Thoughts for the Third Sunday in Advent, 2016: the Sermon that was NOT preached at Epiphany, Sherwood because I thought the congregation looked too cold to be able to listen!
Gospel: Matthew 11:1-13
“Are you the one that is to come?” John the Baptist asks Jesus from prison. And so John reveals that even he—rough, gruff, uncompromising John the Baptist—has his moments of doubt and uncertainty. Some find that shocking. I don’t know why they should. It merely shows that like all the saints John the Baptist was human. What makes him a Saint—with a capital “S”—is of course that despite his doubts and uncertainty he hung in there.
You’ll notice our Lord doesn’t answer the Baptist’s question with arguments or proofs. He simply points to what is going on, to what he is doing, to his life, and to the life of those round him. “Go and tell John what you see and hear,” he says. Works of mercy, works of grace, works of deliverance, good news to the poor, the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, life out of death: these are the signs of God’s presence, these are the marks of the Advent of the true Messiah—as the prophet Isaiah said they would be (Isa. 35:1-10). They were the marks of Jesus’ First Advent, and they will be the marks of his Second, his coming in glory.
And what of us? When the saints write or talk about their experience of God, they generally speak of it as gracious, sustaining, freeing and life giving. And they speak the truth as they have found it. When atheists write or talk they don’t, by definition, speak of their experience of God since they don’t believe God exists. They speak of their experience of religion, which they find graceless, oppressive, imprisoning and deathly. And I fear that they, too, often speak the truth, for only too often religion is all these things. That is why I think God must both love the church and hate it. God must love it because it hands on the stories and the traditions and says the prayers. God must hate it because it so often puts people off the very things it is handing on.
So what shall we do? One of Groucho Marx’s all time great wisecracks was, “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” Combining this with our Lord’s answer to a troubled and confused John the Baptist, we have perhaps a clue as to the nature of the Christian life and witness to which we should strive. It is not that, when our faith is challenged or when someone else is in doubt, we are to produce arguments or slogans, still less threats of damnation! It is rather that we are to point to a life—the life of Christ that is graceful, sustaining, freeing, and life giving, and to a community that is imbued with that life.
But can the church be such a community? It can by God’s grace and sometimes even is. And we can do our little bit to help it become that by endeavoring ourselves live that life, perhaps taking as our daily commitment the attitude that St Francis’ prayer envisages:
O divine Master,
Grant that I may seek not so much
To be consoled, as to console,
To be understood, as to understand,
To be loved, as to love.
So doing, we will be helping to form the character of a club that is indeed willing to have anyone as a member, and to which one might, nonetheless, still want to belong!
 For some reason Episcopalians are rather snooty about this beautiful prayer. I don’t know why. Perhaps it is because Saint Francis probably didn’t write it. Personally, I couldn’t care less who wrote it. It’s entirely Franciscan in spirit, and I’m quite sure Saint Francis approves of it. Let me, incidentally, commend it to you in its traditional form (which I quoted above) and not in the form given in our Book of Common Prayer. The traditional form is:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is injury, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
Where there is darkness, let me bring light.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
In pardoning that we are pardoned,
And in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Quite why the drafters of our BCP version felt free to omit “where there is error, let me bring truth” is a mystery to me. Although the omission may not be unconnected to another phenomenon that I notice lately—that so many in public life appear not to be overly concerned with “truth.” Anything goes, just so long as it makes an effective sound bite!