Book of Acts has to say:
Theu′das arose, giving himself out to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was slain and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After him Judas the Galilean arose in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered.
People listened, too, to John the Baptist – we hear of the crowds going out to listen to him.
Of course, John is unusual in that he explicitly say that the isn’t the Messiah, or Elijah, or one of the other Old Testament prophets. He casts himself, rather, as the voice crying in the wilderness, prophesied by Isaiah.
John preached in the desert, by the river Jordan. Where would he be today? Perhaps he would be like one of our modern street preachers, or maybe he’d find a spot on the Ouse to conduct his ministry there?
And what would we think of him?
The Heaven and Hell man didn’t have a message of good news. The most generous thing that could be said about his message, is that he wanted to save people from a terrible fate – but mostly he was condemnatory of the way people lived.
And this is what we often think of when we see someone preaching in public – they’re doom-mongers, angry at everyone.
And yet, listen to the words of Isaiah in our first reading. If you’re familiar with Handel’s Messiah, you’ll recognise the words – differently translated – as the opening Aria. Here they are in that translation:
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord's hand double for all her sins.
This is not the Bible-bashing, doom-mongering, angry preaching of a man preaching only on his own authority – but the consoling, loving urgings of the one God sends to prepare his way.
What does he say to us?
“Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all mankind shall see it.”
“Here is your God.”
How often this year we have longed for someone to say, “Here is your God!” How many times this year have we longed to hear the words of John the Baptist, “Behold the lamb of God”, to see our Lord, to taste our Lord? And now we await him again; though we can receive his body, we await him still: we await his coming at Christmas, and we await his coming on the Last Day, when every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked way made straight and the rough places made smooth.
John’s message was a message of repentance: “Repent!” he said – “prepare yourselves for God’s coming!” What would we do if we knew that we would meet God face to face? How would we live?
Advent challenges us to live life differently. Fr. Adrian has suggested making an Advent habit of midweek Mass. You see how excited John was to meet Jesus; how precious is the gift we have of meeting him day by day?
Come. Come once. Come on Mondays, when often I’m here on my own.
He is like a shepherd feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms – let us be gathered into his arms this Advent.