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Sermon for Evensong on the Third Sunday in Advent, 13th December 2015
Isaiah 35; Luke 1:57-80

So where are we up to in Advent? This is the third Sunday, and we are thinking about John the Baptist. Our second lesson was about Zacharias and Elisabeth, the faithful old couple who were way past having children when an angel visited Zacharias and told him that Elisabeth would have a son and that they would call him John.

Not surprisingly, Zacharias was rather worried that this was all not real. He asked the angel for some sign that he was telling the truth, and the angel said that he would be struck dumb until the boy was born. At about the same time, the angel Gabriel went to see Mary.

These were instances of special children, children with links to God, being born to women who had previously been unable to conceive, which had happened before in the Old Testament, in the book of Samuel. Hannah was infertile, but she prayed in the temple that if God granted her a son, she would give him up to be a priest. According to the book of Samuel, this happened.

So: John the Baptist. The angel had said that ‘he shall be great in the sight of the Lord and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost … And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ (Luke 1:15-17) It was the beginning of the Kingdom of God, the time when all the happy things described by Isaiah in our first lesson would happen, the lame man leaping as an hart, like a deer: ‘then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing.’ [Isa.35:5f]

John the Baptist, preparing the way of the Lord. But what did he actually do?
He baptised people. What did that really involve? Obviously, dunking them in the river Jordan was what he was doing physically, but why did people turn out in vast numbers, as they apparently did, in order for him to submerge them in the Jordan?

Baptism by total immersion still happens today. The last Deanery confirmation and baptism service was at St George’s, Ashtead, where they have a built-in baptism pool. One of the faithful at St Andrew’s, a grown-up, was duly baptised there this Autumn. According to him, the pool was not heated, but he didn’t seem to mind.

The symbolism of baptism is fairly straightforward. It is a symbolic washing way of all our sins, all the bad things about us. If we are making a stand against evil, and trying to be closer to God, this washing will symbolically wash away the obstacles to our closeness to God. You can see what the washing is intended to signify.

Well that in Ashtead was a couple of months ago, but going back to Biblical times, the story of Zacharias and Elisabeth and their son John needs to be related to the context of the Old Testament. The significance of John’s arrival in this miraculous way has to be understood as it would have been understood at that time, in the context of Old Testament theology.

What John was doing in baptising was not just giving people a wash, but it had ritual significance as well. In the Jewish cult, that is, the way in which the Jews worshipped God, there are all sorts of procedures laid down, particularly in the book of Leviticus, among them for what was called ‘purification’. The Jewish religion was a religion of sacrifice, holiness, purification and atonement.

At every stage in life, Jews had to come before their God and propitiate him, turning away his anger and regaining his love by giving him things, by making sacrifices in his favour. This mostly involved killing innocent animals, unfortunately, and then burning them on the altar. I won’t take you through the whole ghastly procedure. If you really want to look it up, it is in Leviticus chapters 11 to 15.

The Jewish religious rules also laid down foods which were permitted to be eaten and which were not. Jewish people still abide by this – although some of my Jewish friends seem to have given themselves some latitude where bacon sandwiches are concerned!

I always smile when we read Romans chapter 14 about the Christian attitude to foods which were ritually proscribed. ‘One believes that he may eat all things, another, who is weak, eateth herbs’ – or, as for once in my life I prefer a modern translation, ‘the weak eat only vegetables.’ [NRSV, Romans 14:2]

Be nice to your vegetarian friends!

But there is an urgency about this, a dynamic to it, which perhaps we don’t quite ‘get’, if all we understand about John the Baptist and about baptism is a kind of symbolic washing, or even a kind of initiation ceremony. As we say, anyone who has been baptised is welcome to eat at the Lord’s table. That’s not really the full flavour of how it was in the Old Testament. The Jews were God’s chosen people, and their worship was designed to acknowledge that they had been singled out by God.

The whole dynamic of the Old Testament concerns the interaction between the Jews and God. They disobeyed God, and were enslaved by the Egyptians and Babylonians. They obeyed God; God loved them again, he freed them and took them to the Promised Land. It’s an idea of God, a picture of God, which I don’t think we would find convincing today.

Take the stories, that we were brought up on, of the soldiers in the trenches in the First World War, perhaps 100 or 150 yards apart, the Germans and the Brits so close that they could hear each other talking. So close that they could hear each other saying their prayers. They were both praying to the same God. What were they praying for? To survive, not to be hurt, and, dare one say, to win.

How could there be a God who favoured one side over the other? Or both sides against each other? Just as a matter of simple logic, it doesn’t work. It surely can’t be how God works.

Of course some people don’t take it any further than that and simply say that it means that God does not exist. I think in a way that is just as big a mistake as imagining God as some kind of divine helper who can fix things when they are seemingly hopeless, and more importantly, who can favour one lot of people over against another.

Of course the Emperor Constantine, in 312AD, had a vision, before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, that if he and his soldiers painted the sign of the cross on their shields, God would give them victory. They did paint the sign of the cross on their shields and they were victorious.

After that, Constantine adopted Christianity and made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. That was probably one of the biggest factors in making Christianity a world religion instead of just being a local middle eastern cult.

But it is rather doubtful whether Constantine actually believed in anything which modern Christians would recognise as Christianity. We certainly would not imagine that God would work some kind of magic so that someone would win a battle.

But certainly in the Old Testament time, the time of Moses and Elijah, Jews believed that they had to perform these various sacrificial rituals as part of their proper worship of God. There was a vital significance to this, that unless they worshipped properly, God would be angry with them. If so, God would ultimately enslave or destroy them. Ritual cleansing was all part of this worship.

These days, I don’t really ‘get’ the idea of ritual washing. I’m as fond of a nice spa as the next person, but that has to do with simply enjoying a pleasant experience. If somebody said to me that, in order to get closer to God, to put myself right with God, perhaps to atone for past wrong, for things which I have done, I needed to be baptised, I needed to have a ritual bath, I’m not sure whether I would believe in it.

Perhaps we should look again at what the work of John the Baptist could mean today.

For instance, the idea of purification. In the Jewish religion, purification has a connotation of stripping away things which are not true, bringing people to the true God, to the vital reality of creation.

Such a purification, a weeding out of things that are not true, that are wrong, could still make sense. There are plenty of things that are wrong today. If they were purified, refined back to their true essentials, would it indeed help to bring people to the true God, to the vital reality of creation?

Vital reality. I wonder why it is, therefore, that today there doesn’t seem to be the same kind of urgency. Quite a lot of people, after their Sunday lunch, and perhaps a little walk, may indeed have watched Songs of Praise, but now instead of coming to Evensong, they will be settling down for a pleasant evening catching up with the doings of some Norwegian detective.

I wonder whether we ought to be quite so blasé. Some of the things, which we take as being facts of life, perhaps aren’t. They might perhaps be better for some purification.

Take money for example. We all understand the idea of money: that money is something which stands for things which you can exchange for it. A certain amount of money gets you a certain amount of goods or services. Until 1933, a £1 note could be exchanged for a gold sovereign. There was a gold standard. The idea was that money had a fixed worth.

Clearly that is not true any more (if it ever was). Why is it, for example, that if a poor person goes into debt, maxes out their credit cards at Christmas and then is made redundant, they are immediately in trouble, and there is no one to help them; but if the banks go bankrupt, as they did in 2008, governments will step in to bail them out? It’s all the same stuff: all money.

Indeed the banks were bailed out largely by the government creating money. Clearly that money did not necessarily represent, or have any equivalence with, goods or services in a way we would understand. Is that the reality that suits us human beings best? Is it a true reflection of how things are? Perhaps we need some kind of washing. Perhaps this whole system needs to be washed through, cleaned.

Maybe John the Baptist still has something to say to us. It is something to think about when you are next in the Jacuzzi.

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Rowan Williams has said in a BBC radio talk, ‘If somebody said, give me a summary of Christian faith on the back of an envelope, the best thing to do would be to write Our Lord’s Prayer.’ [http://tinyurl.com/pdsoosq]

Jesus told the disciples to pray ‘Our Father’, which reflects the Aramaic word ‘Abba’ or ‘Dad’. Even if it doesn’t justify our thinking of God as our boon companion rather than a figure of infinite mystery and awe, it does imply that Jesus was inviting his followers, which includes us, to join with him in addressing prayers to God. We aren’t praying to Jesus, but with Jesus.

‘Our Father – in heaven’. Actually if you were listening carefully to today’s Gospel reading from St Luke, it didn’t say ‘Our Father in heaven’; it just went straight from ‘Father’ to ‘hallowed be your name’. The location of God as ‘ο εν τοις ουρανοις, Greek for ‘the one in the heavens’, raises the question whether Jesus really did think of God as being a benign old man sitting up above the clouds – which surely no-one can seriously believe these days. The words about heaven come in the other version of the Lord’s Prayer, in St Matthew’s gospel chapter 6, towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount. There are two versions of the Lord’s Prayer, according to St Matthew and according to St Luke.

I think we can accept that the heavens are not literally where God is, in a sense that he is at 65,000 feet or wherever. Plato and Aristotle both used ‘heavens’ as a word for the cosmos, the universe – and other classical authors used it as meaning simply the place where the gods lived. We can say that in a sense God is somewhere altogether other, altogether separate from the material world.

‘Hallowed be your name’. ‘Hallowed’ means ‘sanctified’, made holy or saintly. Remember that the Jews couldn’t say the Lord’s name; it was too holy, too awesome. In a sense also, to say that someone’s name is awesome is to say that that person is awesome. So this is a way to say that we totally respect God.

Christians have debated constantly about ‘your kingdom come’. Does it mean that Jesus was looking forward to the end of the world, to his Second Coming and the Last Judgment, or was he thinking more of ‘that day when your kingdom comes, and justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth’, (beautiful words which we pray in Eucharistic Prayer E in Common Worship)? You may want to pray for heaven on earth, or ‘God be at my end, and at my departing.’ Jesus has given you the words for either.

Daily bread is a very apt thing to pray for today, when so many people are physically hungry. There may well be other metaphysical connotations – maybe the prayer for daily bread is looking forward to the Eucharist, to the sharing in a memorial of Jesus’ Last Supper. But today we do need to pray for the relief of hunger in the world – and on our doorstep.

What about ‘sins’? Leaving aside for a minute whether Jesus said ‘debts’ or ‘trespasses’ instead of ‘sins’, are we bargaining with God here? Are we asking Him to forgive us, provided that we forgive others? Or are we saying that we do forgive – honestly we do! We can be confident in asking God to forgive us.

This prayer is so full of good things. In St Matthew, Jesus even thoughtfully puts some doubters’ minds to rest with his introduction: no need for wordy and elaborate prayers, because ‘your Father knows what you need before you ask him’ (Matt. 6:8). Why then should we bother to pray at all? Surely God can’t notice our puny little intercessions? Jesus says that He does. It is worth praying. There’s no possible way to prove this – and anyway we can’t boss God around. This, prayer, is prayer, not magic. It isn’t a question of saying the right words and cooking up a spell in order to bless or curse someone, like the witches in Macbeth. But those of us who do pray, do believe, do believe that, very often, our prayers are answered.

When we have prayed, what are we going to do? First, let’s say three cheers for Archbishop Justin! Yes, three cheers, not only because he has spoken out against the pay-day lenders like Wonga, who charge astonishing rates of interest – over 5,000 per cent – to the poorest people in this country, but also three cheers for him being honest and straightforward in response to John Humphrys on the Today programme, when it was pointed out that the Church of England pension fund had invested a very small amount of money in a hedge fund which had been one of the major investors in Wonga.

Actually, the amount invested by the Church of England in the hedge fund was just £75,000, out of a total invested by the C of E of £5.5 billion. But even this tiny amount was a mistake, and Archbishop Justin openly admitted it. It was so refreshing.

Wonga, its urbane spokesmen say, only lends very small amounts for very short periods, so in effect, the percentage charged is meaningless. They are, after all, lending to people who can give them no security for repayment. What is the harm in that?

Wonga could argue that an interest rate is like an insurance premium: the greater the risk of default, the higher the interest rate. It seems to me that any interest rate over 100% has gone beyond the function of an interest rate as a sort of insurance premium, because in fact, if you’re charging 100% interest, you are saying in effect that it isn’t a question of risk, but it is a certainty, that there will be a default. 5,000% interest presumably means that Wonga is charging 50 times more than it needs to charge, if all it is trying to do is to cover the possibility of a bad debt. 50 times more.

The banks are just as bad, in a different way. Wonga lends at an extortionate price. The banks often don’t lend at all. In both cases, you can see that the interest rate mechanism, the market price mechanism, doesn’t work. Banks have become so defensive and so averse to risk that they won’t lend at any price. Wonga, on the other hand, will lend, but at a price which bears no relation to risk and ruthlessly exploits the weakness of its borrowers.

Both are wrong. The banks who won’t lend to young people looking for their first house or to people setting up small businesses are quite plainly not doing what they are supposed to do. A functional economy needs banks as a source of capital, and that capital has to be really available, has to be used.

Equally, there should be protection for the weaker members against ruthless market players like Wonga, whose loans will tend to make borrowers even worse off than they were to start off with.

What principles is Archbishop Justin relying on? ‘A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another’ (John 13:34). Or from the sentences of scripture before Communion in the Prayer Book, on pages 243 and 244, ‘Whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his compassion from him: how dwelleth the love of God in him?’ Or how about, ‘He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord. And look; what he layeth out, it shall be paid him again.’ Love God, and love your neighbour: the two great commandments of Jesus (Matt.22:40). They mean that we mustn’t simply use the market as the sole index of distribution or risk or fairness – or indeed, of value.

But since the time of Margaret Thatcher, all British governments seem to have agreed that the ultimate measure of value, of worth, in our society, is the market, is what people will pay for things. That is what has led us to Wonga. The rich have got massively richer, without any care for the poor. The people who are paid enormous salaries and bonuses refer to their ‘market value’. They are worth, they say, what somebody is prepared to pay. No other criteria are worth bothering with. Just the market: just money.

The poor people don’t have the skills or anything else to make themselves expensive in the marketplace. Governments have made it difficult for them to stand up for themselves and to organise, because most of the powers of the trades unions have been taken away.

And so there are many people in our society today – and they are here on our doorstep in Cobham and Stoke as well – who don’t have enough to eat. The politicians shrug their shoulders. They say, ‘there is no alternative’ to austerity. They talk about government debt being unsustainable – ‘There is no more money’, they say. Never mind that in ‘quantitative easing’, they are manufacturing more money, and that our level of national debt is less than half what it was in 1945.

Against this, up pops Archbishop Justin, challenging the system of pay-day loans, and against this, up popped Archbishop John in York, challenging the fact that the minimum wage is not enough to live on, and suggesting that the government should force everyone to pay the ‘living wage’, which is a couple of pounds more per hour.

I won’t go into the detailed economics of these propositions, but suffice to say that the two Archbishops are not looking at the market as their index of value.

Just think: there was nothing in it; no money to be made, by the Good Samaritan. But nevertheless I am sure that the value of what the Good Samaritan did easily outweighs any price in money. So what Archbishop Justin is saying is that he wants to take on the pay-day lenders and put them out of business by offering, from the Christian churches,
something better and fairer.

He wants to build on the credit union network, and offer church premises as places from which credit unions can operate; and I think he wants church people, who have the right skills, to come forward and help to operate credit unions. Here, locally, we do have a credit union, called Surrey Save – http://www.surreysave.co.uk/ . It’s excellent to hear that it will be one of the first tenants in the new Hub in Cobham, where the Library is going to be. Also on the premises will be Oasis Childcare Centre; and of course the Food Bank will be just opposite, in the Methodist Church.

So if you agree with me that, as Christians here in Cobham, we need to follow Archbishop Justin’s – and indeed Jesus’ – injunctions, to care for our neighbours in need, then please do consider seriously letting Godfrey or me know whether you would be willing to help with the Food Bank or with the credit union. They are going to be major focuses of Christian activity here in this village. St Paul says: ‘We are free to do anything’, you say. Yes, but does everything help the building of the community? (1 Cor. 10:23 – NEB). Archbishop Justin has got it dead right.