Advent 3 Gaudete Sunday

14 December 2008

'The one who calls you is faithful'.
I don't often start a sermon with a straight quote from one of the readings. However, it seemed a good place to start on a Sunday where the readings are dominated by John the Baptist, and where the advent mood starts to shift - hence the pink vestments (or 'rose' if you want to be posh); as you know, the pink liturgical colour marks a change of mood in the seasons of Advent and Lent.
Last week, Gordon quoted from John the Dwarf, one of the Desert Fathers from the Church's first centuries. John pointed out that the easy burden to lay down was the one of self-accusation (otherwise known as going on a guilt trip), and that the hard one to lay down was self-justification - the attempt to convince someone usually ourselves, that the things we've got wrong were right really. But what next? And what's the point of the burdens being laid down anyway? Is it just about us getting ourselves to heaven?
And this is where I think Paul's reassuring of the Thessalonian Christians comes in - 'The one who calls you is faithful'. This calling to let go, to abandon both our false guilt and our false righteousness is a calling to become more, not less, what we are, free from both grovelling and big-headedness, those two toxins to the spiritual life.
But although becoming more what we are should be easy, it isn't. Not for most of us, anyway. It's been likened to standing on the top diving-board at a swimming pool and thinking about stepping off. You've been told time and again it won't hurt, but that one extra step puts you firmly under the control of gravity and is, as they say, a bit of a non-reversible decision. And every now and then in our pilgrimage we get to that top-of-the-diving board moment. We know we can't stay where we are for ever, that either we have to turn and trot back down the steps and leave it for next time, or, sooner or later, we have to take that last step into the unknown. We know wea re called to something new, and we're worried about how painful the change will be.
And don't think that the wearing of a dog-collar makes you immune to that diving-board feeling, as if we got all that out of the way safely before ordination. We didn't, and every now and again there's something new to confront in our trying to respond to the one who is faithful. And it's scary, and it's challenging. It's not that long since I had a very long battle with just such a call to change, and I'm still not comfortable with it.
And because it's not comfortable, we often can't take that step off the diving board ourselves. And this is where John the Baptist makes his belated appearance. Many you will have heard sermons about the two different words for 'time' in Greek, and how one of them, 'kairos', has a sense of 'just the right time, the critical moment', that sort of thing. Well, John the Baptist appears with his message, the voice crying in the wilderness, and all the rest, and to some his was the voice of 'kairos', the final critical nudge which sent them into new ways of thinking and of being themselves. Some become part of the new Jesus movement. Even Jesus himself appears to be affected by John's appearance, since his ministry appears to be kick-started by the Baptiser's message.
So where does this take us. First, I think, building on what Gordon was saying last week, we can recognise Advent, and the traditional call of the Baptist, as a good time to bite the proverbial bullet and risk that step of becoming new which we have been worried about. (If at the moment all's well, that's fine, your call will come sooner or later!) The Church's calendar provides these little nudges, 'Kairos' moments, and if we miss this one there'll be another along soon enough - 'God is faithful' means he won't give up on calling us to be ourselves.
Second, an opportunity of thankfulness to those who have been 'John the Baptist' to us, those who, in their various ways, have provided us with that vital nudge to move us out of our accustomed safe places to discover ourselves more deeply as God calls us to be. Whoever they may be, they are part of God's calling.
And thirdly, as an antidote to all those over-personal calls to get ourselves to heaven, consider that we, too, are called to be heralds like John, providing those critical nudges at critical times to those who, knowing they're called to move on cannot quite dare do it. And pray that, when we have chance to offer someone else a John the Baptist nudge, a 'kairos moment', we recognise it and take it, so that the God who is faithful finds faith in us, too.

Rev. David Rowett (web page by Adrian Worsfold)