On 10 December, 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 85:8-13, Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8.
If you were to look along the shelves in a bookshop or browse online, you would be able to find many books which deal with the topic of self-improvement. I suppose it’s logical to conclude that if so many books are written on the topic, there must be a ready market for them. The only reason to improve self must surely be because people are dissatisfied with the self they currently have – not fit enough, organised enough, efficient enough, slim enough, confident enough, clever enough, rich enough, and so on. There is a chronic lack of self-esteem around.
You might think that Isaiah likewise has a pretty poor opinion of the human race in general. In the midst of comforting the Jews who were exiled in Babylon, Isaiah says something that doesn’t look very comforting at all. He compares people to grass or flowers which have a transient existence – here today, gone tomorrow. It’s hardly a flattering comparison. It doesn’t confer much value on us. It’s hardly likely to bolster anyone’s self-esteem. However, from an eternal perspective it’s probably a fair comparison. In the history of the whole of creation, each human life is just a tiny blip, a little blink of light and it’s gone.
However, that’s not the whole story. In the nation that is the Kingdom of God, everyone – however short a time they live, however pretty, clever, fit, slim, rich or confident they are or are not – is of infinite value. God doesn’t disregard anyone but goes out of his way to care for them. At the end of the passage from Isaiah we hear how God feeds his people; he gathers up and carries the weak and the young; he gently leads those who carry the burden of responsibilities.
In Advent we remember just what God has done in order to care for us when we have the greatest need of all, something that all the self-help books in the world can’t deal with. We remember that from the beginning God has had a plan to help us reconnect with him when our wrong choices open a gap between us. That plan was the incarnation in which the Son of God became a human being and lived among us. The prophets pointed forward to the incarnation and it seems Isaiah particularly caught God’s vision. In the wilderness that is human life, a highway was to be made and God would travel it and come to us to show us his glory.
John the Baptist picks up Isaiah’s message, 400 years later. His was the voice crying out that the time was fulfilled, God’s plan was forging ahead, the Messiah was coming. Isaiah reassured the exiled Jews that the punishment for their disobedience, their sins, was coming to an end, they had learnt their lesson. Going their own way rather than God’s way had left them lost but they were going to be able to go home again.
John the Baptist gave the people of his time a way to deal with their sins. He preached about repentance. Repentance simply means recognising that we are travelling the wrong way in life, even if it seemed good before, and turning around. The very fact that people came from far and wide to hear this message from a wild and strange man out in the wilderness suggests it was something that spoke to their hearts, something that they recognised in their more honest moments. To show their sincerity, each was baptized in the river Jordan, confessing their sins, as a way of making a new start.
There may have been Gentiles who came to John for baptism but there must certainly have been many Jews also. These were people who had God’s word available to them, who had a long history of being God’s chosen nation to whom he revealed himself, and yet for many that was not enough – they were still travelling in the wrong direction.
Just being a Christian, as many of us here are, is not a guarantee that we have everything right in life. We have been given even more than the Jews. We have Jesus as our example, we have the gospels, we have the promised Holy Spirit, but we can still be travelling in the wrong direction in life. Advent is a time to think about our own lives in the light of the incarnation. We take time to check if during the year we have strayed from the path we should be following. We can be reassured that God will always forgive us if we recognise our mistakes and confess them. As the psalmist assures us: if we listen, God speaks peace into our lives, not condemnation, and that helps us to ‘turn not again to folly’. The knowledge that we have a new start is an encouragement to keep on the right path.
Jesus’ teaching comprised principles by which we are to live: love God, love neighbour. Everything else flows from this. Those are the signposts that point us in the right direction.
Our Posada has Mary and Joseph wandering around SL, visiting many homes and gathering places. If you were to trace the route on a map of SL it might look somewhat random. However, we know that they will arrive at the stable on Christmas Eve because overall, their direction of travel has the right focus. It’s the same for us. We are sure to wander at times, get thoroughly lost sometimes, but what matters most is the direction of travel. Are we travelling towards becoming more Christlike despite the detours? Advent is a good time to ask the question and to take advantage of the new start God offers us if we find we have gone astray.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor