The Third Sunday in Advent


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O Lord Jesu Christ, who at thy first coming…
1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Matthew 11:2-10

People in the 16th Century were much more concerned than we are today with “Degree, priority and place”, the belief that society could only cohere if people knew their place and behaved accordingly, a concern reflected repeatedly in Shakespeare’s plays. Medieval feudalism had been reinforced in Tudor England by the memory of the disastrous Wars of the Roses and the tendency towards national, absolute monarchy and so today’s readings would have had a much greater resonance then than they do now.

One of the knottiest issues for all the Evangelists was the relationship between John the Baptist and, according to Luke, his Cousin Jesus. Contemporary scholars such as Geza Vermes (Jesus the Jew) say that Jesus was a one of John’s disciples and either broke away because John’s message was concerned solely with repentance rather than love or succeeded John after his arrest. Either way, the changed dynamic between the two is a complex issue, more alive during the time of Jesus than when Matthew was writing.

The central theme of the readings is the primacy of God. Matthew’s question in the mouth of John: “Art thou he that should come?” is a rhetorical device inviting Jesus’ reply; after all, after his parents, nobody knew more about Jesus than John. Jesus points to what he has said and done rather than making a theological statement and then, in a note to soften the impact of their changed positions, he blesses those (such as John) who will not be offended in him. Jesus then asks people what they thought they were doing when they went out to see John, a question echoed in Paul’s almost obsessive justification of his direct accountability to God without the need for other human agency. No doubt this was partly the result of repeated attacks on him by conservatives who wanted to keep Christianity inside Judaism but there is also a logistical, geographical explanation; even if Paul had wanted to refer difficult issues back to Jerusalem this would not have been practical in a rapidly growing and evolving church. How accountable “Stewards of the mysteries of God” ought to be is a question which has been with us ever since Paul and it was a particular concern in Tudor times when there was real controversy not only about the role of Ministers in such “mysteries” as the Eucharist but also a questioning of the validity of bishops. The comparison in the Collect between these Ministers and Stewards and such messengers as John the Baptist is therefore as powerful a claim as the one made by Paul on his own behalf. The issue is of particular concern to Anglicans who have no settled view on the nature and location of authority within Provinces or the Communion as a whole.

In spite of these rather forbidding and complex themes the real leitmotif which shines through all three readings is a warning against earthly judgement, a surprisingly ‘liberal’ idea summed up in the anachronistically generous summation of the Collect that: “At thy second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in thy sight”. The Corinthians reading concludes with the equally generous and self-denying: “Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come … and then shall every man have praise of God.” This last phrase must have raised sharp controversy in the light of Paul’s attitude to salvation as understood by Luther and his successors.

The generosity of the first two readings is elaborated by Jesus in reply to John’s question. Jesus does not say that he cures the sick or gives sight to the blind in exchange for the statement of a doctrinal position, or even in exchange for an act of penitence. His usual sequence is that faith is a prerequisite and that thanksgiving follows healing. Central to his position is that this good news, or Gospel, is given to the poor. The idea that people were equal in the sight of God regardless of their worldly position was a central pillar of Tudor society.

In a rhetorical figure of enormous colour and power, Matthew asks us all why we are so concerned with the outward manifestations of religion, what do we think it is all for? Do we expect a reed or a man dressed in fine clothes? Of course what we should expect is a prophet. John was the last prophet of the old tradition and, after Jesus who was a prophet of both traditions, Paul was the first prophet of the new tradition. The idea is not that John nor “Ministers and Stewards of the mysteries” should anticipate or foretell the future but that the purpose of John and his successors in Paul and clergy up to this day is to proclaim the Word of God, to bring the good news to the poor.

In an age when every clerical utterance which makes reference to secular social reform is apt to be termed “Prophetic” we need to be careful what we mean. In many ways to speak on behalf of the poor rather than to bring the Gospel to them is being only partially prophetic. Surely the core idea is that we should proclaim the promise of Jesus for all people to all people in as truthful a fashion as we can manage, regardless of the way it might be received and how we might have to suffer for it. John, in prison under the charge of the mercurial Herod, knew all about that.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. How different were the cousins Jesus and John and the prophets John and Paul?
  2. In what way are Ministers successors of John?
  3. Where, under God, does authority lie in the Anglican Communion and Church of England?
  4. What connections and contradictions are there in the concepts of justification by faith and earthly judgment of human conduct?
  5. How important is social class in the writing of Shakespeare?

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