Sunday 9 December 2018: Second Sunday in Advent
A new spiritual geography
Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
By Brett Ward
Parish Priest of Holy Trinity Eltham in the Diocese of Southwark
Context: Parish Mass in a suburban South London Anglican parish. The congregation is diverse, lively and thoughtful
Aim: to explore a different slant on the familiar call to repentance
In something new
A new beginning can be both exciting and daunting. Whether it’s something we plan for, or something that’s imposed upon us, a new beginning can be an opportunity for a change which is creative and positive. Moving to a new house, starting a new job or a new school, getting married, being baptised or confirmed or ordained: life is full of occasions when it feels like we’re beginning again. Even the predictable rhythm of starting a new year gets people making resolutions and hoping they’ll be able to shape things a bit better this time round.
Wrapped up in the sense of a new beginning is the hope that things will improve. Even when we feel nervous about it, most of us will move on with hope, even if we don’t always have abundant confidence.
As we stand two Sundays into the new Church year, John the Baptist is calling us to reflect on new beginnings. Words, actions, location: everything about his message signals that something remarkable and fresh is happening.
In the wilderness
The ritual washing of baptism was an action which pointed to both the desire and the experience of a new start. And as John called people to that baptism, the geography is important.
His location in the wilderness and on the edge of the Jordan River was no mere passing detail. It was loaded with significance for his hearers. They would immediately have thought of their ancient wandering through the wilderness of Sinai for 40 years as they escaped from slavery. There in front of them was the stretch of water Joshua had led their ancestors across into their Promised Land. The geography was rich in significance, loaded with the powerful images of making a new start.
And then John’s words themselves. As his voice echoed off the stony hillsides of the Jordan wilderness, Isaiah’s dramatic poetry didn’t need any elaboration. Winding paths, steep climbs, pot-holed roads: these were all there for them to see and experience. John was giving them a vision of a new start which had a new spiritual geography too.
In John’s words
All of that centred on John’s call to repentance. In biblical language, repentance is a change of mind and heart. It’s a shift in attitude and in the direction of our life. That “repentance-change” happens through honest self-reflection and a humble acknowledgement of what a mess we’ve made. From that sense of sorrow for our past, there’s a joyful movement forward in the rich grace of God which carries us in a new direction.
As the pages of the New Testament open and we wait for Jesus to break into the scene, the ground is prepared. Through John the Baptist, God offers us a new start, and to embrace that start and all the extraordinary possibilities it holds, everyone needs to have a change in direction.
We need to walk towards this new spiritual geography which is being laid out for us.
In our hearts
So often when we think of the word ‘repentance’ (if we ever do!), it’s solely associated with the concept of sin. That’s perfectly reasonable and logical. But it’s much, much more than that. Repentance is really about grace. Certainly, we let go of the old failures and express our sorrow for the disasters we’ve created. But we do that for a specific purpose. We do it so that we can re-orientate our lives and move ahead into this beautiful new place that God creates for us.
If you enjoy the natural world, you may be wondering what’s so wonderful about a place where valleys are filled, where mountains are flattened and winding paths made straight. Surely that would be dull. But the prophet’s vision has a purpose. This flattening-out happens as preparation for the Lord – but not simply so he has an easy time of the travelling. Straight roads and flat terrain give clear sight-lines. Importantly, this new geography is one that enables us to see the Lord’s coming unhindered and unhampered.
The mountains of our sin and the valleys of our failures, the winding roads of our deceptions: these are all things that repentance flattens and straightens for us. And once flattened and straightened, we have a much clearer view of where we’re going. And a joyfully clear view of the Lord who is coming to us.
In Good News
We can’t forget that this is entirely about his action, his coming. We need to embrace repentance and its consequences, but everything that flows on from that is his free gift.
John the Baptist finishes with Isaiah’s words: All flesh shall see the salvation of God.
This is a universal message. The Lord comes, not just for us, but for everyone. He brings hope and forgiveness and salvation, not for the few, but for all flesh.
And when we – and all flesh – see this great salvation, the sight-lines won’t matter anymore. Because this salvation of God is something we will experience in the depths of who we are and in the exciting possibilities of who, in God’s grace, we will become.
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