I am preaching at Tavistock URC, where we are also marking the retirement of their minister, Roger Cornish.
The prophet Zephaniah declares “Sing aloud, you daughters of Jerusalem! Shout & exult!”
Saint Paul says “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice!”
John the Baptist shouts “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”.
It sounds at first hearing as if John the Baptist wins the prize for ‘least Christmassy message of joy’ this morning.
But I want to suggest that it is John who has the message we need to hear.
I can’t be the only one who cringes at the relentless advertising showing us the perfect family Christmas, with permanently twinkling lights and roaring log fires and endless good cheer.
I cringe because I don’t want to ignore all the realities of this world and shut myself away from the truth by creating an alternative world of Christmas cheer where everything is merry and bright. If Christmas hope is real, it has to do more than just give us an escape for a few days – a holiday from our real lives – and offer us something which changes forever the way we see our world and everything in it.
Two weeks ago I went to an Advent Carol service in Winchester Cathedral. It was organized to celebrate the 70th birthday of Christian Aid, and we lit candles and thanked God for the hope Christian Aid has brought and still brings to the poorest of our world.
But we also marked the fact that it was the beginning of Advent, and Rowan Williams – former Archbishop of Canterbury, who is now the Chair of the Board of Trustees of Christian Aid – preached, brilliantly.
He described the way in which we need to look at Advent in two ways as being like having double vision. With the one ‘eye’ we see the real state of the world, with all its sadness, messiness, and pain; but with the other ‘eye’ we see the promise of God coming to us in Jesus Christ, to show us what life in all its fulness looks like. The problem with double vision is that it is disorientating, and the temptation is to shut one eye so that the double vision stops: but as Christians we need to hold together the two images, of reality and of hope. Learning to do that is what Advent is for.
Perhaps in the words of Zephaniah and St Paul we hear only one sort of vision – the vision of hope, held out to people who already had a pretty clear vision of how difficult reality is. And in the vision offered to us by our materialistic world we are too often encouraged to shut the eye which might see suffering and hardship. But we need to look at both hope and reality.
So let’s look with that sort of Advent ‘double vision’ at what John the Baptist is saying.
“The axe is lying at the root of the trees: every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire”.
Change is coming, and it will be real and drastic and hard. You cannot welcome God into your life in a half-hearted way, you have to turn right round and change and receive a new way of life from God.
The response from his listeners is ‘what, then should we do?’.
And John tells them to share with others, not to cheat and not to exhort from them.
God is coming and it will not be easy – the eye of Advent which looks at reality can see that the coming of Christ is not meant to be sweet, or traditional, or cozy – the coming of Christ will bring change and that change will be hard and drastic.
Yet the eye of Advent which looks at hope can see that there are things that people can do to be ready for Christ. They can repent, they can change, they can choose ways of life which are more loving, and less selfish.
John has double vision: and the people wonder if he is the Messiah. But John tells them he is not, there is another coming: Jesus is the one who will come to bring God’s hope to them. The passage we heard ends with that odd sentence “So.. he proclaimed the good news to the people.”.
On the face of it what John says does not sound very much like good news. But it is good news when someone is able to see both reality and hope and not shut their eye to either, and John points clearly to Jesus, in whom hope and reality are firmly brought together.
Jesus comes to show us how God completely inhabits reality – born in human form, in simplicity, in poverty, into a world of danger which will eventually send him to suffer and die. Jesus sees, knows, lives reality. But Jesus also comes to bring hope – healing for the broken, peace for the tortured soul, and the joy of life which is greater then death.
What does Advent double vision mean for us?
If you are worried about what will happen to this church with Roger’s retirement, then you need the Advent vision of hope and reality to see that change will come, but that God will be seen at work in and through that change, as surely as he has been at work her ein the last 15 years.
If, like me, you get a bit jaded by the blinding tinsel of a perfect Christmas, the Advent vision of hope and reality reminds us that joy can come to us in the reality of a less-than-perfect Christmas.
If you are frightened by the state of the world this Christmas, the Advent vision of hope and reality can tell us that God knows how awful life can be and yet God chooses to enter into it to be with us in Jesus.
So I pray that you will have Advent and Christmas double vision and know the reality of true hope and the hope of a changed reality – in the name of the one who comes to us – Emmanuel.