Sermon preached on 15 December 2019 – Advent 3
Readings Isaiah 35:1 – 10; James 5: 7 -10 and Matthew 11: 2 – 11
Bathed in the Autumnal sunshine of the October half-term, a group of us cleared a huge amount of greenery from our church car park – almost 2 skips worth! And as we hacked away, we suddenly came across a coil of chicken-wire – obviously put there to protect something.
After further investigation, and more clearing, someone with a longer memory of Wilton than me said:
“Ah, that’s the millennium yew!”
And indeed, there was – and is – a dark green yew tree not very tall, having been comprehensively smothered, for several years, but very definitely alive!
At the time, I’d assumed this was some quirky Wilton tradition – a wooden millennium cross erected in the old churchyard, a new yew planted in this one.
But then, yesterday, I heard a tribute to the late David Bellamy, in which it mentioned “Project 2000” – an initiative inspired by him, which encouraged churches up and down the country to plant a Yew tree to mark the new millennium. So that, presumably, explains why there is a millennium yew in our churchyard, which hasn’t figured that much in our collective consciousness!
For the benefit of those who don’t know who I’m talking about – David Bellamy was a TV personality in the 1970s, 80s and 90s – and a trailblazer for ecological conservation long before it became the live issue it is today.
His particular interest was biodiversity – with a concern that we didn’t lose any of the species of our natural countryside. And he surprised many people, in later life, by saying that he didn’t think much about global warming – something regarded today as a primary driver for loss of species.
And it’s a sign, perhaps, of how things have moved on – that in the same week that he died, Time magazine named Greta Thunberg as it’s “person of the year.”
A new generation has produced a different ecological champion, with a very different outlook – although the fundamental aim of conserving the natural world, remains the same.
She is heralded as something of a prophet – and like all prophets before her – her words cause sharp and polarised reactions, from those who hang on her every word to those who write her off as an irritating upstart.
Such prophetic voices are not only hostage to developments, over time, in our collective understanding, but also to the popular mood of the moment.
And that can change very quickly.
Spot light on John the Baptist. It always seems odd, at this time of year, that he gets two bites at the cherry – featuring in last week’s gospel reading and again today. But note the difference – last Sunday he was flavour of the month – the crowds flocking to him for baptisms, even when he was seriously rude to them
Now he’s in prison, awaiting his grisly fate – his moment of glory has past.
And yet, in today’s reading, Jesus seems to be assuring him that his legacy is already secure – that Jesus himself IS the one John had been waiting for, and that John can now safely hand on his life’s work to Jesus.
John himself had always been clear that he was not meant to be centre stage – his role was to prepare the way for one who is greater than him. Jesus, in turn, pays warm tribute to John – “among those born of women no-one has arisen greater than John the Baptist”.
And yet – still, he asserts that John is the messenger, not the message: pointing to the kingdom but not yet “of” the kingdom.
Every prophet, it seems, plays his or her part in the greater transformation of the world by disturbing the consciences of men and women of their own time, inspiring them to look further and to seek the kingdom of God – but each is limited by the knowledge and culture of their own time.
Perhaps, then, our Advent our readings encourage us to acknowledge the legacy of John – and all those who’ve proclaimed the kingdom of God in earlier ages – AND, at the same time, to look out for the signs that God’s kingdom is already breaking into and transforming our world, and to play our part in bringing about that transformation:
to look out for the signs that Christ IS present in our time and in this place, to allow ourselves to be transformed by his message of redeeming love;
and to encourage the next generation to grasp that message and to interpret it for the world of tomorrow.