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Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent
I pray that I may speak, and that you may hear, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
So we come to the third Sunday in Advent, and we have heard, in the lessons, about the prophesy in Isaiah, and more about John the Baptist the forerunner of Christ.
John is never under any illusion about who he is, he knows that he is a messenger, the one sent to 'do what the prophet Isaiah preached.', not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the Prophet, but the thunder in the desert, making the road straight for God!.
However, he needed to know if his job was finished so, if we can remember the reading from last year, he sent his followers from where he was imprisoned to find Jesus, and ask him if was indeed the Messiah, so that he, John, would know that his job was over, and could relax knowing that the Messiah had come, as he had predicted.
Now John was what we might call a hellfire preacher, shouting for repentance from sin in the face of the wrath of God; he spoke of the axe cutting down the dead trees, and the unquenchable fire waiting for the empty husks from the threshing floor. All symbols of the descent into the fires of hell that he was predicting that the Jews were heading for.
Jesus' reply may have been a surprise to him. Was it a yes or no. Was Jesus new teaching of mercy and forgiveness anything to do with John's teaching of hellfire and damnation.
Jesus didn't even endorse John's work as his forerunner until John's disciples had gone back to the prison to report to their master. So what are we to make of this.
Last week Martin said something that set me thinking about the events of that weekend, particularly the funeral of George Best and the events that preceded it. Martin said that God loves everyone, Saints and sinners alike.
And indeed he does, he makes no distinction between the highest and lowest in the land, no difference between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the homeless guy sleeping in the shop doorway at 2 degrees sub-zero. Indeed I think Rowan Williams would agree that the guy in the doorway might just edge it if a choice had to be made.
I am going to make an admission now. I said some harsh words about George Best when he had his Liver transplant, became well again and yet still squandered his last chance by falling off the wagon again, and then drinking himself, quite literally, to death, a very public death witnessed by the whole world's media and, therefore by us.
I should have known better, and it was the funeral that brought me back to some sort of sense of compassion. I don't know if any of you saw the funeral. Correction, I do know that Liz watched it, and I suspect a few other football fans did too.
I didn't intend to watch it at all, but turned on the television whilst I was sitting on my bed bending to tie my shoes (not the easiest of jobs, you will realize) and came across the funeral when it was already in progress and one of George's friends was telling the huge congregation about his friendship with him which stretched over many years.
Then his son spoke, with a moving poem; his sister spoke candidly, about their rift and then her great love for him. His consultant, who had tried so hard to save him spoke of him, not as a patient, but as a friend, and he had much more cause than I to be mad at George for drinking away the good that the transplant he performed had done.
By this time Mum, hearing what I was watching from the hall, had joined me, and the pair of us sat riveted to the screen, perched on the edge of a bed, when we could quite easily had migrated to the living room and watched from the comfort of our armchairs.
But you couldn't walk away from this genuine outpouring of compassion and real love for a man who was, by his own admission, and with tremendous understatement, 'a bit of a lad.'
Now it wasn't just the funeral that set me thinking about my attitude, and made me realize how wrong I was to be cross with George instead of sad that the booze finally beat him.
Suddenly, I could see a direct parallel with my own uncle, my mum's brother who died thirty nine years ago, at the age of forty-six, when his liver, almost literally, fell apart with the effects of alcohol, leaving the surgeons, in those days long before transplants, with nowhere to go.
Saints and sinners Martin, just as you said last week, we're all the same in God's love, and if there is one thought we should hang onto this Advent, it is that. Christ came on a cold night, in a filthy stable, to teach us exactly that, and to die in the end for our sins, so that we wouldn't have to experience the Baptist's predicted Hellfire and Damnation.