SERMON BY THE VICAR
Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11, 2 Peter 3:8-15, Mark 1: 1-8
“We thank you for your visit to us in our distress and for remembering us. We are people of peace and people of this land. We will not leave it.” This was said to me by one of a community of 27 nuns who had three hours to flee ISIS before that group overran the city of Mosul. The nuns left with the clothes they stood in and now live in temporary caravans in Iraqi Kurdistan. At Archbishop Justin’s request I went there last week, and have just come back from that visit, where the stories of pain and loss have been seared in my heart. That Iraqi nun was articulating the shared inheritance of Muslims, Christians and Yezidis in Iraq and Syria, and stands in direct contradiction to a political theory common in the west. This theory, called the Clash of Civilisations, put forward by Samuel Huntingdon, in his book of the same name, holds that Islam and Christianity are diametrically and fundamentally opposed, that each has a civilisation of its own, and that the natural state between the two religions is war. Arab Christians tell another story - the common heritage of the two faiths, and their shared scriptural inheritance. John the Baptist, whom we commemorate today, is a good example of this.
John the Baptist, cousin and forerunner of Jesus Christ, has a pre-eminent place in the Christian faith. In the Orthodox tradition, which we have in the Chapel over there, Christ is always in the centre of the picture, with his mother to his right and his cousin to his left. Both the Blessed Virgin Mary and John the Baptist point towards Christ in the centre. He prepares the way for Jesus Christ, as we do in these four weeks of Advent. Like John the Baptist, we are all, in the words of the Collect or Prayer for this week, the messengers and stewards of the Gospel. And like psychologically well-balanced people, we don’t need to put ourselves in the centre of the picture all the time. There is something priestly (small p) about stepping back and not needing to be in the centre of the picture. So it is with John the Baptist.
The readings for today all help us see this more clearly. First of all, the prophetic message of Isaiah,that the way of the Lord is being prepared and all wrongs are being put right. This is the central prophetic message, which was inherited by John the Baptist. It is a message of comfort, a message of hope, and a message about the present and the future. Everything, which diminishes humankind and creation as mirroring God, will be put right. The words of Isaiah are these, “ He will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom” Of course these words were written eight hundred years before Christ, but the writers of the Gospels and the other early Church writings took them and interpreted them as referring to the coming of Christ. It is the coming of Christ, in this scheme of things, which will put all things right. This is the ultimate message of hope.
We see this same message of hope in the Second Letter of Peter with these words, “We wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.” In other words, the Christian message is about the fulfilment of what has gone before and is the culmination of the prophetic message. This is a message again of encouragement. Listen to these words,, which are part of the Advent message “Rejoice always.” If you want a message for cotemporary London, it’s that. A culture which knows how to complain, snipe, and drag down desperately needs it. Stand on a crowed tube on a cold wet day in London, and think those words to yourself, “Rejoice always.” And it’s amazing what it does. But my advice, for what it’s worth, would be to say the words in your own head, and not with your mouth.
This brings us to the heart of the Gospel, which we hear today. Into our human darkness, and into our physical darkness in the northern hemisphere at this time of year, comes, the light of Jesus Christ. In the Gospel according to Mark, John the Baptist points to the meaning and significance of Jesus Christ. We hear this message two thousands years later, and it is s startlingly new. Fresh, and relevant. It speaks to our situation as it spoke to John the Baptist's with its message of encouragement, light and hope. And it has this freshness every time we proclaim it. It’s a bit like spring blossom- every year it appears, and every year it is like a miracle. We don’t look at it and say, “same old blossom. Saw it last year” So it is with this central Gospel message of the coming of Jesus Christ into the darkness of the world. He is light. He is hope. This is what John the Baptist brings to us.
John the Baptist is part of the shared inheritance of Christianity and Islam. The great Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, the former Byzantine Cathedral of John the Baptist, contains, by tradition, his head. The Kingdom of Jordan is promoting inter-faith pilgrimages for Christians and Muslims to the sites associated with John the Baptist in that country, especially to the place where John was baptising on the Jordan River. This project, paid for by that Muslim country, is developing the church and pilgrimage site as a place of worship for all people. And that site has more significance than we imagine. Remember that the Jordan River lies in the Jordan Valley, part of the Great Rift Valley, which continues across the Red Sea into East Africa. That part of the Jordan Valley is roughly 1,000 metres below sea level. It is the lowest place on earth. And where does John the Baptist begin his message? From the lowest place on earth. The symbolism of this is obvious. Down to the lowest and deepest place of human need comes the message of the good news of Jesus Christ. It comes into the impenetrable darkness, where nothing can keep it out. It is this faith which is sustaining the 1.2 million internally displaced people in Iraqi Kurdistan. I heard it again and again in stories of searing human pain in the caravans, disused buildings, tents, and other temporary shelters where people who have lost everything are now living in the cold of winter. I heard it from a mother who had lost her children on Mount Sinjar, I heard it from orphaned children who had lost their parents, I heard it from young women and men who had been raped, and I heard it from priests, nuns, and Bishops, themselves now refugees. They may have lost their homes, their livelihoods, their education, and their dignity, but nothing can take away the faith which sustains them.
In the coming weeks and months, supported by the international community of which we are part, hard work needs to be done after ISIS have become a footnote of history, to enable Christians and Yezidis to return to their historic homes. They are clear what they want and need. The right of return should be supported by the legal means for them to regain what they have lost, and an international peacekeeping force, working with the Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga, must be set up to protect them. Those who have committed gross human rights violations must be brought to justice, and something akin to the Truth & Reconciliation process of South Africa should be set up to help to restore trust in communities which have been fractured. With the right political will all of this is achievable.
This was a sobering visit, and brought me back to basics. As I danced to Jingle Bells with orphaned children in the shell of a derelict hotel which they had decorated with a flashing Santa, and an icon of John the Baptist they said “We are down to earth now. Come and dance with us.” This is light in the darkness. As we approach the end of the year, and look forward in vision and hope to the next, may this central message of light out of darkness carry us forward. And for our part, encouraging a response of loving service will lift the spirits and raise the heart. Remember we are a community set physically and spiritually on top of a hill with all the symbolism that contains. So enjoy the rest of this Advent season. “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances.”