A Sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

Matthew 3:1-12

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying… Amen.

And so, this second Sunday of Advent, we go into the wilderness.

Each liturgical year we are blessed by journeying with the story of God who we know in Jesus. On two occasions in our liturgical year, in Advent and in Lent, we find our cathedral adorned in purple, and we know ourselves bidden to come, to come into the wilderness.

We will find a strange character there to guide us. In fact we will find two strangers there. For …

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight.” ’
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 
(Matthew 3:1-4)

John the Baptist is our guide and his appearing in the wilderness is sudden. Something is happening. God is at work. John says the kingdom of heaven has come near. We will wonder what this means. John is dressed strangely and he eats strange food. Each detail matters. Every strangeness has a story, and the details of John’s appearance connect deeply with the story of the people of Israel.

The story is told in the First Book of Kings[1] of when King Ahaziah has suffered an injury. The king sends messages to a foreign god enquiring about his prospects.  The return message comes to him from “A hairy man with a leather belt around his waist.” Ahaziah immediately knows that this is Elijah. God’s prophet Elijah. Who harassed those, and especially those ruling the people, the kings, who were not faithful to God. John’s identity is found in his clothing. He is a prophet, he is the new Elijah. He is the one who will harass us when we are not faithful to God.

Shall we go to the wilderness? Shall we spend time with him?

John eats locusts and wild honey. There is a story to this prophet’s strange food as well. Locusts were one of the plagues God sent when Moses was trying to free the people of Israel from slavery under Pharoah in Egypt. The plague of locusts darkened the sky and clogged up the land. The people could barely breathe, struggled to live. The plagues were meant to change Pharoah’s mind, to soften his hardened heart so that he would free God’s people. The locust plague is to bring about change, repentance. John’s food is the food of repentance.

And the wild honey? The story of the wild honey is the story of another prophet, the prophet Ezekiel. God gives Ezekiel a scroll on which is written, “lamentation and mourning and woe.” (Ezekiel 2:10) Ezekiel eats the scroll and he finds that it tastes as sweet as honey. The sweet honey seems to be found in embracing, literally eating, “lamentation and mourning and woe.” John faces the truths of human existence and finds there the sweetness of the truth of God, God present, God accompanying us, when struggle is faced.

Yes, we meet a strange character in the wilderness. But there is another stranger we meet there. No, it’s not God. We will speak of what God is doing in a moment. The other stranger that we will meet in the wilderness, if we dare to go there, is ourselves. For repentance means facing truths. Truths that we may barely even know belong to us. We can only repent, turn, literally, change our minds, if we know who we are, meet who we are.

John’s identity is given as of one who wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and whose food was locusts and wild honey. 

What is our clothing? What is our leather belt? John’s clothing tells us that he is a prophet. Who are we? What is the essence of us? Are we our work, our vocation? Are we our role in our family, our community? Are we God’s child? Is that our essence? What has God made us to be?

The writer of Matthew’s gospel uses the words of the prophet Isaiah to describe John – John speaks with, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” ’

And what do we cry out? We might see ourselves as silent but what, then, do we long to cry out? About what do we most care? What one thing would we most love to be healed? Our planet, the world’s need for peace? The awfulness of so many refugees living, against their will, far from home? Or do we care about what we might think are small things, our frail neighbour, our child, the bees whose habitat is under threat? Nothing is small to the one who places our loves on our hearts.

And then there are the locusts and the wild honey … What plagues us? What darkens the sky around us and clogs us and makes it that we can barely breath? Is it sickness or jealousy, is it despair at the state of things, in the political realm or the religious realm, or is it worry? As the smoke of bushfires clogs our nostrils and darkens the sky is it worry about our future? What holds us back from living the life God gives us to live?

And the wild honey? When are we so honest with ourselves that we sense that we are living with integrity, that we know we are living in God’s sweet truth?

Here in the wilderness we find two strangers – John and ourselves. And now, then, what of God?

Lucy Winkett, Rector of St James, Picadilly, in London and previous Canon of St Pauls’ Cathedral said the following

“I trust in the dynamic nature of God that I am told about in the Book of Genesis but that I experience in life, which is that God brings order out of chaos, that in the troubled waters where things are chaotic and thrown apart that God can somehow, not usually by ordering, or by organising, but by hovering like the spirit hovers over the waters of chaos, something creative comes out of that and order is brought out of chaos.”[2]

God hovers. When we go to the wilderness, we find God hovering there, God is present not usually by ordering, or by organising, but by hovering …

God sees us, hovers near us, if we dare to go to the wilderness, to spend time pondering who we are and with what we struggle. God will guide us when we spend time wondering about the essence of who we are. When we spend time remembering what it is we wish to cry out, about what we care most deeply. God will forgive us when we look at what plagues us and see that some of it is guilt, guilt perhaps about something we greatly regret, some way of being we just can’t seem to shake, something of which we are ashamed. God will open our eyes as the prophet Elijah opened King Ahaziah’s eyes, to the foreign gods we worship, be it financial security, or our position at work or in society, or how we look, or how we wish we looked. God will hover close to us when we allow the truth of the “lamentation and mourning and woe” of our own lives or the world’s life to come upon us and we find strangely the gentle sweet presence of God comforts us and gives us the strength to go on.

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. John says.

The wilderness is the place of repentance with the God who loves us hovering as we face the difficult truths of our lives.

We read this gospel passage from the Gospel according to Matthew a little over two weeks before Christmas comes. Before we will sit before the manger. Before we will remember again the extraordinary truth of the incarnation. That God was born.

The wilderness is the place of repentance with the God who loves us hovering as we face the difficult truths of our lives in preparation.

Michael Leunig put it this way.

Dear God,

We pray for another way of being:
another way of knowing.

Across the difficult terrain of our existence
we have attempted to build a highway
and in so doing have lost our footpath.
God lead us to our footpath:
Lead us there where in simplicity
we may move at the speed of natural creatures
and feel the earth’s love beneath our feet.
Lead us there where step-by-step we may feel
the movement of creation in our hearts.
And lead us there where side-by-side
we may feel the embrace of the common soul.
Nothing can be loved at speed.

God lead us to the slow path; to the joyous insights
of the pilgrim; another way of knowing: another way of being. Amen.

Nothing can be loved at speed, indeed. The wilderness where John the Baptist is our company and God hovers nurturing our repentance is the place where we might know this as we wait for Christ’s birth. That nothing can be loved at speed.

[1] 1Kings 1:1-18

[2] Lucy Winkett speaking on Pilgrim Course video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=98EN48qcPHc&feature=share