A sermon preached by Clare Heard, LLM, on 7th December 2014.
At Christmas: Words in a time of global strugglewritten by Peter Millar, Christmas 2011
They are not strangers,
those who today oppose tyrants
and corruption in high places.
Nor are they faceless ones,
those who walk with death
to gain our accustomed freedoms. They are not,
“an enemy within” –
but witnesses to truth,
illumining multiple falsehoods
amidst the dark places of modernity. And in their courage we can encounter something deep within ourselves –
the “tender voice of solidarity”.
For in their quest for justice,
and in their songs for freedom,
they are prophets of truth –
our sisters and brothers -
humbly reminding us,
of what it means to be human
amidst the fragile glitz of Christmas.
Today is the second Sunday in Advent, which focuses on the prophets. And what are prophets?
They are not fortune-tellers. Nor are they doomsday predictors. Rather, they speak of what is to come, based on what they see in the present. Or to put it another way, they speak out against the corruption and sins they see in the present and warn of future implications.
They are truth tellers……they see the world clearly, perhaps through God’s eyes, and speak out the truth to a world, which usually does not want to hear.
Truth-tellers are essential, but are often not very popular. As people, we are simultaneously in need of, yet resistant to, truth. As Gloria Steinem said…“The truth will set you free, but first it will really piss you off” (her language not mine!).
Truth is a difficult subject – it has the ability to both hurt and support - the ability to break down and build up. If told at the right times it has the power to shine light into darkness and make the path straight before us.
In today’s gospel we are introduced to John the Baptist. Mark presents him as Elijah (as described in 2 Kings) – a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist, whose return signals the coming of the Messiah.
One commentary I came across describes John the Baptist as a combination of Crocodile Dundee and Billy Graham – holding rallies in the wilderness.
John is a big personality – people flock to see him – but as we know, being a truth teller does not always end well – look at both John and Jesus. Truth upsets people.
John is someone who lives on the edge of society and can therefore see more clearly – he pushes aside the artificial differences used to separate the high and mighty from the despised and lowly. He breaks down barriers and levels the ground. Again – this upsets people, particularly powerful people.
And so in today’s readings we hear the call: Prepare the way, make straight the paths – get ready for the Messiah to come.
Like John and Jesus, we too are called to be truth tellers as we prepare for Christmas. Otherwise Advent and even Christmas itself will simply be a sentimentalized, saccharine story about shepherds, donkeys and an adorable baby in a manger. But the truth…..
Mangers are smelly, the stable was probably very cold, babies are incredibly demanding - and to be fully human – as Jesus was – is hard work. This is truth of Advent and Christmas.
As we get ready, as we wait for Jesus to come, we can remember the truth about the incarnation – that in becoming fully human, Jesus committed himself to a life of hardship and pain, because he spoke the truth.
So if, as children of God, and co-heirs with Christ, we too are called to be truth tellers, what then?
I don’t know about you but I’m not sure I always know what the truth is. Do I trust the media to tell me what is true? Not really……sometimes perhaps. Do I trust banks and businesses to tell me the truth……not really. Do I trust my friends and family to tell me the truth….. sometimes (do I want to hear them…..not always). Do I trust myself?
Wisdom is needed to discern truth, and also a recognition that we might have got it wrong – a certain humility is necessary.
As with all things, starting with ourselves is often best – Jesus said – first take the plank out of your own eye, so that you can see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye. But as James pointed out last week – facing the truth can be painful. It can mean admitting to and facing the darkest places within ourselves. It can mean dealing with deep pain. We are forced to see what we may not want to. No one escapes – we all have those dark places within us.
But whilst that is the starting point, it is certainly not the end. Sin is so much more than our individual failings and weaknesses. It is not just our so-called personal depravity, unworthiness, questionable morality.
Jesus cannot be reduced to a private salvation. He was received, celebrated and eventually crucified precisely for his embodiment and practice of social possibility. On the anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s death, we remember the prophetic message he delivered throughout his life – against the powers that put down, hold back and condemn – fighting for equality and justice for all.
We too have to face the powers that perpetuate sin, the nations that nurture sin, and the structures that situate sin as justifiable.
We have to take them on by telling the truth –as Karoline Lewis says – we must tell the truth that names our own compliance, our own conformity, and our own acquiescence to the kind of sin that tolerates inequity…the kind of sin that believes we have got beyond the -isms that exclude and excuse…the kind of sin that insists on the protection of institutional ideologies thereby rationalizing acts of dehumanization.
There are many evils in this world that need to be faced……from ongoing slavery, appalling working conditions and pay for the poor, and mistreatment of prisoners, to the ongoing abuse and destruction of our world’s resources, cruelty to animals and the increasing gap between rich and poor (to name but a few).
Acknowledging this can be even harder than facing the truth in ourselves…I think partly because the truth can be hidden, we don’t always have all the facts – think of the Iraq war...and also, we don’t always know who to confront or how.
There are now many organisations that provide ways to get involved on a global scale – Amnesty International, Green Peace, WWF, and Christian Aid, to name but a few. But we must not forget to also look closer to home, even on our very doorstep, which will not be without similar issues, struggles and suffering.
Telling the truth can also be difficult, because people do not always want to listen, and if they do want to listen, because the truth is sometimes very painful. As Cannon Andrew White wrote before he left Bagdad:
“How I long to be able to say something about my beloved Iraq but I know that you my friends want to know the truth, the truth is not nice”.
Andrew White is someone who tells the truth…..he has been consistently speaking truth into the situation in the Middle East, in spite of having MS, and now, back in the UK with a bounty on his head, he continues to work to make the truth known – that Christians in the Middle East are being tortured and killed – and not just Christians, but Shia Muslims, Yazidis – and any others that are not Sunnis.
Throughout the world and in every area of life there is a need to tell the truth – and to tell it in a way that lets God’s light in. We are called to make straight the paths but we also have a gospel to proclaim – good news.
As our readings today remind us; God is bringing comfort (Isaiah 40:1-11); God is bringing the radical presence of his peace (Psalm 85:8), God is bringing the security of his promise (2 Peter 3:9)”
We need to hold onto this Good News – this is the foundational part of our truth – God brings salvation, God loves us, God shines light into our darkness.
And so we wait in advent – we wait for Jesus, the light of the world to come. And as we wait we listen for the truth tellers – the prophets of today, such as Andrew White, such as protestors refusing to accept injustices, such as friends who challenge us and confront us – and we try to tell the truth ourselves.
And this week, we are being called to repentance - not simply for our own individual sins which we know are many and perhaps easier to admit because we can keep them to ourselves.
The harder truth this week is to admit our communal sin, our national and our global sin, in the presence of one another. As James said last week, we regularly refuse repentance in favor of blame and ignorance, scapegoating. Are we willing to let God’s light shine in and see and hear the truth?
Truth is often not popular – we may struggle to hear it and find it even harder to speak it. But the beginning of the good news needs prophets, it demands truth-tellers willing to speak out. The good news of Jesus Christ promises, for the sake of the world God loves, that God’s love will be told, truth and all.