Sunday 17 Dec 2023

Sermon for Sunday 17th December 2023 Advent 3 by The Revd Graham Phillips


Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11

John 1.6-8, 19-28


Introduction to the Isaiah reading.

Last week we looked at Isaiah chapter 40 when God spoke through Isaiah the words, “Comfort, o comfort my people.” The significance of those words were that they were spoken to the nation of Judah when God had just announced to them that because of the their sins, he would allow the Babylonians to take them into exile, but would bring them back at a future date. Today’s passage was believed to have been written after the return from exile and it comes in the middle of the third book of Isaiah (chapters 56-66) forming a chiastic structure which makes this and the previous and the next chapters the climax of the third book. They speak of an “Anointed one” who will bring good news. So as we read them, acknowledge their original importance and remember that Jesus quoted them for himself, recorded in Luke 4.18-21, as his manifesto.




On this third Sunday of Advent we think of John the Baptist. He was the cousin of Jesus, born in the old age of Elizabeth, and Zachariah, and his conception and birth and how the foetus John jumped in Elizabeth’s womb when pregnant Mary went to visit her are all beautifully recorded in the gospels. If you are not familiar with the passage do read it - It is a lovely portrayal of God at work affirming Mary. 


John was sent by God to prepare the way for Jesus, to prepare people’s hearts to meet with the divine presence, Jesus. In a pantomime, concert or a comedian show, the start or warm up has the task of warming the audience up, to prepare them for the main scenes or act. It is there to energise, enthuse, raise the interest, to connect with people on a deeper level. This was the task given to John. Last week we read of how he was to:


Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight” 


And he did this through a baptism of repentance. He told people that they needed to turn from the wrongs that they were committing and to turn to God, and seek his forgiveness. And he did this through a very symbolic act - to dunk them under water in the river Jordan. This physical act was accompanied by a spiritual act of cleansing, not by John, but by God himself. And our practice of baptism being the initiation into the fellowship  of believers in Jesus Christ stems from John’s baptism. 


So my friends, repent, turn away from your sins, turn back to God.


Feel better? Sorted? Can we all go home now? Sleep in peace? 


Let’s unpack this a bit more. The Old Testament has several lists of commands that God presented to the Israelite nation. Do this, but do not do that. They came with the intention of the Israelite nation being set apart to reveal God to the world and the emphasis was on holiness and being separate, different to other nations. So some of the rules are about diet, what animals they could eat, or not eat, others about cleanliness and how to live right relationships with each other. Others focussed upon the rituals of worship and sacrifices of animals to God, putting God first in everything. It was a totally absorbing way of life, every action was under the umbrella of these rules. And within it all shone God’s preference for the fatherless, the widow, and the foreigner. They are included in the list of curses recorded in Deuteronomy 27 -  “if anyone withholds justice from these three groups of people then they will be cursed.”


Keeping to these rules was hard work. It required faithful diligence and an attention to detail and the time and resources to enable it to happen. As we discover later in the ministry of Jesus, the overseers of these rules, the Pharisees and scribes, often focussed upon minute details and failed to keep focussed on God. So there would have been many people hearing John the Baptist, who felt shackled by the rules, ashamed that they could not keep them. And John’s message would have offered hope and opened up direct reconciliation with God, not through a priestly sacrifice.


Unlike the Jews we probably do not feel the need to keep to all these rules and if I held up a list of the Ten Commandments I expect we would be able to say that we have not broken those, or at least only momentarily and not deliberately - when I say this I am thinking more of false testimony or coveting, rather than murder!


Paul in his first letter to Timothy stated: 


“The law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave-traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God.” …This is a pretty strong list, and I hope nobody here falls under one of these. 


But Jesus raised the stakes.


“But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.” ( Matthew 5.22). And a few verses later, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” 


It is not just our actions but what we think that are important, that show our honouring of each other, our respect of each other as children of God. And this stems from our heart. Jesus said: “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7.21-22).


To return to Paul he wrote, “..the aim of such instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.” (1 Timothy 1.5)


Our whole well being is built around love. If we do not fully love God, love another person or indeed ourselves then we are falling short of the glory of God. We are staining the Holy Spirit that lives within us. We are disfiguring ourselves and others. We are not being the holy, loving person Christ died to enable us be.


Well that is me and I suspect you as well…Praise be to our Lord and Savour Jesus Christ. Praise to him. We have asked for forgiveness in this service and Christ’s blood has cleansed us, made us whole. So for that brief moment we were perfect. Alleluia! And Jesus will continue to cleanse us at every confession. There is hope for us.


And bit by bit we align ourselves more with his purity. So how do we do this? 


One way is to meditate on the fruits of the spirit - “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. (Galatians 5.22-23). Repeat them over and over again. Let their beauty fill you. 


Another is to discipline your thoughts to always think good of another person, to always love. Jesus commanded us to: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 4.44). In loving our enemies or those we find difficult, we align ourselves with how God sees them and it changes us and in time changes them. Love starts from a decision to love, an act of will, that then takes root in our hearts. Archbishop Justin said that he knows when we pray for him and when we do not. Our prayers have an impact and our thoughts do too. We can choose to bless others or to curse them. So discipline and train yourself to see them as God sees them. For however bruised, battered and unpleasant they are, they are loved by God. 


Finally look at your own attitudes to and thoughts of God. Do you come to him in praise and worship? …Or bitterness and resentment? Do you thank him for his generosity and grace? …Or do you hold a grudge? …Are you grateful for who he has made you and the situation you are in or envious and jealous of others? Our attitude is played out in our lives, our words, thoughts and actions. They affect whether we are truly lights for Jesus or just a smouldering, flickering wick….Whether we trust and love God despite our circumstances, or push his love away. 


John called his listeners to repent, to turn back to God. Will you spend time before God this advent, allowing his Spirit to open your heart deeper to Him, to reveal the thistles and thorns that you hold on to and to allow you to release them to Jesus? He wishes to do that. Spend time in these next few days to be still with Jesus, to sit with him.


To encourage you in this watching and waiting, this stillness, I invite you now to watch a you tube clip of The blessing that was made near the start of the pandemic. Let it bless you.





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