On 4 December we celebrated the Second Sunday of Advent. Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 72: 1-7, 18-19, Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12.
Today is the second Sunday of Advent. Last week the focus of the week was on the Patriarchs, those early heroes of the faith who had first listened to God and followed his lead. This week the focus shifts to the prophets. Many of the Patriarchs were also prophets.
The word “prophet” is formed from a Greek word which means “to tell before”. It has two parts: “pro” is the before bit; “phemi” is “to tell”. It’s the word behind the English word “fame”. The Hebrew word for prophet, “navi”, comes from a phrase meaning “fruit of the lips” and means an inspired speaker. The inspiration comes from the Holy Spirit who puts God’s words into the mouth of the prophets. God wants his people to listen to him. Through his Spirit he can speak to people directly but he uses prophets to speak his words also.
The job of a prophet is to speak for God and in so doing he or she will warn his or her listeners, challenge them, remind them of God’s law and encourage them to respond to the message that they hear. Those chosen by God as prophets are people close to God, holy and righteous. It is this closeness that gives the prophecy the ring of authenticity which allows it to be recognised as coming from God.
The way to hear from God is to spend time listening, ie in prayer. Spending time in prayer, attentive to God, allows a prophet to become familiar with God’s mind. Sometimes it’s the prayers of the prophets which have acted as a bridge between God and his people. Moses, the greatest prophet, acted in this way, standing between God and his people when God was exasperated by their behaviour.
Suffering is also the lot of the prophets often. They are not always popular as they speak the truth about a nation or group as viewed by God. Jeremiah was beaten and put in the stocks after prophesying in the temple. Elijah was threatened by Jezebel and fled for his life. Ezekiel was called by God to lie on his side for 390 days to symbolise the judgement that was coming upon God’s people.
Of course, what we usually associate with prophets is telling the future. God gives prophets an opportunity to see how history will unfold and to speak or write of what they have learned. For us as Christians, the foretelling of events surrounding Jesus are very important. In the gospels, we find references which suggest that incidents are to fulfil a particular Old Testament prophecy. Those who study such things have concluded that Jesus fulfilled over 300 Old Testament prophecies.
Isaiah, whom we have read from today, is part of the great group of prophets from the Old Testament times who had pointed the people to the future when God’s chosen one would come, when the kingdom of God would be a reality. His writing is an example of both foretelling the future and encouraging the people in the midst of the present difficulties of life. Isaiah was followed by other prophets of course, each with a message for the people. Many times, the messages fell on deaf ears. Finally, the prophecy of Amos came true and there was a famine for the Word of the Lord. God seemed to stop speaking through prophets. He was silent for 400 years.
Then suddenly, as though from nowhere, a strange man – John – was at work in the Judean wilderness. Dressed in camel hair and with a leather belt around his waist, he reminded people of the prophet Elijah. The fact that Elijah was supposed to arrive before the much longed for Messiah set people thinking and asking themselves questions.
John’s message sounded like that of the prophets of old as he called the people to repentance and announced the arrival of the kingdom of God. Matthew quoted from Isaiah claiming that John was the expected voice calling in the wilderness. Something told many of the people that this was indeed God finally speaking again through a prophet after the long famine. Here was the final prophet whose job was to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah.
We read of people flocking to see John from the whole area. Convicted by John’s powerful preaching they took the opportunity to be baptised in the river Jordan as a sign of repentance and preparation for the coming kingdom. Even the religious leaders went out to see John and asked for baptism. We can’t know what their motivation was in asking. Perhaps they were genuinely excited about what was happening and wanted to be part of it.
Like the prophets of old, John not only told of what would happen in the future and reminded the people that they should be following God’s law, he also challenged them. He particularly challenged the religious leaders to look at their true motives in coming for baptism. It was not enough to go through the motions. The result of their baptism needed to be a changed heart and way of life, one that bore good fruit. It was not enough to rely on their ancestry and their meticulous following of the law. God could replace them in an instant if he so wished. They would be foolish to be complacent.
In this time of Advent, we too are called to look inward and examine ourselves. We could easily say that we pray regularly, attend Sunday services at our offline churches or in the Cathedral on Epiphany Island, give to charity and so on. John warns us that we cannot rely on that. As we look to Jesus’ second coming we know that it will be a wonderful time but also a time of justice. As John said, Jesus will come in judgement and look at how we have lived in the light of his teaching. He will bring an axe to cut down and burn the trees which are not bearing good fruit. He will separate the good grain from the chaff and burn up that which is not fit for the kingdom.
As Isaiah says:
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
The axe, the fire, the winnowing fork – sombre warnings from John which were echoed by Jesus in his teaching ministry. We can’t play at being Christians. It will not be outward form that will be judged but our inward selves, our hearts.
This Advent let us all take the opportunity to get ready for the day of the Lord’s return.
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor