The Fourth Sunday in Advent


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O Lord raise up… Thy power…
Philippians 4:4-7
John 1:19-28

In contrast with the secular world which has been thinking of Christmas since its return from Summer holidays, today’s Epistle which might, depending on the calendar, be read as late as the day before Christmas, gives the first hint of joys to come; St. Paul, in one of his startlingly unusual and brilliant hymns (famously set by Purcell in the Bell Anthem) urges us to rejoice. Meanwhile, on Jordan’s bank, matters are not so straightforward. John is being quizzed by the clergy who want to know who he is and why he is baptising. His credentials are as important to them as those of Jesus are to us. The natural starting point for any such enquiry was Elijah, the most spectacular of the prophets who ascended into heaven and who, it was widely believed, would appear again as the precursor of the Messiah; and so John was being paid at least a back-handed compliment. Only after Elijah would the Messiah, in the words of the Collect: “Raise up (his) power and come among us, and with great might succour us”.

Given that there was no mechanism in Judaism for recognising the Messiah when he should come, it is difficult to know whether the clergy, or those who sent them, were pleased or disappointed when they heard John’s claim put in the words of Isaiah 40:4. Was he just another holy man or something special? An ordinary preacher would not threaten the status quo but somebody making broader and deeper claims might de-stabilise the clerical order which is precisely the threat for which Jesus was ultimately punished. While Jewish baptism was not uncommon its practice showed John to be a figure to reckon with. In a culture where water was scarce its cleansing significance was even greater than it is today, a significance heightened by a much more concrete grasp of sin than we experience today. The Jewish Law was dense with definitions of sin and liberally sprinkled with cleansing rituals and some of this very concrete attitude can still be seen in the Collect which sees sin as a “sore” let and hindrance in running our spiritual race. Today, when personal rites of reconciliation (formerly Confession) are rare, a sense of personal sin has often been replaced by an unfocused uneasiness and perhaps even guilt. It is this very imprecision of responsibility which makes Paul’s joyful outburst so difficult to take. As a Church we are much better at sadness than joy.

What, then, might these readings for the last Sunday before Christmas, have to do with the great event? First, and crucially, the Gospel is very careful with the spiritual genealogy of John and, by implication, the Christ that he foreshadows. The actual genealogies in Luke 3:23-38 and Matthew 1:1-17 serve different theological purposes but they underline the importance of the process; the Messiah had to be properly constituted. Secondly, the Epistle calls upon us to rejoice and, in doing so, to be “careful for nothing” because “The Lord is it hand”. Paul meant this to mean that the Philippians should prepare for the end time, for the ‘last judgment’ but we are to understand it as an anticipation of the coming of Jesus. For all its dark overtones the centre of the Collect also reflects the message of God among us, although the references to power and might fit rather oddly with the image, surely alive in all our minds by now, of a tiny and helpless baby.

For us, at the beginning of the 21st Century, Paul’s words are much more significant than they were in an age which was less affluent and less concerned with Christmas. This is not an age nor a time of moderation; and we might go through half of our life before we meet anyone who is genuinely “careful for nothing”. We are not to worry about earthly matters in view of the forthcoming end of the world but, says Paul, we are to make our requests known to God. When secularism is at its most turbulent and treacherous, pretending to serve spiritual ends, it is difficult for us to be moderate, to be indifferent to worldly goods and to pray quietly to God that we may be found worthy of Him at the last.

There is an interesting sub conscious link between the texts in the matter of journeys: John quotes Isaiah’s words about straightening paths and goes on to talk about Sandals and the Collect refers to Paul’s famous metaphor of the race (1 Corinthians 9:24) but Paul himself, by contrast, offers peace which passes all understanding. Whatever races we have all been running in our preparation for Christmas Day, they will soon be over.

Just as Jesus was properly courteous to John last week, here John puts their relationship in context; he baptises with water but Jesus will baptise with the Spirit so that, in the words of the Collect, his: “Bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us”. The Lord is indeed near at hand.

One final phrase needs to be brought into our consciousness; the peace of God: “passeth all understanding”. The contrast between what is happening around us and what we are asked to consider could hardly be more stark; in spite of all the material goods which pass before our eyes in the days before Christmas, what we are preparing for is a mystery.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. What was the different significance of Elijah and Isaiah to the Jewish contemporaries of Jesus?
  2. Why was John baptising people; and why would the religious authorities have taken notice of this?
  3. How, in the next few hours or days, might we make straight the path for the arrival of Jesus?
  4. What is peace?
  5. In the context of the way we live today, what is the meaning of “Moderation”; and in such an inter-connected society can we really “be careful for nothing”?

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