s002g98 Somerton Park Advent 2 6/12/98
"Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight." Matt 3.3
Perhaps it is because I am a male, but, if one has the time, to be able to stop and watch civil engineering works happening can be as satisfying as watching a fire on a cold night during winter. I recall a good friend (hi David :-) who used to live in Sydney and who worked in an office tower in the CBD - saying how he saw a particular building being built across from his office, essentially from the ground up. The person knew the building more intimately than those who eventually worked there. I recall that when the Myer Centre in the city was being built, similarly, passers-by often stopped to watch the progress of construction. There was something majestic, solid and yet not on the surface especially complicated. I suppose it's every boy's dream to be a front end loader driver, moving dirt and rocks to and fro. There are times when I think I could cope with grading the sand at Glenelg beach rather than being a member of the clergy :-)
Another significant development at the moment in our State is the freeway bypass below "Eagle on the Hill", something that has been "going to be done" for almost as long as plans have existed for the construction of the Adelaide to Darwin rail link. This bypass will mean perhaps a two and a half kilometre trip will be cut down to three quarters of a kilometre. Even in time terms it doesn't mean too much - perhaps a four minute stretch down to perhaps just over a half a minute - are we not getting just a little impatient? But of course not. To be rid, once and for all, of the "Devil's Elbow" and the other twists and turns that are such a hazard, particularly for interstate transport trucks, will be a major achievement. If you have been past there, you will see the magnitude of the project. Our "Advertiser" has given us details of the earthworks. The joining of the two tunnels made possible by the latest global positioning satellite technology. Millions of dollars being spent in filling in valleys and tunnelling through hills to make a straight path for the traffic. So much effort has gone into the project, and it should alert us to the effort that might be needed just to prepare the way of the Lord. Hard back-breaking slog - but not without it's joys and sense of achievement at the end of the day.
As I think about "preparing the way of the Lord" it seems that there is a component of work allotted to us, and there is also some work done by the Lord. We are not bidden to do miracles, just the ground work, and the Lord will do some things too.
John rails at the religious people who come to him: "Do not .. say .. "We have Abraham as our ancestor ..."" To have a qualification of being a descendent of Abraham, hardly a pimple for any Israelite, is a huge mountain to climb for anyone descended from Japheth and Ham, the other sons of Noah - or descended from anyone else in the 10 generations after the flood down to Terah the father of Abraham. It excluded an enormous number of people. But John the Baptist tells us: "I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham." (Matt 3:9). God is not adverse to getting into the hard yacka too: "Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees" (Matt 3:10). God is about clearing away the debris that gets in people's way of coming to God - all the qualifications that humanity puts on others and often just as frequently the qualifications we put on ourselves.
I have said often enough, Jesus' ministry was to come to ordinary non-religious people to enjoy their hospitality. It was not all "beer and skittles" though, he had to get a bit physical with the money changers and the pigeon sellers. Somehow people got in the way of other people in the name of religion, and they were cleared away.
Within ourselves, we too can think that there are obstacles which we must overcome, in order that we might worthily approach the throne of grace, or that hinders God from coming and accepting us. If I can use a gender-specific word - and that is only because I don't know how to make it not so - God is the perfect gentleman - in the sense that if God perceives us to be shying away, God leaves us be. God realises if and when the reasons we have to shy away are appropriate and proper too. It may be our own misunderstanding of the faith, and we will not be penalised or derided for that.
The barriers between us and God are as imaginary as the æther, they exist in our minds alone, and yet they are as pervasive and can be stubborn as we ourselves are to shift.
And the importance of this message coming in Advent - is that this is what Jesus' ministry was predicted to be, even before he came. Right from the earliest proclamation before Jesus even arrived, John the Baptist announces that the coming messiah would break down the perceived barriers between God and ordinary humanity in fulfilment of the ancient words of the prophet Isaiah.
We see in the ministry of Jesus how he went about associating with one and all, the religious people and those with no pretensions of being religious. There were no barriers to Jesus' acceptance.
And the work of the Holy Spirit in the early Church described in Acts is all about breaking down barriers - real and imaginary - between God and people. After Peter's tortuous conversion, the penny finally drops and Peter declares, as we read (significantly in the first lesson for Easter each year): "The truth I have now come to realise is that God does not have favourites ..." (Acts 10.34).
The paradigm has changed. Ultimately it is humanity and religion which has more to do with the erection and maintaining of these barriers. Jesus was crucified by the religious people for trying to clear them away.
Our religion has nothing what so ever to do with reconciling a disappointed and seething God to a wicked humanity. That would be to put a division between Jesus and God which the orthodox faith would never allow - it is the force of the words in the Creed "of one substance with the Father".
But more importantly neither is our religion based on a foundation of reconciling humanity to God, for that would mean we have failed to perceive that this has actually already occurred. Jesus might never have been crucified and raised to life!
The Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ tells us in no uncertain terms that God has already done all that is necessarily to be done to reconcile God and ourselves ... so that we can get on with the job of being reconciled to one another. This is what our religion is all about.
That I should even have to say this after nigh on 2000 years, means that there is still some ground work to be done - that the Cross is not just a quaint historical event, but a necessary present clue to saving us from trying to achieve by our own good works or acts of devotion, something which has already been done for us by God. That it has already been done means that we can shift our focus completely away from worrying about God's relationship with us - whether we are going to "get into heaven" or not - to shift our focus to where it rightly should be - seeing the good in others - as Jesus did.
I sometimes wonder if I get a little repetitive in my sermons, but there is really only one gospel, that it has already been done for us. There is only one "Christian" ethic, following Jesus who accepted the contributions one and all made to him. From Advent to Easter, the constant message is that anything that may appear to stand in the way of ordinary people with no pretension of being religious to God, is in fact illusory and done away with. Nothing from God's side of things or from our faith's side of things restrains us from fellowship with everyone else, and accepting them as they are. But when I say: "Nothing ... restrains us from ... accepting ..." I am immediately conscious of how lame a statement this is. Jesus came and lived, died and rose again, not to instruct us about what we are not restricted from doing, but to encourage and grace us to do ... as we would have others do to us ...
Recently the Tuesday Bible Study has begun looking at the book "This is our Faith" (the Anglican Edition of "Your Faith" edited by Jeffrey John in association with Affirming Catholicism - a Redemptorist Publication April 1998) and on page 9 it states "It is our Christian faith that every single person is touched by God and that the experiences that draw us to a deeper sense of our self-value and the greatness of the human spirit is the work of God within us." I can but say "Amen".
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