Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 7th December 2014
7 December 2014 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Tony Kyriakides, Chaplain
If you take a short walk from here, along Whitehall to Trafalgar Square, you will discover the National Gallery in which hangs this nation's collection of paintings: western European art covering a period from the 13th to the 19th centuries. Among the paintings, you will find many of John the Baptist who, today, we encounter in our gospel reading.
John the Baptist is a significant figure in Christian tradition because he straddles a time line. On the one hand he signals change, for the Christ has come, and yet on the other hand he provides continuity with the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. This sense of continuity and change is captured most strikingly in Carlo Crivelli's 15th century altarpiece that is on display in the National Gallery. In his reredos of nine saints, Crivelli paints John the Baptist standing besandaled on the banks of a river while the other saints stand on elaborate marble platforms. It is as if the Baptist, while belonging to this illustrious gathering of saints, is set apart.
He is instantly recognisable: thin, emaciated with long curly hair and wearing a camel skin. However, what is more distinctive, both here and in other paintings, is his hand gesture. He is pointing. It is the perfect symbol for the ministry of a forerunner. He is the pointing one and he is points to Christ.
Crivelli leaves no doubt about this, for John holds a scroll on which is written three words, Ecce Agnus Dei, which translated means 'Behold the Lamb of God'. The 'Lamb of God': John's description of Christ, the sacrificial lamb whose death would take away the sins of the world. The 'Lamb of God': words which find a place in this and every Eucharist when, following the consecration of the bread and the wine, we are invited to receive the body and blood of Christ, the priest saying: 'Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world'.
John points to Christ. John signals change for the Christ has come, but he provides continuity with what has gone before, for Christ has not come in a vacuum. The history of Israel provides the moral, spiritual and conceptual backdrop to the coming of God's Son.
The gospel reading we heard a moment ago, Mark's account, makes this clear that sense of continuity. Mark draws attention to the clothes John is wearing, reminiscent of the clothes worn by the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:8) for another Old Testament prophet, Malachi, had foreseen the return of Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord's coming (Malachi 4:5-6). No wonder, then, that many assume John to be Elijah. Mark goes further and draws attention to Isaiah's call to prepare, to make straight a path for the Lord. And where is the path to be made straight? In the wilderness. And where do the crowds now find John? In the wilderness. The wilderness: an allusion to the tradition of the Exodus and wilderness-wandering as God leads his people to the Promised Land. It is in this history of Israel that we find the contextual backdrop to the coming of God's Son in Jesus Christ.
Mark here sketches the 'story of God' but for us it is a story that involves more than just that Israel's history, important as that history is. It is a story which the theologian, Sam Wells, characterises as a drama in five acts, like a Shakespearean play. And those five acts?
Act one locates the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ not at his conception, nor at his birth, baptism or first stepping-out in public ministry, but in God's act of Creation. Jesus, the wisdom of God, was present in Creation and is the reason for God's story.
Act two maps out the history of Israel. The purpose of Creation was God's longing to establish a loving relationship with humankind but it was to prove an uncertain relationship marked both by failure and betrayal as well as by the faithful obedience. 'Israel strives with God, unable to live with him yet unable to live without him!'
Act three reveals Jesus, the person in whom God is fully revealed, the incarnate one who steps out centre stage. In him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell but clothed in human vulnerability. There were those who would acknowledge, follow and accept him and others who would reject, deride and humiliate him.
Act four introduces us, the Church. Israel had envisaged God's story as a three act play focusing on Creation, Covenant and culminating in the Christ, the Messiah, the one who would restore political authority and bring the story to an end. When the Christ did come, in the person of Jesus, he did neither but instead inaugurated the fourth act, us, the Church, his body in the world. A Church empowered by the Holy Spirit; a Church informed by holy scripture; a Church commissioned through baptism and a Church nurtured by the Eucharist in which the body of Christ encounters the living Christ embodied in bread and wine.
And, finally, we have act five, the end of time which will eventually be played out at a time of God's choosing. Yet we can glimpse what act five, the end of time, will hold, in the people Jesus gathers around him, those who will find a place in heaven: the disreputable, the contemptible, the untouchable, the dishonest and the immoral but, in each and every one of those lives, renewal through an encounter with God's love in the person of Jesus.
For you and I, the beginning of Mark's gospel is an invitation to become a part of this drama of God's story through baptism. In baptism the Christian is incorporated into this five-act play. In baptism, we become a part of God's story: where God has created us, and others, for a purpose; where Israel has responded to God's call; where God's love has become one like us and has overcome what once was the inevitability of sin and death; where the Spirit gives power and authority to the Church, and where God will end his story at a time he appoints. 'Christians find their character by becoming a character in God's story.'
John the Baptist discovered his character by becoming a character in God's story and points to Christ. This Advent, as we journey towards the birth of the Christ-child, let us reflect on two questions. Are you, am I, a recognisable character in God's story? Does your life, does mine, point to Christ?