St Andrew’s Anglican Church
Sunday 9 December
Malachi 3: 1-4
Song of Zechariah
Luke 3: 1-6
Held together in one peace. ©Sue Wilton
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
This is the expansive, joyful vision of what the coming Messiah means – all flesh shall see the salvation of God. If there is a word to take away from this Sunday’s readings it is “all”. Paul’s letter to the Philippians says the word again and again, emphasising that all share in the grace of God.
Differences that hinder communion are to be wiped away and all barriers that divide people, those valleys and mountains, are to be made smooth- whether those be the barriers of race, ideology, class, gender, sexuality, education or even religion. And this all happens in a particular moment in history. The time had come, a time dominated by powerful men like Emperor Tiberius, Pilate, Herod and Philip, and religious leaders like Annas and Caiaphas. With shocking particularity, across the millennia of creation’s story, there comes a wild man, John the Baptiser, calling Israel to a change of heart and a renewal of life oriented around compassion and justice. It comes at a time when the people under Roman occupation cry for political liberation. It is in this time, when those crying out in their oppression long for the dawn of a new day to break, that the Prince of Peace will come.
Every Advent, as we journey through this expectation of the inbreaking of God, we are uneasily aware that more millennia have passed, and humanity remains divided from one another in so many ways, and peace does not hold sway across the earth. What kind of Saviour is this who has come, and what kind of salvation? The first century expectation of a Messiah was of one who would overthrow the oppressor, trample down the enemies and reinstate the Davidic kingdom of Israel. But instead we have a salvation based not on earthly expectations of power but upon a spiritual dimension where the Spirit is poured out and we are made children of God, held together in one peace. This is a truth that cannot be shaken, despite the reality that universal human dignity and social harmony are not what we experience. The breaking in of God to our world is a unique, particular event that begins the new creation because Jesus comes bringing unity where there is division and wholeness where there is separation and alienation. He comes…
To give God’s people knowledge of salvation:
by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God:
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death:
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Jesus is the union of the divine and human in a world where the divine and human are divided. Not only are we divided from one another, but we are divided even from the divine presence found within ourselves. But Jesus is the Son of Man, or, more literally, the Human One, destined to be the reconciliation in his very person of all in humanity that is fragmented and broken. As John Shea puts it, he lived unity under conditions of disunity and this non-fit in the world became the ‘relentless energy of transformation.’
And how does this transformation take place? What kind of energy doesthis misfit Jesus create that can be birthing a new creation? What is this power that is enough to fill the valleys, flatten mountains and make crooked paths straight? The song of Zechariah reveals it most clearly- it is through the tenderness of God that we will know salvation by the forgiveness of sins. It is only through the power of forgiveness that reconciliation can happen. It is only through forgiveness that the barriers that divide us one from another can be pulled down and we shall know peace.
Both John the Baptist and Jesus came calling people to repentance through the forgiveness of sins. We often think of repentance as the sort of breast-beating, self-flagellating sorrow for all the things we have done wrong. The Greek, however, is metanoia: literally, to have a change of mind.
Where the conventional view of morality is that we owe people for the things we have done wrong- that we are indebted and need to pay our due, this is not the Christian view at all. Repentance is actually the change of mind that occurs when we experience the forgiveness of God- not the other way around. We all share in the unity of the family of God because we are all partakers of grace as gift. The new creation is found anywhere where we let go of the sinful way of being in the world where we pile up debts against one another, keeping a running tab on what we owe and what we are owed. Instead we embrace everything as gift and allow all the broken and fragmented parts of ourselves to be gathered up in the limitless love and acceptance of God. Only then can we begin to see the dawning of a new day and glimpse the peace into which our feet are guided, as we extend that same love and acceptance to our neighbour.
This is why the Advent season is both joyful preparation and repentance. We are called to make space afresh for the one who will unite in us the human and the divine, offering forgiveness and love as simple gift. Repentance is the change of heart and mind we experience when we surrender to this encounter.
In a moment the children will invite us through a drama to reflect on some of the ways we can get distracted at Christmass time and miss this encounter. May we instead open ourselves to a journey through Advent to the God who comes to hold us together in one peace.