A Sermon Preached Online on
The Second Sunday of Advent, December 6, 2020
With the People of The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete
It is sometimes said by that, “We are called to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.”
If you had to put John the Baptist in the first or second of those, he would definitely fall into the second category. He was called to afflict the comfortable. After all, if you proclaim a baptism for the repentance of sins, you are going to upset some people. Some are going to say they have no need to repent, because they have not done anything wrong, or, at least, nothing significantly wrong – but I suspect they will still feel somewhat guilty.
Then there are those who reacted to John as a challenge to their authority. This would be the priests in Jerusalem. They ran the Temple there are claimed a monopoly on access to God, and through control of the Temple and influence through their allies among the scribes and Pharisees, they sought to control the behaviour of the common people. They cooperated with the Roman overlords – indeed, the Romans appointed the individual who would be the High Priest – and the priests, Pharisees, and scribes were all hopelessly compromised in collaboration.
So along comes John the Baptist. Who gave him the authority to proclaim a washing away of sins? He was outside their control, but undeniably popular among the people, and so the powerful dared not do anything to him. They did not care for this, but were imobilized by this populist, charismatic, religious leader.
John afflicted Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great and ruler of Galilee and Perea. He pointed out that his marriage to Herodias was incestuous, as she was his half-brothers wife, and she was also Herod’s niece. For this, he was put to death. Affliction has its price.
And so we have people like this today. Martin Luther King is revered today in the United States, but in his life he was hated by many, and thrown into prison. Even good white liberals were ambivalent about his tactics, asking him to leave Birmingham Alabama, to which he replied with his Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which he pointed out that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” Desmond Tutu, revered in South Africa today, was condemned by the white South African government and their American allies such as Patrick Buchanan and Jerry Falwell, alleging that he was a communist sympathiser. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, marched with Extinction Rebellion this past September; was this right? And we have many more examples.
But balanced with this is a message of comfort. From Isaiah we hear:
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!
What the priests and scribes, the Pharisees and King Herod, and ultimately the Roman governor heard was condemnation – but to the people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem it was a message of good news – the forgiveness of their sins, and the advent of the kingdom of God. Similarly, the segregationists and cautious white liberals of the American South, the white supremacists of South Africa and their American supporters, and those ignoring climate change – they all hear condemnation; in their comfort they are afflicted. Yet those who believe in equality, in the care of God’s world, hear good news and a coming liberty.
George Frideric Handel understood this. You can see it in his music.
After receiving the libretto he fashioned The Messiah into one of the most popular pieces of music ever written in the English language. It was first performed in Dublin in 1742, then in London the next year, and I believe it has been performed every year since 1749. It is absurdly popular.
- There are literally several hundred performances each year at Christmas and around Easter around the world.
- In December 1993 there were in New York City alone twenty-one performances.
- There are old-fashioned mass orchestras and choirs of hundreds, more suitable for Wagnerian opera than this piece.
- There are sing-along Messiahs, where everybody brings a copy of the music and sings along with the organ or orchestra.
- Starting in the 1970s we saw a move towards “authenticity”, with smaller orchestras and choirs of perhaps twenty, and musicians playing period instruments.
- More recently we have seen staged presentations, with soloists and choir on sets and wearing modern clothes, rather than the usual white tie and tails (see the first video below).
- And, of course, because of the pandemic there has been an on-line performance, with instrumentalists and singers all making music over Zoom.
It is a large piece requiring a chamber orchestra, four virtuoso soloists, and a choir. If done in full it usually takes about three hours, including two intermissions.
The beginning of Part One is an instrumental, followed (starting at 3:11) by words from Isaiah 40.1-3, in the Authorised Version/King James Version translation of 1612:
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: . . . The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
This is the recitative, with an unusually rich string accompaniment. The tenor’s line is gentle, reassuring, and calming.
It is then immediately followed by an aria, and the tenor paints word pictures with the music:
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:
The way the notes rise on “exalted” makes you feel as though the valleys are being lifted up, and he drops down to sing “low”, the notes for the word “crooked” sound like they bounce around compared to the ones for “plain”, and the rough places sound, well, a bit rough. It is all quite wonderful.
This is a time, I suspect, when we could all use some comforting. It has been a rough ten months. Many of us are missing the opportunities of getting together. We are sad at the departure of friends, some of whom are moving away permanently. We miss our families.
My hope and prayer is that perhaps this year we find that comfort in the Christmas gospel, that the first announcement of the good news about the kingdom of God coming with Jesus will prepare us now for his second coming – whether in the distant future of the Day of the Lord, at the hour of our deaths, or right now, in our hearts. May we see the glory of the Lord being revealed in the lives of God’s people and in the story being told, once again, of a child born in Bethlehem. May the Holy Spirit descend upon us, so that we may ascend high mountains and proclaim the good news we have in Christ Jesus.