Hark, the Herald!

December 4, 2011

(Sermon for Advent 2 & St Andrew) (Isaiah 40, 1-11; Mark 1, 1-8)

Last week, the vicar wished you a Happy New Year, as we celebrated Advent Sunday. Today I’m going to wish you Happy Birthday, as we celebrate St Andrew’s Day, our Patronal Festival or Feast of Dedication, and so the ‘birthday’ of this particular church and parish.

St Andrews-tide is traditionally kept as a time of reflection on mission. Both the ASB and Common Worship have a Day of Intercession and Thanksgiving for the Missionary Work of the Church on 29th November, the day before St Andrew’s Day.  It is therefore very appropriate that, as we celebrate St Andrew on the Second Sunday in Advent, our readings should concentrate on sharing the Good News of God.

Second Isaiah announces to the Jewish people that God is going to get them out of jail. They’ve served their sentence (twice over, with no remission), paid their debt, and now they’re going home! The first word of the proclamation is ‘Comfort!’ Comfort originally meant ‘give strength’: the good news not only makes them feel better, it makes them strong.

The prophet then relays God’s command to clear the way for his progress, and that of his people. This is no minor task, but is compared to a major engineering project, the building of a road all the way from Babylon to Jerusalem, levelling hills and bridging valleys through hostile and barren countryside. There are to be no obstacles to this freedom march!

Isaiah speaks God’s assurance that this will happen, because it is rooted, not in the weakness and fickleness of humanity, but in the promise of God.

God then speaks through his herald (and in Hebrew the word for herald comes from the same root meaning as the word for evangelist does in Greek) who is to proclaim from Jerusalem the good news that God is doing a new thing, where no new thing seemed possible. He is to alert the people to the truth that God is coming among them, as their strong protector, and as a gentle shepherd of the weak and vulnerable. The message the herald brings is of captivity turned to homecoming, despair turned to hope, darkness turned to light.

Mark, like all the evangelists, sees John the Baptist as that herald, that prophet speaking God’s message, that one who prepares the road for the one greater than him to travel. He prepares for the Messiah by saying that people need to repent, to change the way they think, and turn their lives round into a new way. He gives them baptism, a ‘sacrament’, an outward and visible sign, to remind them of that change. He tells them that God has forgiven their wrongdoing, and that when the Messiah comes, they will receive the Spirit of God within themselves, just as the prophet Jeremiah foretold.

John, like the ancient Jewish exiles, is seen as travelling in the wilderness. But that wilderness is theological and spiritual, not geographical. The wilderness is the place where nothing is available to keep people going. The wilderness is a place where nothing bears fruit.The wilderness is a place where people’s spiritual lives die – unless they have the help of God, who alone can lead them through the wasteland to enjoy life in all its fullness.

John prepares the way for Jesus in more than his proclamation. Jesus repeats John’s message of repentance, and of God’s forgiveness for what is in the past. Jesus proclaims God’s presence with the human race, saying the Kingdom of Heaven, God’s imperial rule, is close at hand. Jesus gives people a sacrament, the Communion, as a sign of this. But John prepares the way for Jesus in his life, too. Jesus, like John, will tread the road of persecution, suffering and death because of the message he preaches.

Both of them are saying, like Isaiah, God is here; God is doing something new among you; what are you going to do about it?

As some of us have discovered, in the study of Mark’s Gospel we have been following over the last couple of months, Mark frames his Gospel around Jesus’s invitation to the disciples to follow him in the way to life through service, suffering and death. In Mark

El Greco St Andrew

Jesus urges people to think about life in a different way, to proclaim the reality of God’s rule in the present time, and to be prepared to suffer and die (metaphorically or literally) because of their allegiance to God. His call to Andrew and the other disciples was to repentance, mission, service and crucifixion – because that is the only way to resurrection. He calls us to follow the same way.

We are all called by our baptism to be missionaries, to be heralds of the Good News. At the moment, in this church, we are engaged in a process of Mission Action Planning as part of the the diocesan initiative of ‘Living God’s Love’.

But before we can plan our mission, we need to be clear about what we are proclaiming to those around us. What is the Good News we have for the people of this parish at this time?

The MAP questionnaire, which  many of us filled in, identified the major strength of this church as ‘friendliness’. That is a good thing. Research into mission strategies shows that most people are brought to church membership by another person, often a member of their family or a close friend. Friendship evangelism works!

But as Bishop Alan pointed out in his address to the Diocesan Synod in June, there are two sorts of friendliness: there is the sort of friendliness between like minded people that builds them into a strong, supportive, but inward looking community (what is called in the jargon ‘bonding social capital’); or there is the sort of friendliness which impels a group to look outwards, beyond itself, to support and welcome those who are different from themselves (bridging social capital). Which of these sorts of friendliness will be Good News to those we seek to reach with our mission. Which of these sorts of capital will require a real repentance, real metanoia, real ‘change of mind’ on our part?

Our responses to the questionnaire also identified the lack of members, especially young people and children, as a weakness, and as a hindrance, or obstacle, to our mission. So a major question in planning our mission is going to be “What in the Christian faith will be Good News to this group of people?”

The Good News that Isaiah proclaimed in our Old Testament reading was freedom from imprisonment and exile. So what imprisons and exiles the younger generation from their true selves, the people God created them to be? According to Mark, Jesus proclaimed the Good News by healing people from their sickness, casting out demons from them, and welcoming in the outcasts. So what are the sicknesses of our culture, what demons enslave people today, who are the outcasts in our society?

We won’t find out unless we are prepared to listen. And that will involve being where young people and those outside the church communicate with each other, even though it may appear to us that such places are ‘the wilderness’: listening in to what contemporary music and fashion says, reading newspapers and magazines, watching TV and films and listening to the radio, and most crucially of all, engaging with social media, like Twitter and Facebook and MySpace, where so much opinion nowadays is formed and exchanged.

It won’t be comfortable, in the usual sense of the word – the world inhabited by people outside the church may seem like a wilderness to us – but then Andrew’s call to mission was not a comfortable one either! He and the other disciples were sent out by Jesus, without much training or equipment, to do the same work he did in the towns and villages of Galilee; and later, they were sent by the Holy Spirit to the ends of the earth, and, many of them, to their own deaths, with the same mission.

In spite of this, they went out with joy, the joy that shines through the readings today. It is the joy that comes from knowing that there is no need to prepare for God’s coming, because God is already here in the world, already at work, healing and exorcising, defending and caring for the people of God. So, the mission of those of us who are charged to be heralds of the God’s Good News is simply to reveal, through our words and through our actions, that God in Jesus is already here, and point the way to him. As someone said on Twitter recently: a church should be a signpost not a destination.

Happy Birthday! Happy St Andrew’s Day! Happy Advent!

Happy Mission Action Planning!

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