When she first suggested I preach, I panicked. "What, who me?!" was my internal response. But, it felt cowardly to say "No, thank you." And, an opportunity for growth and exploration to say, "Yes." Planning and prepping the sermon as difficult as I'd imagined it would be.
Unlike my 'day job' teaching/lecturing on Shakespeare, where I have a regular, captive audience at my mercy for well over 3 hours at a stretch, and feel as if I could push the metaphoric "Play button" in the back of my head, and discourse at length on "Auto-pilot", I felt a real constraint in this process. It felt comparatively like so little time, with so much more important information to communicate and express. It also felt more delicate, more precious. A real privilege and honour.
The texts for this Sunday, the 2nd Second Advent, are centred on John the Baptist - not the easiest topic to cover, as far as I'm concerned. But, I gave it a shot. And, the feedback was very positive and supportive. (The congregation had been warned it was my first sermon!) They are a really lovely parish, very warm, friendly and diverse, with a good range of ages and constituencies: young families, singles, kids, older people, etc. And, of course, my "high church, Episcopalian background" set me up with a good foundation for pitch, tone and style. (Thank you, St Luke's!)
Toward the end of the service, we sang "Whom Shall I Send", an old favourite hymn of mine from my Catholic university days. It felt as if Fr Labran was there, wishing me well and saying "Well done."
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Sermon for 8 December 2013
“Voices in the Wilderness”
“In those days John the Baptist came into the wilderness of Judea proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” For he is the one about whom Isaiah the prophet had spoken: “The voice of one shouting in the wilderness, Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight.’” (Matt 3: 1-3)
I don’t know about you, but I have always found John the Baptist more than a little intimidating. I recall quite vividly seeing Franco Zeffirelli’s iconic film Jesus of Nazareth with Robert Powell as a gently stoical Christ, and which featured Michael York as a heavily bearded and severely bedraggled wild man, John the Baptist.
Even at the tender age of 10, I was struck by John’s courage and conviction, his willingness to sacrifice himself to proclaim the Good News, but I also felt a deep sense of discomfiture and unease with his missionary zeal, his rather aggressive methods and tactics. I remember feeling embarrassed and deeply uncomfortable watching John berating and humiliating Herod and his wife, Herodias, publicly for all to see and witness. If this was a chief example of Christian evangelism, it was indeed a tough one to follow.
Undoubtedly, we can, in equal measures, be both inspired and overwhelmed by the examples of saints and evangelists, past and present – such as the 20th Century martyrs who bedeck the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey – whose extraordinary lives were each characterised by a fearless faith, and the same courage and conviction.
However, courage and conviction have their place in the small moments of life as well. We are not all called to die for our faith, or to eat locust and honey in the wilderness, but we are called to live with courage and conviction, and to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ with passion and purpose. How we achieve this is as unique as we are, in our own individual circumstances and situations.
I believe the great Christian thinker and writer, C. S. Lewis, recently honoured with a plaque in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, provides us with a very useful example. In 1941, C. S. Lewis took on a commission from the BBC for Christian advocacy to present “a positive restatement of Christian doctrine in lay language” for the average man. Lewis was the perfect man for the job. His voice, described as “one part Belfast, nine parts Oxford”, was one of compassionate and sensitive authority. More important than his elocution, was his sense of himself as a “fallible chap speaking to other fallible souls”. This came across clearly over the airwaves, offering listeners the requisite combination for conveying the “awkward seriousness and strangeness of Christian faith”: Lewis possessed a tangible sense of ordinariness, coupled with the possibility of transfiguration.
Lewis was more than acutely aware of his audience, and the incredible need to “meet them where they were”, in the wilderness of his time. His wartime audience, huddled around their wirelesses, amid sirens and rubble, in streets of ruined houses, hearing the nightly bombers overhead, were seeking a cosmic world view that not only spoke to their experience, but also enabled them to make sense of it. His words reached hundreds of thousands, and then millions of listeners, who soon became readers.
For it is, of course, through his writings that most of us – particularly in the post-war generation – have come to know and love C. S. Lewis. I remember encountering The Chronicles of Narnia, and particularly, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe as a child: roughly around the same period as seeing Zefirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth. The incredibly produced animated film brought Lewis’ timeless characters to life. I remember weeping as I’d never wept before at the demise of Aslan, and the joy and recognition I felt when he returned from the dead. “It’s Jesus, in disguise!” I remember declaring quite vividly through a surge of pre-adolescent tears.
The beauty of Narnia, and the magic of his portrayal of Aslan, lies within Lewis’ bold and daring attempt to recreate profoundly and viscerally – on the page or screen, for readers and viewers of whatever age – what is like to encounter and believe in Jesus Christ.
As Former Archbishop Rowan Williams put it: Lewis’ gift lies in making fresh that which is thought to be familiar. Sharing the “Good News”, he says, is not so much a matter of telling others what they have NEVER heard, as much as it is persuading them that there are things that they have NOT heard, when they think they have heard it all.
This leads me back to Troublesome John. What can we learn from John the Baptist? What were the key features of his ministry: Purpose, Preaching, Passion, and Personal Witness. These are the hallmarks of every evangelist – of whatever variety or style. John’s essential message in his preaching was: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" (Mt 3:2).
Rather tellingly, the word “repent” in Greek translates as: “To change one’s mind.” That, I think is the central point of evangelism – to offer others a fresh perspective, a new way of seeing or experiencing the Love of God.
And so, what about us – in our modern day wilderness of cynicism, strife, corruption, commercialisation and overarching secularism? Not many of us would be drawn to a life wearing clothes made of camel hair, eating locusts and honey, whilst hurling admonishments from the rooftops – although I do actually know a few people who might like to have a go! Similarly, we also may not be gifted with the quiet genius of a C. S. Lewis, to create volumes that inspire generations, or to produce a prolific flood of Christ-inspired words read by millions.
How can we, then, in small but substantial ways advance the Kingdom of God, to prepare the Way of the Lord, to be ourselves ‘Voices Crying out in the Wilderness’ of our daily lives?
Here’s a small range of possibilities for us to think about during Advent, Christmas and beyond: -
* If you are sending out Christmas cards or issuing a Christmas letter to friends and family this year, why not select a religious themed card, one with a Bible verse, or add your own personal favourite Biblical text to your cards and letters.
* Invite a non-churchgoing friend to the Carol Service or Midnight Eucharist.
* Saying sorry, and really meaning it. Unfortunately, this time of year can place us all under a considerable amount of stress. And stress can lead to grumpiness, moodiness, crankiness, and short fuses particularly with those nearest and dearest to us – spouses, family, friends or coworkers. This season, in addition to saying “sorry”, let us try making a real effort to change, and put an end to that kind of behaviour.
* Rediscovering Prayer. This Advent, why not commit to developing a more disciplined prayer life. We cannot overestimate the power of prayer. Praying for the world, praying for the Church, praying for others and praying with others. Resolve to pray with your spouse, children, neighbour, or a friend, if you’ve not done so previously. And, praying for ourselves: that God will give us the grace and the opportunity in the coming year to be “lights in the darkness.”
Perhaps, to alter slightly the words of Mother Teresa, who encourages us to commit “Random acts of kindness”, this Advent we could strive to commit “Random acts of Christianity.”
At the heart of Christ’s message is the unconditional and redeeming Love of God. We know from that oft-quote passage in Corinthians that “Love is patient, kind, &etc.” How can we put this into practice in our daily lives? This I think is more a matter of Being than Doing. Taking a grace-full – as in full of grace – approach to our daily activities and interactions.
As C. S. Lewis once put it: Christianity is not what you say, it isn’t what you write, and it is not even what you believe. Christianity is what you do, because of what you believe. Life, for Lewis was meant to be in itself an act of faith; and prayer, a way of thinking and being.
Advent is meant to be a time of reflection and preparation, what better time then to pause and prayerfully consider the time that has been and the time that lies ahead – and ways in which we, too, are, have been and can be witnesses and heralds for Our Lord, voices, crying out in the wilderness.