That Moment

December 8, 2019

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Preached by Canon Mark Collinson, using Matthew 3.1-12 at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 8th December 2019, the Second Sunday of Advent.

Four years ago, on my first Christmas here I was down to give the talk at the Family Carol Service. Rather provocatively I dressed up as a rough looking immigrant. I put on an overcoat which a friend had given me when I was student, over 30 years ago, and that was a coat she had bought from a charity shop, so you can imagine it had seen better days. I wore a tatty looking football scarf, and a peaked baseball cap, an old rucksack, and I cut out a sign from cardboard, saying ‘Immigrant – have mercy’.

I sat down outside the entrance at the West Doors as parents and grandparents full of Christmas cheer were streaming into the cathedral holding little Jonnie’s hand and little Jemima’s hand, expecting the wonder and joy of the nativity story. It somewhat spoiled their experience to find what appeared to be a homeless person tugging on their consciences in a year when unstoppable immigration was daily hitting the headlines. Few people looked at me and only one or two of worthy character actually spoke to me. Let’s face it, I was an embarrassment.

As I attempted to enter the cathedral, the sidesmen dutifully followed their role description and kindly advised me that this service wasn’t for the likes of people like me, and it was only when I pulled down my scarf to reveal my dog collar that I could persuade them that I was in indeed the new Canon Principal, and if they threw me out of the cathedral then there’d be no-one to give the address.

At the appointed time, I ascended on to the nave dias and took off my coat, and scarf and hat, to reveal my red cassock. The point of the sermon, in case you were wondering, was that I and my family were immigrants that year, having brought up our children in the Netherlands. Some immigrants are not what they seem.

My sermon went on to point out that Jesus was also a refugee and immigrant, not just as his family escaped persecution to Egypt, but his home was heaven, and he came as the Son of God to make his home on earth; he moved from heaven to earth, he pitched his tent, and dwelt among us.

Just like a homeless immigrant cluttering up the West End entrance, John the Baptist was also an undesirable embarrassment – a reminder of  the failings of society. He dressed all funny, I can imagine he must have been rather smelly, he had a strange diet of locusts and wild honey. At least he kept himself to the wilderness but he was nevertheless an embarrassment to the religious authorities. His message was uncomfortable: don’t expect the Messiah to come to the glory of the Temple in Jerusalem, here’s a voice calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make a straight path for him in the desert.’

John the Baptist was a direct threat to the religious authorities in the temple. Normally ritual washing happened in the many full immersion baths that existed just below the gates of the temple.

Going to the Temple was a bit like going to the baths in the days when that was how you got clean: worshippers would strip off, immerse themselves and be purified, and donning a set of clean clothes for worship would go directly into the temple to make their sacrifice to God and so be cleansed from their sins, both inside and out.

John used immersion in the River Jordan instead; baptism means to be soaked or drowned, and it was an immersion of repentance that brought forgiveness of sins outwith the Temple system. And despite being an undesirable, his message was compelling. People from Jerusalem, and all Judea, the whole region, went out to see him, to hear him, to experience that spiritual rejuvenation. Repentance is a life changing  moment, setting a new direction, a kairos event that defines both a before and after.

A member of our School of Mission team had a spare advent calendar and they put it in our coffee lounge, so at 11:00 when we have a team coffee break, the most deserving member of the team opens the window and delights in the contents. It’s a Green and Blacks calendar, containing a mini-chocolate bar for each day. This led to conversation about advent calendars aren’t what they used to be.

I know two people who have gin advent calendars that offer up a bottle a day. The festive spirit is upon us. Advent used to be a penitential season – now it’s Christmas come early.

John the Baptist’s call to repentance asks us to suspend our cheer and face reality.

There are certain moments in life when you put everything on the line, when you discard the fripperies of life, and are stripped back to the very core of who you are:

  • Declaring your love for your spouse in your marriage ceremony.
  • The sheer incomprehensible wonder of holding your new born child in your arms.
  • The raw grief of laying a loved one in the grave.

These are moments when there is no hiding, when there is a before and after, a pivot in time, when life takes a new turn and there’s no going back.

John the Baptist is pointing us towards , in the coming of the kingdom, and the coming of the King. The Advent season prepares us to meet the King, which is the most significant event in our lives, as we anticipate how we will respond to Jesus.

Will we respond with hearts repentant,

with souls yearning for forgiveness,

with our lives ready to be moulded and shaped by his Holy Spirit and cleansing fire?

Will we kindle the kingdom of God in the crucible of our hearts?

Much as I would like to think that voting on Thursday will solve the dilemmas we face in this country, I doubt the results of the election, whoever wins, will be the same pivot in time as meeting Jesus can. When the news cameras film the new prime minister stepping into Number 10, it will not be a kairos moment that turns the world upside down.

Sharing in this Eucharist may be. Kneeling before the altar rail here at the front of the cathedral may be a turning point for you. It’s a moment when we can meet Jesus, through a blessing or receiving bread and wine. Ask the Lord Jesus to meet with you and baptise you with his Holy Spirit and with fire, and see if your life is not turned around and set in a new direction.