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Sermon by Revd Dr Andrew Warmback (Luke 3:1-6) Advent 2
The role of John the Baptist was a very important one. He prepared the way for Jesus by baptising him and endorsing his ministry.
John the Baptist stood in a long line of prophets of the Old Testament who told of a time when God would restore all things, when a new era would dawn. But for John this new era, which is characterised by the restoration of justice and peace, would not come automatically. His message, in quoting from Isaiah 40:3-5, was to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight… the crooked shall be made straight.” He recognised the crookedness of people and of the society.
In the theological language we use today the “baptism of repentance” means acknowledging one’s sins, confessing them and asking for God’s forgiveness. This turning away from sin is personal but we also need to ask God’s mercy and healing of our sinful world of broken relationships.
Advent is precisely the time to reflect on our own behaviour, and to change it where necessary, in essence to repent. It is a time to open ourselves afresh to God’s Spirit and to commit ourselves to help bring this new era of God’s kingdom or reign in its fullness.
On this Second Sunday in Advent the few verses from today’s gospel reading, Luke 3:1-6, give an insight into the wider context of John the Baptist’s ministry. In the opening verses Luke names the emperor, a governor, three tetrarchs, and two high priests. These details help us to know the approximate date of John’s ministry but also the circumstances prevailing at the time: the news is certainly bad – Judea is now ruled by a Roman governor, and the Jewish leaders operate under the harsh Roman emperor, Tiberius.
One bit of biographical information about John is given: he is described as the son of Zechariah, a priest whose duties included those at the Temple in Jerusalem. We know from earlier in this gospel that Elizabeth, his mother, descended from a line of priests originating with Aaron, is, like Zechariah, described as old, and furthermore is also described as barren. We could say that John the Baptist was lucky to be born. A God of grace and surprises.
John is described as being a “voice in the wilderness.” The wilderness or the desert, is a difficult place, a place of testing. John does not go into the city or speak in the village square; he remains on the margins. It is from this place of vulnerability, of danger, that God speaks through John the Baptist. We too do not have to be powerful and influential for God to use us.
So what is our context today? What are we to make straight?
We are still in the pandemic, and working through the variants with a great cost to human health and lives. We are all becoming familiar with the letters of the Greek alphabet: Alpha, beta, gamma, delta…, after which the variants are named. We are now on omicron; let’s hope we do not make it to omega, the last letter of the Greek alphabet. Vaccinations and the wearing masks, social distancing, sanitising and fresh air are the most important steps on the path to overcome the pandemic.
Another obvious and distressing sign of our times is the high incidence of Gender Based Violence (GBV) – a “crookedness” that needs to be “made straight.”
I looked back at the sermon on this same Sunday in Advent last year, and which was also during the 16 Days of Activism Against Violence Against Women and Children. Revd Sabelo was preaching and this is what he said: [it can still be accessed on YouTube] “Every hour at least two women are killed in South Africa; many of them are assaulted and raped before their death. South Africa is said to have the highest increase rate of Gender Based Violence incidences.”
Statistics on GBV issued recently by the National Police Commissioner, delivered equally unsettling news. Despite further government legislation, public campaigns, the training of police officers in handling of GBV cases, the news is not good at all.
How do we make straight the path?
Making a difference
Gender Based Violence usually starts with attitudes that discriminate against others, and may include the psychological and economic oppression of others. We may not feel we can change the world; but let us make a difference in our families and the family of St Pauls.
During Advent let us commit ourselves to being a community in which all are welcomed and accepted without discrimination, where in all we do we show respect for and appreciation of all, especially women who bear the greater burden of Gender Based Violence.
Let us commit ourselves to be a church that is a safe place, a place in which the integrity and dignity of everyone, men, women and children – is affirmed and safeguarded, where those who are vulnerable feel protected. A church where stories can be shared and listened to without judgement; where healing from abuse can take place.
Let us become a church in which in our worship of God– our hymns, our prayers – the words, images and symbols used, make us all feel included. A church that celebrates, that is creative, that incorporates fully the feminine, the gifts that women alone can bring to our worship and community life.
Let us work together to make this a reality, that we may become a visible sign of the coming of God’s kingdom or reign among us.
Advent is described as both a time of preparation and waiting. We wait, but we wait actively, we wait with longing, prepared to challenge, stand up and be counted. We wait with active preparation for change, looking for the signs of the One we are waiting for, for the signs of the dawning of the light of love, of respectful and mutually up building relationships.
Like the prophets before him, John the Baptist stood up for those who were wronged; he believed in God’s promises of the fullness of life for all even when things seemed hopeless; he called people back to the straight and narrow path. Let us do the same, this Advent season and beyond.
During this difficult time of the global pandemic, you are invited to make a contribution to the ministry and mission of our church by making a donation to the following account: Account Name: St Paul’s Church Account Number: 50854628623 Bank: First National Bank (FNB) Branch Code: 221426