12 December 2010     ADVENT III     James 5.7-10     Matt 11.2-11

Prepare and make ready

Collect: O Lord Jesus Christ, who at your first coming sent your messenger to prepare your way before you: grant that the ministers and stewards of your mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready your way by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at your second coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in your sight; for you are alive and reign with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

The focus of today’s collect and readings is Our Lord Jesus Christ and his first coming; more particularly the focus is St John the Baptist and his preparing for the coming of the Christ. Appropriately at this Embertide, the Baptist is held up as a model for the clergy, whom the collect, following St Paul , describes as the ministers and stewards of the mysteries of the Lord Jesus.

Ministers, in Greek, ‘υπηρέται, is a word denoting underlings, slaves, who were at the beck and call of others. At my ordination to the priesthood the preacher roundly declared that all the clergy - bishops, priests and deacons - were skivvies and shouldn’t forget it. Yet teir role is ambiguous for they are also stewards, that is, slaves of a higher rank, responsible for the running of the entire household and its stores. The household for which the clergy are responsible is that part of the Church which has been committed to them and the stores are the mysteries of Christ. These mysteries are the truths which they are commissioned to teach. These truths are called mysteries not because they are a secret collection of knowledge such as the Gnostics believed in but because they are truths which were once unknown but are now revealed and open to all who will receive them.

In the desert of Judaea St John received the truth he had to proclaim: ‘the Lord is at hand’. This was startling news and caused huge excitement. It was a message of imminent deliverance. ‘The Lord is coming with the fire of the Holy Spirit and the fire of judgement.’ Repent and show the fruit of penitence in lives transformed and ready to welcome the Messiah. No doubt in the desert John dreamt of water, water to quench thirst and water to transform the desert into a green pasture. So baptism in water became the sign of lives transformed and good.

The ordained ministers of the Church are in a similar manner to prepare and make ready the way of Jesus; his way into people’s hearts and lives by bringing home to them the truths of the Gospel. It isn’t an easy task, as the Pope in his address to Parliament remarked when he expressed his concern "at the increasing marginalisation of religion, particularly of Christianity" and invited all of us within our respective spheres of influence to seek ways of promoting and encouraging dialogue between faith and reason at every level of national life.

Blessed John Henry Newman preached on the feast of the nativity of St John the Baptist about the duty of the clergy to rebuke sin. Our collect puts this duty more positively: we are to turn the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just.  

This happily expresses the Pope's desire that we demonstrate the reasonableness of the Christian faith and so move our nation from an attitude of neglect and even hostility to faith, towards a greater appreciation of religious faith.  

Newman said, "St John the Baptist had a most difficult office to fulfil; that of rebuking a king. Not that it is difficult for a man of rude arrogant mind to say a harsh thing to men in power - nay, rather, it is a gratification to such a one but it is difficult to rebuke well, that is, at a right time, in a right spirit and a right manner."  He continued,  "The Holy Baptist rebuked Herod without making him angry; therefore he must have rebuked him with gravity, temper, sincerity and an evident good-will towards him. On the other hand, he spoke so firmly, sharply and faithfully that his rebuke cost him his life."  

It isn’t my intention to encourage a rash of rebuking either in the community or the college. We probably do quite enough. Yet there are occasions when some keep silent when they ought to speak. Most of us need the grace to receive and accept correction gratefully; I certainly do myself.

I end with the collect for the feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist:

Almighty God by whose providence your servant John the Baptist was wonderfully born and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Saviour by the preaching of repentance; lead us to repent according to his preaching and after his example constantly to speak the truth, boldly to rebuke vice and patiently to suffer for the truth’s sake through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Crispin Harrison CR