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Finding our religion again

201206 Advent 2B Isaiah 40:1-11, Ps85 1-2,8-13 2 Peter 3.8-15a Mark1.1-8

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saint Mark sees himself as bringing good news. The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The world that Mark knew was very different to our own, but he can speak directly to our contemporary lives. Jesus came at a time in history when the entire civilized world was politically, relatively peaceful under Roman rule. Travel was easy, and there was a common language. The news about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection could spread quickly throughout the vast Roman empire. In Israel ordinary men and women were ready for Jesus too. There had been no God-sent prophets for 400 years, since the days of Malachi who wrote the last book of the Old Testament. Individual behaviour had become selfish and people worshiped all sorts of gods. The Roman occupation of Israel (63 BCE.) was the last in a long line of invasions beginning with the Babylonians (539 BCE), then the Persians and the Greeks. Jewish identity rested on stories of the Patriarchs-Abraham, Isaac and Jacob-as well as the founding story of the Moses-led liberation from the Egyptians at the Exodus.

There were older stories that told of successful self-rule under the Hebrew kings Saul, David and Solomon. But the Jewish people were more often the victims than the victors in their fight for national identity.1 At the time of Jesus birth there were Roman overseers and Jewish leaders in two tiers of government. Religion and politics were inter-related in a complicated way. There was a growing anticipation that a great prophet, or even the Messiah would come. Then as now there was the underlying threat to peace which is sin.

Sin manifest in Human destructive impulses leading to acts of selfishness, indifference, greed and violence, shattering serenity and peace.

The people were looking for a new ruler and Isaiah, one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament promised salvation through the coming of the Messiah. He also wrote about the man who would announce the Messiah’s coming, John the Baptist. God had promised Isaiah that a Redeemer would come to Israel and that a messenger calling in the desert would prepare a path for him.

John’s call to make straight paths for him, meant that people should give up their selfish way of living, renounce their sin and seek God’s forgiveness. This was to enable people to receive the Messiah who would baptise them with the Holy Spirit. This was in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom of God.

For Jesus, the kingdom was not just a future reality. He often said “It is at hand” in the here-and-now because God’s compassion and mercy are always available to all people . In personal terms, the call to repentance is a call to a complete change of heart. It is a call to establish a personal relationship with God by believing and obeying his words. In social terms it calls for the establishment of an alternative community based on the values of the Sermon on the Mount. In cosmic terms, it recognises that God will bring the entire world and all creation to fulfilment. The reign of God is mystical with profound religious, political and cosmic ramifications.

So what about us? Australians are increasingly dropping their religious affiliations, particularly younger Australians, according to the latest annual Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey of over 17,000 people.

It reveals a steep fall in the proportion of Australians reporting a Christian affiliation from almost 70 per cent in 2004 to just 51 per cent in 2018. To look at this in another way, in 2004, 5 per cent of Australians reported having no religious affiliation, but that has now risen to almost 40 per cent.

“Overall, the extent of the fall in religious affiliation in Australia is striking” says Dr Ferdi Botha, Research fellow, Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, University of Melbourne, in this report on the study which was first published in ”Inside Business” only a few weeks ago. He went on to say:

“The findings require further research on whether the change may be having any impact on society. It raises questions around what effects no religious or Christian belief may be having, if any, on people’s individual behaviour and at a wider level, the potential effects on society.”

We know from life experience that values learned in early life generally remain deep in a person’s psyche and influence decisions concerning behaviour, justice and righteousness.

Is our society now at the point at which we need to hear the cry of John the Baptist? Do we need to hear and be impressed by the announcement by the Isaiah-like wilderness hermit that “One who is more powerful than I is coming after me”?

Do we need to take stock of our lives as the people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people from Jerusalem were doing, confessing their sins, planning to change and being baptised with water as a symbol of their intention?

Or will we continue to live as is now happening, with few even acknowledging the presence of God, fewer numbers attending religious services, few bringing their children for baptism and even fewer bring up their children to know God and to recognize the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives?

Are we concerned about the effect this may have on our family relationships and ultimately on the society in which we live? Do we notice arguments, jealousy, breakdown of relationships, criticism, violent outbursts, pursuit of material things rather than spiritual, eroding the once peaceful and loving relationships of those close to us?

John’s baptism with water prepared a person to receive Christ’s message. The baptism demonstrated repentance, humility and willingness to turn from sin. This was the beginning of the spiritual process. When we recognise Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit, our entire person is transformed by the Spirit’s power. Jesus offers to us both forgiveness of sin and the power to change and live for him and with this comes resilience, confidence and inner peace. Would we wish this for every person we know and love? Amen

1 A Christology Course. Chapter 2.

The Reverend Canon Camellia Flanagan

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