Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: ‘Tell John the Good News’

Third Sunday of Advent
13 December 2020
10.30 Morning Service

Revd Nicholas Mercer

As we journey through Advent, we turn our attention this Sunday to John the Baptist

He is mentioned, for the first time, in our Advent Prayer together with our Gospel Reading, where we learn he is in prison

John the Baptist however is a mysterious figure and not much is known about him

St Luke provides some details about his parentage

We learn that he is the miraculous son of Elizabeth and Zachariah and that Elizabeth and Mary are related

Indeed, their pregnancies overlap

But John’s really important role is as the forerunner of Jesus

St Luke describes this as

“[going] before the face of the Lord to prepare his way…to give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins.”

This is what John the Baptist does and what he was born for

Like Advent itself, John the Baptist is the herald of Christ coming into the world

John however has an uncompromising style

He was sent ahead of Jesus to proclaim his coming but is very blunt to those who he deems to be unworthy

In Matthews Gospel, he says to the Pharisees and Sadducees

“Even now the axe if lying at the root of the tree…every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire”

He goes on to say that Jesus

“Will come with a winnowing fork in hand and clear the threshing floor…He will gather the wheat into the granary but the chaff will be burnt with an unquenchable fire”

After the Baptism of Christ, the next thing we hear about John the Baptist is that he has been imprisoned by Herod

St Mark explains that John the Baptist had been equally uncompromising in his message to the King

He rebuked him for having marrying his brother’s wife

His message landed him in jail and would eventually lead to his execution

Speaking truth to power is nothing new

Indeed, in the Old Testament the prophets are constantly confronting authority

Moses spoke to the Pharaoh and chastised him for the way he treated the Israelites

Nathan the prophet rebuked David about his relationship with Bathsheba and his complicity in the murder of Uriah the Hittite

Jeremiah spoke harshly to the King of Judah demanding that he treat the poor properly stating

Do justice and righteousness and do no wrong to the resident alien, the fatherless and the widow” Jeremiah 22: 1-3

But history tells us that speaking truth to power is a highly precarious activity

Moses was pursued by the Pharaoh

Elijah was forced into the wilderness and Jeremiah similarly escaped a plot against his life

Anyone who thinks that Bishops or clergy should not get involved with politics clearly knows little or nothing of the prophetic tradition

It is almost as old as the Bible itself

But whereas the danger in this country to the clergy is nothing more than a few crass comments in the press

/or the blocking of preferment

Mortal danger for modern prophets has not rescinded in modern times

Some of you will have been alive when Dietrich Bonhoeffer was put to death for having the courage to confront Nazism just 76 years ago

Equally, Oscar Romero was gunned down whilst celebrating Mass in 1980 – just 40 years ago

His “crime” was to hold the State to account for “poverty, social injustice and torture”

Romero actively denounced violations of human rights – and paid with his life

The account of his death is really chilling

After he finished his sermon, he stepped away from the lectern and took a few steps to stand at the centre of the altar.

A red car came to a stop on the street in front of the chapel. The gunman emerged from the vehicle, stepped to the door of the chapel, and fired. Romero was struck in the heart”

In memory of his death, in 2010 the UN marked the 24th March as a day to remember Gross Human Rights Violations

Human Rights Day itself was, fittingly, marked on Thursday last week

But even in our own more enlightened times speaking truth to power, particularly about Human Rights is an equally dangerous activity

In June of this year, a Chinese Human Rights lawyer called Yu Wensheng was sentenced to four years  

in jail for allegedly “inciting subversion of state power”

And the Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrim Sotoudah was sentenced to five years in jail for “encouraging corruption and debauchery”

In Hong Kong we saw the jailing of the pro-Democracy campaigners Joshua Wong. Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam a fortnight ago

Like John the Baptist this morning, speaking truth to power today can still result in you losing your head

The account of John the Baptist is particularly timely for the third Sunday in Advent

It first reminds us that, we too, need to prepare the way for Jesus to come into our lives

And that we sometimes need to be uncompromising about it –

There is often some tough action which we need to take in our own lives and some equally tough messages that need to be said if we are to prepare the Kingdom here on earth

But John’s imprisonment also speaks to us in Advent as well

We remembered the lonely last week, I would like us to remember those in prison this week

Those who are in prison, like John the Baptist, for speaking truth to power

And those like Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe who is a wholly innocent victim caught up in a grotesque game of political chess

And there are those whose imprisonment may be justified as well

We can only hope that, in the darkness of their prison cell this Christmas, the light of Christ still shines bright

As Jesus said this morning

“Tell John…The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news”

The Good News is at hand – the Messiah is coming