Sermon for 2nd Sunday of Advent: A look into the future: preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday 5 December 2021 by The Reverend Christopher Huitson. (Baruch 5; Luke 3: 1 – 6)
The Oracle at Delphi was well known in Classical times for the answers the priestess gave to questions that were asked. But it was also famous for the ambiguity of the answers – perhaps she was high on vapours rising from a chasm in the rock though she was still clever enough to give answers which needed interpretation. You may know the most famous one posed by Croesus King of Lydia (in what is now Turkey.) He was concerned by the rise of Cyrus who had united the Medes and the Persians to make a formidable foe. Croesus wanted to attack them but needed to know if that was a good idea so he sent messengers to ask the oracle at Delphi “Should he go to war with the Persians?” The answer came back: “If Croesus goes to war, he will destroy a great empire.” Croesus happily thought that the great empire was the Persian one and that he was going to be victorious. Unfortunately, as we know, it was his own great empire that Croesus led to destruction. He had misinterpreted the ambiguous answer.
We have many modern examples of the human desire to know the future. We don’t have an oracle but we do have SAGE, so beautifully named to suggest the wisdom of the group of scientists. It can’t be easy to predict the path of a variant virus and indeed their pronouncements are a bit ambiguous. They speak of models and ranges of answers and dependency on human behaviour all of which might influence the actual result. They give us various possibilities but find it difficult to be absolutely certain.
Today is Advent 2 when we especially remember the prophets of the OT as you can see from the section which accompanies the lighting of the Advent candle for Advent 2. You might think that the prophets were foretelling the future and it is true that Kings would have bands of prophets available for consultation on important matters. But often their answers too were unreliable. We are told how to distinguish between true prophets and false ones in Deuteronomy 18:22. If, after a reasonable length of time the words of the prophet remained unfulfilled then the prophet was false – not very helpful. If what he said did come to pass then he was presumably a true prophet. 1 Kings 22 has a long discussion about true and false prophets.
But in time prophets were much more people who proclaimed the way of God; they denounce the people for their backsliding and failure to keep to the religious law and came up with dire warnings about what was going to happen if they didn’t change their ways. But there were also messages of hope promising that God would act on behalf of his people again. There was an element of looking to the future especially when Israel and then Judah were overrun by much more powerful empires and taken into exile. It is likely that the religious leaders pored over the writings of the main prophets – people like Amos or Hosea or the authors whose writings make up the 3 sections of Isaiah, in an attempt to make sense of the disaster which had happened to the people.
So we come to our Gospel reading from St. Luke. The first two chapters give us accounts of the births of John the Baptist and of Jesus and then give us a glimpse of Jesus aged 12 visiting Jerusalem. But all that is something of a prologue. With Chapter 3 we begin the main part of the gospel and St. Luke sets it all in the context of major figures in the Roman empire and in Jerusalem and in such a way that it can be dated for there was no calendar of the sort that we have. There are secular works of the time which use a similar device. The 15th year of Tiberias works out at 28 – 29 A.D. Pilate was procurator from 26 – 36 A.D and although Annas ceased to be High Priest in A.D. 15 he was succeeded by Caiaphas, his son-in-law, so Annas continued to exert great influence. St. Luke seems to think that they were joint high priests but that is not so.
What a contrast there is between this world of the rich and powerful, those with great political influence, whose words could mean life or death – a contrast between them and John the Baptist in the wilderness and Jesus a small-town carpenter from an out of the way province. Yet it is they who are the chief characters and it is Tiberias and Herod and Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas who are the bit part players even though their decisions and actions are crucial in what is to unfold. And so I wonder if St. Luke mentioned them not simply as a way of dating the beginning of his account but also because he has an eye on their appearance later in his gospel and the Acts of the apostles.
Having done that we find that we are given words from Isaiah, words of hope and confidence, words which overturn the dreadful experience of exile and which point to a new creation by God. The author of these verses we label as second Isaiah since the style and ideas are in such a marked contrast to the first group of chapters and, indeed to the final ones. He imagines a great highway built all the way from Babylon to Jerusalem so that the Lord God could lead the exiles home. This was not a road for commerce or trade but one fit for God and his people as they triumphantly made their way home. Our first reading today from Baruch 5 also imagines this magnificent return of the exiles.
The prophetic words of John the Baptist and of Jesus were unambiguous, speaking the truth without confusion. Jesus also spoke about a kingdom, but one which was heavenly and which was bound, not for destruction but for eternity. And the only battle was between good and evil. The ultimate victory for the good was going to be achieved by the sacrifice of Jesus himself, but the battle is not yet over as can easily be seen from the many horrific events which newspapers and TV news programmes tell us about every day.
So at this early stage in the gospel account St. Luke is marking the beginning of the mission of Jesus as a time of preparation. “Prepare the way of the Lord” was applied by second Isaiah to his vision of the road to Jerusalem but St. Luke sees that it is open to be applied to Jesus himself. Since the name “Jesus” means “God saves” so the salvation of God is easily linked with Jesus through his very name.
As for us, well Advent is meant to be a time of preparation for us too. There is much preparation of food and presents going on but we as Christians are especially called to prepare spiritually for Christmas. So we move, over the next few weeks, towards our celebration of the birth of Jesus and prepare to hear again the gospel accounts of Jesus bringing to fruition the coming salvation of God.