‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’ 13th December 2020 Evening Prayer – 3rd Sunday of Advent

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20 12 13 Advent 3 Evening Prayer

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20 12 13 Advent 3 Evening Prayer

The Readings

Isaiah 40.1-8

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
‘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.’

A voice says, ‘Cry out!’
And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for ever.


Mark 1.1-11

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight” ’,
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’


New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The Sermon

By Kath, a Lay Reader at St Mary's.

For all that he is one of the best known characters in the Bible; it seemed to me that we don’t actually know that much about John the Baptist. This concerned me when I was allocated the task of preaching about him today, what was there to say about him beyond the stories that most of us know? In the interests of being thorough and making sure I hadn’t missed anything, I set about reading as much on John as I could find in the Bible and he is referred to in all four Gospels but to a large extent they say pretty much the same things. So what do we know about him? Well to start with his role is foretold in our passage from Isaiah; personally I think that the imagery used to convey something can sometimes get in its own way and I find it so with this passage which sounds more like a description of a colossal civil engineering project than telling us that someone will be sent ahead of the Messiah to prepare the way for him. Perhaps what it does successfully covey is the sheer scale of the task. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his path straight”. No pressure!

To start at the beginning of his life we know that John was the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, a blessing from God in their old age. We hear how the baby leaps in his mother’s womb when she is visited by her cousin Mary who is pregnant with Jesus. In a break from tradition the child is not named after his father. Because he had not trusted God at a critical moment, Zechariah had been rendered unable to speak but at the naming of his son, when he confirms in writing that he is to be called John, his ability to speak is restored and he begins praising God. The neighbours present are made rather fearful by what has happened and they spread word of it throughout the region. All who hear about it recognise that there is something very special about John and wonder “What then will this child become?” Zechariah makes a speech about God’s gift of the Messiah and on what his own son’s role will be. “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High: for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.”

I think it would be fair to say that most of us take a long time to find our career or path in life. Many of us make a few mistakes, take wrong turns or things don’t work out as we had hoped or planned, some of us have more than one career or vocation, some trust to providence, some just fall into whatever is available at the time and sadly some never find their way at all. For John it seems that his role and destiny were preordained before he was even born.

We hear nothing further about his life until he begins his public ministry other than that he was in the wilderness where he grew and became strong in spirit. It seems that he was taken into the wilderness to hide and protect him from King Herod’s edict to kill all the infant boys less than two years of age. I always thought that wearing camel’s hair clothing and a leather belt and living on locusts and wild honey didn’t sound like the most appealing of job descriptions but when you put it into the context of literally surviving that gives a slightly different perspective. It also stood John in good stead later in that he couldn’t be accused of using his ministry to “feather his own nest” so to speak. Instead he was accused of having a demon. It seems that sometimes you just can’t win!

As far as I can make out from the information readily available, it is probable that John began his ministry in his early thirties, as Jesus did. In Luke’s Gospel we hear that he went out into all the region around the Jordan “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. From then on, great numbers of people from all walks of life went out to him to be baptised in the river Jordan and seeking advice about what they should do in order to be saved. What he told them was simple and practical, for example to tax collectors he said “collect no more than the amount prescribed for you”, and to soldiers he said “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” This might not sound particularly remarkable but bear in mind this was a society where many people used whatever means they could to further their own interests, even if it meant trampling on or cheating others because they could get away with it. Come to think of it, things are not always so different nowadays!

When some Pharisees and Sadducees came to John for baptism he didn’t hold back in his criticism of them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not say to yourselves we have Abraham as our ancestor. ... Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

In light of what they saw and heard about John, many people wondered whether he was the Messiah but he always told them that he was not, saying “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptised you with water; but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.”

When Jesus himself came to John for baptism, John was initially reluctant to do this and thought that Jesus should be baptising him. But Jesus said it was right for him to be baptised by John so that is happened; as described at the end of our passage from Mark’s Gospel, “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. Immediately afterwards Jesus went into the wilderness and sometime later John was arrested by King Herod because he had openly criticised him for divorcing his wife and for his relationship with his brother’s wife, Herodias.

While in prison even John needed reassurance that Jesus was the Messiah. He sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus “Are you the one who is to come or should we wait for another? Jesus sends word back “Tell him what you see and hear”.

It might seem that John is not the important one in this story and that is how he saw himself but Jesus says of him “he is the greatest of all prophets” and calls him “Elijah, who is to come”. John said of his relationship with Jesus “I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him. He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease. He displays true humility!

It seems that John knows that his role has been fulfilled. While he is in prison, there is a big celebration for Herod’s birthday and Salome, the daughter of Herodias, dances for him. He is so delighted by this that he promises her anything she asks for. At her mother’s bidding she asks for the head of John the Baptist and because he doesn’t want to lose face in front of his guests, Herod orders John’s immediate execution and he is beheaded. His head is given on a platter to Salome who then presents it to her mother. To all intents and purposes, it would seem that John had failed and lost and that his life had accounted for little. His disciples took his body away and buried it and they told Jesus what had happened. John’s death effectively warned Jesus to leave the area to avoid persecution. I couldn’t find any reference to how Jesus felt about all this but I don’t doubt that he was very distressed and saddened.

So what are we to make of John’s life and his death, what can we learn from it? This set me thinking about how we make our value judgements about our own lives and the lives of others. In our time and society we tend to be judged by our “successes” which in turn are frequently measured by our social status and financial wealth; not to achieve these things is all too often seen as making us a failure or somehow “lesser” and therefore lacking in value. We can be manipulated to be over-concerned with how we appear to others who then make value judgements about us without real knowledge or understanding of who and what we are or why and this can be done with a total lack of compassion or care. We see this happen not just to celebrities and well known people but to pretty much anyone. I feel sorry for those who have grown up in this culture where there is little to challenge or counter balance it. How does all this distort our approaches to life and vocation, especially when it is seen as the norm for behaviour?

A phrase I have always liked is “Standing on the shoulders of giants”. It comes from a quote by Sir Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” We are all shaped, at least to some extent, by those around us and in our history. If we are wise we will learn from them, both from their successes and their mistakes. My parents did their best to equip my sisters and me for life and to make things better for us for which I am profoundly grateful, enriched and humbled. Their parents did the same for them. I in my turn try to do the same for my children and their children. This desire to make things better for others doesn’t have to be within a family context, it can apply to any relationship.

Perhaps we can all benefit from reflecting on this. Maybe it isn’t our place to be number one or the most famous or rich or important but we can still be giants to those around us or who follow after us, just as John was for Jesus.

It seems there was more to say about John than I first thought.

The Prayers
Adapted from Common Worship Times and Seasons.

Watchful at all times,
let us pray for strength to stand with confidence
before our Maker and Redeemer.

That God may bring in his kingdom with justice and mercy,
let us pray to the Lord:
Lord, have mercy.

That God may establish among the nations
his sceptre of righteousness,
let us pray to the Lord:
Lord, have mercy.

That we may seek Christ in the Scriptures
and recognize him in the breaking of the bread,
let us pray to the Lord:
Lord, have mercy.

That God may bind up the brokenhearted,
restore the sick
and raise up all who have fallen,
let us pray to the Lord:
Lord, have mercy.

That the light of God’s coming may dawn
on all who live in darkness and the shadow of death,
let us pray to the Lord:
Lord, have mercy.

That, with all the saints in light,
we may shine forth as lights for the world,
let us pray to the Lord:
Lord, have mercy.

We commend ourselves and all for whom we pray
to the mercy and protection of our heavenly Father:

Silence is kept.

Merciful Father:
accept these prayers for the sake of your Son,
our Saviour, Jesus Christ.