In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
We may be governed currently by people who think that experts aren’t important, but I love to listen to an expert who knows his stuff and can explain it to the rest of us- whether it’s David Attenborough on wildlife or Brian Cox on astronomy, or Neil Oliver on history. And I do love Melvyn Bragg’s Radio 4 show, In Our Time, with the best people in their field (there was an excellent one on Dietrich Bonhoeffer recently).
A few weeks ago I heard an expert give a fascinating talk. I had a day out in Aviemore with my son, as we both attended the Annual General Meeting of the Strathspey Railway Association (the sort of thing I’m sure you all love to do on your weekends!). At the end of the meeting, we had a talk from Stephen Muirhead, the chief signalling engineer for Network Rail in Scotland, who told us about the improvement work which happening on the Highland Main Line between Perth and Inverness. It’s okay, I won’t go into all the details! But he told us how they are laying new track and installing new signals, in order to make the trains faster, more regular and more reliable. Our signaller really knew his stuff, and could explain it to us laypeople: how what they were doing would affect us when we travelled that route in future.
What I also found interesting, however, was how he also knew his history. He was able to tell us about what the signal boxes used to do, and why the stations had been laid out the way they were. He could tell us about the changes that had happened over the years- branch lines built and closed, once busy sidings no longer needed, even why the platforms were the length they were (in some places they are making the platforms even longer). But this wasn’t just nostalgia, or a geeky interest in the technology of the past. He showed us how the history of a signal box or a station had practical consequences for today.
For example, he explained that the track from the north into Aviemore was not quite straight- it had a bit of a kink in it, a curve which was there for no apparent reason. But it was a leftover from there having once been a junction there, which had been taken out decades ago. Just in the last few weeks, all the track at Aviemore has been replaced, including that odd curve in the track. So now the trains can approach the station faster, knocking a few seconds off the timetable, getting you out of the Highlands that wee bit quicker (if you need to!).
So when you feel frustrated that your train isn’t as fast as you’d like it to be, consider that it might be because of something that happened years ago. Our signalling engineer and his colleagues are building on Victorian infrastructure which they are having to adapt. He needs to know, not just about modern technology, but also why his predecessors built things the way they did, so that he can come up with solutions for today and for the future.
Sometimes we can feel trapped by the past. We are heirs to the decisions made by others in the past. That’s what’s hard about parenting- you want to pass on the best of our values to your children, but you have to be careful your prejudices don’t stifle them. Even the greatest achievements of the past might not be what we need today. I discovered the other day that the girders of the Forth Railway Bridge don’t allow for modern electrification: the Victorians couldn’t imagine electric trains. Our railways are rather like churches- great structures, designed, however, in another age, which need reconstructing and adaptation if they are to serve us today and in the future.
Sir Isaac Newton, commenting on his discoveries, observed,
If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
For Newton was building on the achievements and discoveries of his predecessors. Without forerunners such as Galileo, he couldn’t have made his contribution to science. (Here’s a thought about history and science- Newton died in 1727. Last week, NASA landed their Insight probe on Mars. But they couldn’t have done it without Newton, whose theories of gravity are still what the spaceflight planners use to work out how to get to another planet).
All institutions have a past, which it is necessary to understand it you want to know why they are how they are. A few years ago, I did a tour of the Palace of Westminster and, yes, the history of that building helps explain why this country is where it is now! I’ve discovered that about church congregations. Every congregation has a history (in our case, a very long history) which explains how we got to where we are today. And knowing some of that history is really important as we try to work out what is in the future. The tricky part, however, is not to let the history become a snare. There might, once, have been a good reason for that kink in the track; but maybe the time has come to straighten it out. If there are things in our buildings, or in the life of our congregation, which need to be straightened out, then we should straighten them, not matter how venerable they might seem to be.
John the Baptist spoke of making the road ready for the Lord, and making a straight path for the Lord to travel:
The winding roads must be made straight,
and the rough parts made smooth.
For John stood on the cusp of God doing something new: ‘someone is coming who is much greater than I am’. And yet John must have seemed like an old-fashioned figure to his contemporaries. Even today, encountering John the Baptist in the New Testament is a bit of a shock, for he reminds us of the prophets of the Old Testament: people like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Amos, calling on the nation to repent, warning of judgement to come if they do not. John is old time religion in the New Testament!
The Hebrew Bible, which Christians usually often to as the Old Testament, was what Jesus and his contemporaries called ‘The Law and the Prophets’. At the heart of the Hebrew Bible is the Law of Moses: a prescription for living which is still at the heart of the Jewish faith, and which rightly continues to form the basis of Christian morality.
So, like the prophets of old, John reminded the people of the Law of Moses, and he called on them to apply the Law today. The Law of Moses called for righteousness in a person. In the Old Testament, it is above all who we treat other people that makes us moral. And in particular, who we treat the poor and needy. Always, the prophets called for justice for the poor; and for the privileged wealthy not to abuse their power.
And so, when the people ask John how they can avoid God’s judgement, it’s interesting that he says little about religious practices, other than baptism. Nor does he talk about sexual morality (at least, not to the ordinary people; but he will lose his head for complaining about King Herod’s sex life).
Instead, John says: if you have two shirts, give one to someone who has none; if you have food, share it with someone who is hungry. Tax collectors back then were notoriously corrupt, overcharging the people and pocketing the profit; John tells them to stick to the law, not to take more than they should. Soldiers were not to misuse their power to steal or to accuse people of crimes of which they were innocent. The summary of John’s ethical teaching in Luke is remarkable. It is all about how we treat those less well of, those less powerful, than we are. It reminds us that generosity and mercy is at the heart of Biblical morality. John the Baptist is like a bridge between the past- between the Law and the Prophets- and what is to come- the Messiah the prophets had promised, who will bring righteousness and justice to the world.
And here we should pause to remind ourselves that, just as Newton stood on the shoulders of giants, so our Christian faith stands on the giant heritage of Judaism. Too often, Christians have tried to remake Jesus in their own image, forgetting or ignoring that he was a Jewish rabbi. But the church always goes badly wrong when she denies her Jewish roots- and that has had tragic consequences. Even today, new forms of antisemitism are causing anxiety for many Jewish people. Well, to those who want to make claims about Jewish conspiracy theories, or those who want to promote antisemitism for political ends, Christians can only say a firm ‘No!’ For Christianity has its roots in Judaism, and is nothing without that heritage
John the Baptist reminded the people of the best of their history: of the great Law which God gave them to establish justice in their society and of the call of the prophets to live righteously in both their public and private lives. Yet John also says something new is coming- someone greater than he. Long ago, God had made covenant with Abraham, for Abraham was a man of faith. But now, the people of John’s generation were no longer to rely just on their descent from Abraham. Like the prophets of old, John tells the people that it was not enough to depend on the faith of their ancestors. Now, they were to rediscover the faith of Abraham for themselves, take the faith of Abraham to heart, make the faith of Abraham their faith. For God would soon be doing a new thing, and everyone had to be prepared.
The times, however, were not good times. The prophet Jeremiah had promised, centuries ago, that there would be a king in David’s line in Israel; but there was little sign of any of that in John’s day. Israel had really ceased to exist as a nation. Part of the land we under Roman occupation- a Roman governor reigned in the City of David. Some of the Jewish territories were ruled by puppet kings- the wicked Herods, who owed their power to Rome.
Yet John proclaims hope to the people nevertheless. ‘Be prepared’ he preaches: ‘Make the rough smooth, straighten out the winding roads of the past. There are going to be baptisms of Spirit and fire. God is doing new things, even now, even in these unpromising times!’
And that, I think, is the message we, too, need to hear this and every Advent. We might think that the time is not right for a revival of faith in these faithless days. We might see little hope for God’s people when we are unjustly ruled. We might be unable, as yet, to see the new thing that God is about to do.
But in every age, God does new things. In an age of exhaustion, God promises us strength like eagles wings. In an age of injustice, God make it possible for us to live righteously. In an age of selfishness, God make it possible to live selflessly. In an age of greed, God help us be generous. Under the very noses of unjust rulers, the reign of God will begin to appear. In an age when faith itself seems to be receding, God can make the faith of Father Abraham come to life in our hearts. In an age of lies and confusion, God will send prophets to remind us of how to live honestly.
Advent is not a time of waiting for Christmas. Advent is a time of waiting for God. Advent is not a time of hoping God will give us faith. Advent is a time to use the faith we’ve got straighten out our lives. Advent is not about being busy in the shops. Advent reminds us to be busy for God: we have mountains to demolish, and valleys to be filled in. Advent is not a time to look back with nostalgia, or wistfulness, or sadness at what once was. Advent is a time to look forward in faith and hope and trust in God.
God is doing a new thing- in our lives, in our churches, in our world. Perhaps we can’t see it yet- in fact, all the signs might be that is isn’t happening. Perhaps the greatest gift of the Christian Gospel brings is the gift of hope. Even when things seem bad, Christians are always people of hope. For God is doing a new things. So we need to be prepared!
Ascription of Praise
To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.
1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2018 Peter W Nimmo
 Letter to Robert Hooke, 1676; ODQ 574.7