Isaiah 35:1-10, Psalm - Song of Mary, James 5: 7-10, Matthew 11:2-11

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

The season of Advent is a season of beginning. It is a time to contemplate new starts or a new orientation. Last week we heard John the Baptist proclaiming ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’. In the New Testament the word translated as ‘repentance’ is the Greek word metanoia. It’s made of two words combined together and so combines two meanings - the meanings of time and of change, and those could be translated as ‘after’ and ‘different’, so that together the word metanoia can mean ‘to think differently, after’. So we’re perhaps looking for a new orientation in Advent that is based on thinking differently.

Advent’s also a season of preparation – we prepare for the coming of light. The symbol of light, however, plays differently in the northern and southern hemispheres due to the position of the sun. Likewise, from where we see and understand the position of the Son of God, so too Jesus plays differently with our life perspective. It’s not that one is right or wrong, because, as we find in the service sheet, ‘Out of darkness light let shine’ [2 Corinthians 4.6]. It’s not that the light holds the key, maybe the dark holds the key – northern and southern hemispheres give us a different way of reading.

This week in the gospel we find that John has been imprisoned by the rulers and the authorities. Why? Because he told a different story; he opened up a different perspective from that which was being promoted by the authorities. He opened up an opportunity for metanoia, an opportunity to think differently about the events in the world. Julian Assange is also in prison and I read yesterday that he’s been moved into isolation - it’s an interesting movement away from opportunities of influence. He too sought to open up an opportunity for us to think differently, to read differently the events of the world, and just like in today’s gospel narrative, as he is in prison, so the WikiLeaks material continues, continues to give new insights into the motives and activities of authorities. We are seeing what was previously unseen. Isaiah says, ‘the eyes of the blind shall be opened; Matthew says, ‘the blind receive their sight’.

Various people are hearing things that have been said about them, things they’ve not previously heard and that are now embarrassing. Isaiah says, ‘the ears of the deaf will be unstopped; Matthew, ‘the deaf shall hear’. Diplomatic visits are springing up all over the place; diplomats who were happily resting on their laurels are now rushing around. Isaiah says ‘the lame shall leap like a deer’; Matthew says, ‘the lame shall walk’. And again around the world, the silent majority are giving voice to new questions in a harmony of support that is calling forth a new tune from the fiddlers: Isaiah says, ‘the tongue of the speechless sing for joy’. Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks organisation have done little more than tell another story, a story that was and is always there, a story that sits behind or beyond the story that those in authority and those who seek to steer the world in accord with their own agendas keep in the background. John the Baptist may be seen in a similar light. He seeks to tell of a truth that is beyond the story told by the authorities and the leaders He seeks to open hearts to the opportunity for metanoia. We have this story in Advent so that we might, we might look again, look differently at the whole narrative of Christmas.

I just want to add another layer of complexity to that WikiLeaks metaphor, because today’s gospel itself reads like a WikiLeaked document. Today’s gospel outs another familiar story. Let’s first look at the familiar version that is captured in the stained glass window above the Font. The familiar version that most of you know backwards is from Mark 1: ‘In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heavens being torn apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Matthew (Ch 3) gives us the same official line: ‘Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. And when Jesus was baptized, just as he came up out of the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the beloved; with whom I am well pleased.” It is well known – John the Baptist baptised Jesus and knew that he was the one. And just in case there was any doubt or you missed the point, we have that voice from heaven underlining it.

Now let’s look at today’s wikileaked gospel text. It seems that John actually has, at best, doubts, and at worst, has no idea who Jesus was, for we hear that from prison John sent his disciples so they could ask, ‘Are you the one?’ There is some conflict or difference in those two versions. Some will also be confused by the fact that it was John who had the disciples that went to Jesus, because they would previously have had the official story, no, Jesus is the one with the disciples.

Matthew’s wikileaked gospel, like those we’ve been reading about in the newspapers, opens up crucial questions and can engage us in the critical process of metanoia. You can’t get involved in metanoia if you just sit blankly in front of the television and just accept the drivel that washes over you. I would also suggest you cannot live that way either. You can exist, your pulse can beat, but read what Isaiah speaks of as life, and it is something quiet different. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that what we listen to, what we hear and what we speak become creative of the reality that we inhabit. Interesting: the word became flesh. We imitate God as we create tomorrow from the word that shapes our reality.

I was going along really happily as I was unfolding the readings, and then I thought I’ll just have a look and see what light James sheds on all this. And my first reaction to James was to write him off, put a line through it: ‘be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord’. The last thing I wanted, in the midst of the excitement of metanoia, of looking at the world differently, was someone to say ‘be patient’. However, it’s exactly what we need to do; it’s exactly what’s required in the season of preparation. Patience is a fruit of the Spirit, it is a divine quality. It requires us to invest time and to invest ourselves in discerning action and our participation in action. And James identifies the purpose that goes with his call to be patient: ‘Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.’ So as part of our Advent preparations we should invest in making Christmas a reality, invest our time, invest ourself, invest our gifts and invest in the commitment to the realisation of Isaiah’s words. Invest in metanoia, in looking again at the familiar and looking beyond the familiar to the abundance that is found in Isaiah’s prophetic vision. Invest ourselves in the dialogue of Jesus and John: they are not two people located in history; they are icons of eternity. You are John, for only you can prepare the way for tomorrow. You are Jesus, for only you can bring into reality, tomorrow. We together are the least in the kingdom of heaven so read the last line of the gospel, for there we are called to be greater than these, to be greater than John and Jesus.

Enjoy Advent.
Amen

Peter Humphris