A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on December 4, 2022 by Revd Richard Carter

Readings for address: Isaiah 11: 1-10 and Matthew 3: 1-12

In today’s readings we heard two great prophets at very different times in Israel’s history pointing forwards towards a future in which God’s purpose is revealed- a future bigger than the past. Isaiah and John the Baptist. Isaiah has a poetic vision of peace which reconciles all things. It is believed to have been written shortly after the Assyrian conquest of Israel and the painful fragmentation and dispersal of Israel throughout the Assyrian empire. But this vision is not one of revenge, or retribution but rather a vision of the end of division and enmity-a harmony in which all creation is reconciled:

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 700 years later we have the prophesy of John the Baptist- bridging the testaments -also pointing towards a time of judgment from which no one will escape and towards one who is coming who will bring a new order, a new way of living.

Human beings are slow learners. These prophets are speaking great truths for today.

I have been reflecting on the characteristics of good prophets

  • They are those who see what is wrong with society and the world and call it out.
  • They recognise the danger that we are in and see where we are heading before we reach the final precipice.
  • But also they see an authority greater than our human failures and limitations- the power of God who is coming to redeem.
  • They see a coming judgment which is both something to be feared but also to be welcomed because it is ultimately not about the destruction of the world but salvation of the world- the advent of grace
  • The prophet is someone who speaks in the Name of God yet without the desire for personal power, wealth or gain.
  • The prophet often shows amazing courage knowing that they risk all in speaking their truth- condemnation, persecution, even death.
  • The prophet is often portrayed as a lonely and isolated figure- a voice crying in the wilderness. The prophet does not belong to the establishment but rather speaks from the edge, the margins- with the detachment and freedom to call out what is wrong without being manipulated or silenced by political or social conformity.
  • The prophet’s authenticity is dependent on the moral coherence of his personhood with his message-
  • And prophesy’s cutting edge is the painful insistence on the relatedness between God and the earthly: the practical immediacy of God’s involvement in the world.
  • Prophets challenge us to change.

I wonder if you have ever met a prophet.

We heard the prophetic in this year’s Autumn Lecture Programme What Am I Living For?– it is a prophetic question- and one of those who answered was the black American Human Rights lawyer from Alabama- Bryan Stevenson- Those of us who heard him, I believe, heard a prophet for our time. Listening to him was like listening to Martin Luther King Junior. I was struck by how closely his own life and prophetic call echoed the prophetic voice of Micah, who he quoted, Isaiah and John the Baptist. “To do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God.” It the advent call- the call to transformation.

I’d like to explore again the four things of which Bryan Stevenson spoke because its worth hearing if you didn’t hear him and worth reflecting on again if you did, this advent.

The first making straight Bryan Stevenson talked about was the need to commit ourselves to getting proximate– proximate to the poor, the excluded, the neglected, the disfavoured, the marginalised. We’ve got to get closer to those who are suffering injustice and inequality. In order to discover a vaccine for COVID the scientists and researchers needed to get to know every single detail of what they were studying- pulling the nature of the virus apart in order to know everything about it and its variants. But how often this is not the case in relation to people. I heard a mother this week whose young son was killed in a knife crime asking: “Why is so little being done? Why is the murder of children on our streets being given so little attention?” How many of those making policy to close youth clubs and cut services have actually got close. How many of those creating our immigration policy have actually got proximate to the actual struggles migrants face or the countries they fled, how many of us would want our own family deported to Rwanda? How many doing construction deals or making housing policy in local authorities live in a high rise with inflammable cladding, or sleep on the streets through winter, or live on the minimum wage? So many of our public policies and indeed our own opinion and attitudes Bryan Stevenson said are “created at a distance” This is what we are constantly learning at St Martin’s: It is the excluded that will teach you what it means to be excluded. It is the disabled themselves who will teach you what it means to be disabled and also share the abundance of their gifts. It is the LGBTQI community who will teach you what it means to be LGBTQI. It is people of colour who will teach us how to confront institutional racism. This is what we are discovering in Nazareth. To quote Sam Wells: “It is a miracle of grace that God meets our scarcity through the abundance we discover in those apparently more exposed to scarcity than ourselves. A community needing regeneration has already within it most of what it needs for its own transformation.”

This is what takes place in the coming of Jesus Christ. The one who is coming this advent is Immanuel- God with us- the one who gets proximate- With the tax collector, with the prostitute, with the sinner, the leper, the blind man, the bent over woman, the sick man by the pool of Bethesda who everyone has walked past for 38 years. I have come Jesus says to make my home with you. I will be born in poverty, I will become a refugee, I will live in your neighbourhood unseen and unrecognised, I will become homeless, I will behold you, hear you, eat with you, touch you, share my life with you, suffer the wounds of injustice, even die for you. That’s how proximate I will get.

The second thing our prophet Bryan Stevenson talked about was the need to change the narrative. You have to make the path straight. You have to start facing up to the truth about yourself and the society in which you live. You have to recognise the sin and the power of sin before you can turn away from it. Bryan talked about the politics of fear, anger, and deception which are the essential ingredients of oppression and injustice. A whole society can get trapped in the delusion. We need an era of truth and justice telling. Once conspiracy theories, bigotry and lies become part of the public narrative we are in grave danger. Preparing the way for Christ means being at the forefront of this search for truth, not a religion complicit in the deceptions and self-justifications. Stevenson said we will not recover from this history of racial narratives of violence and bigotry… “we will not recover until we commit to truth-telling about these harms.” You can’t skip the truth part to jump to the restoration. You have to face the sin first and turn away from it. You have to admit your own complicity and need before you know the meaning of Christ’s forgiveness.

The third thing he talked about was the need to stay hopeful. We cannot allow the ugliness that emerges around us to make us hopeless about what we can do. “Hopelessness is the enemy of justice. Our hope is our superpower.” He said. This hope is at the heart of our Advent call- turn away- it is possible to begin again to be washed clean, to be baptised both into death but also resurrection- to be filled with Holy Spirit and fire. If we don’t hope then we can’t change things. If we believe its too late then we cannot save out planet. We have to believe that redemption is possible. This is the heart of Christ’s message for the world. It is never too late to repent and change. It is often in such times of tribulation that new life is born. Remember Christ himself was born in the desolation of a stable.

And fourthly and finally Bryan Stevenson argued that we have to do things that are uncomfortable and inconvenient. To put it boldly the prophetic path is sacrificial and people don’t much like the idea of sacrifice it sounds too much like victimhood. But it’s not victimhood it is the meaning of love. There is no real love without struggle and sacrifice. Any parent will tell you this, every lover. It wrings-out the heart, it breaks the heart open and it makes it bigger. This prophetic call will cost you not less than everything and at times you will long to abandon it and give it up. John the Baptist will know the pain of that struggle. He will send his followers to Christ to enquire if he really is the one or was it all delusion. He himself will lose his own life for that truth as indeed Christ will. Greater love has no one than to give one’s life for those we love.

Advent confronts us with these four prophetic callings that Bryan Stevenson so powerfully identified.

  1.  To get proximate- to get close
  2. To change the narrative and begin the narrative of truth-telling about yourself hear the true narratives of others
  3. To live with hope- the hope of the Gospel that sets free
  4. And finally to be ready to face the struggle and suffering for what you believe

He also left us with this prophetic challenge, he said this:

I realised that I don’t do what I do because I’ve been trained as a lawyer. I don’t do what I do, because if I don’t do no one will, I don’t even do what I do because it’s about human rights and justice alone. But I realised that I do what I do. Because I’m broken, too.

He said:

I feel like God’s been saying something to me. And what he is saying is that we’re living at a time when too many people no longer believe in grace. They no longer believe in redemption. They don’t believe in forgiveness. They don’t even believe in love. And there’s confusion. And they’re putting grace and mercy and love on trial. And I feel like that God has been saying to me that He may need some more advocates when the time begins. And I’ve been thinking about it. I know it sounds kind of crazy, but I’ve been thinking like okay, God, I’m gonna be ready to be the advocate when they put grace on trial and mercy on trial. I’ve decided when they put grace on trial. My first witnesses are not going to be the preachers. It’s not going to be the theologian, teachers. My first witnesses are going to be the poor and the condemned. Those who have been marginalised and excluded. Because of their assessment, we actually see that the grace of God may reveal the power of redemption for real. And so I feel like I’m living for that moment when we can see past the bigotry, the violence and discrimination, and see what it truly means to do justice and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.

Or in the words of John the Baptist- prepare the way of the Lord. Make a path straight for him.