Advent II 2019 – GSC
I can safely say I’ve never started a sermon with a reference to the Rolling Stones! Until now. And no, it’s not because I’m going to try to make theological points based on the lyrics of one of their songs, such as “I can’t get no satisfaction,” as we approach this seasons when people will definitely be seeking satisfaction in the wrong things. It’s rather that rebuke our Lord offers in the Gospel this evening: “God can raise children for Abraham from these stones.” This was in response to the arrogance of the Pharisees and Sadducees protesting that their own standing in the religious community gave them a safety and a security that meant they didn’t ned to try harder in their discipleship.
Jesus calls them a brood of vipers.The Fathers have made much of this image in their commentaries on the Scriptures, as you might imagine. One seeing two nuggets of truth in the allusion: first, vipers apparently seek water after they have bitten someone and filled them with poison just as sinners must seek the waters of life we find in the font; second the vipers have a pretty patterned skin but inside are full of wickedness teaching us how evil always dresses itself up to look attractive and beguiling (Both Pseudo-Chrysostom cited by St Thomas Aquinas).
It’s possible that Jesus, when saying, “God can raise children for Abraham from these stones,” is referring to a particular and quite significant set of stones. For the proclamation is happening in the River Jordan where John the Baptist was baptising. The Jordan was already a significant river for the Jews. It runs north to south through the Sea of Galilee and through the land they were inhabiting with most of the tribes settling on the west of the river. Jericho sits on the river which eventually flows south to the Dead Sea. It now acts as the border between Jordan and Israel and so continues to be significant.
The Bible does tell us about a set of stones being actually in the Jordan or at least near it. They commemorate the crossing of the River by Joshua, the successor of Moses. The Israelites were in the final stages of arriving in the Promised Land and were going from the East to cross over the River. You can read all about in Joshua 3 and 4. When the feet of the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant go in to the water, the waters stopped flowing. The account is meant to feel very much like the Crossing of the Red Sea which had marked the beginning of the journey and the flight from Egypt and just as then the whole people passed through to safety.
God instructs the people to mark the place of crossing with twelve stones and Joshua lays down a decree: “When your children ask in time to come, “What do those stones mean to you? then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord … These stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial for ever” (Joshua 4:6-7). Hundreds of years later Jesus, God incarnate, ushers in an era when the people of God do not need an ark of the covenant to be God’s presence for them, for God’s people will now have the Body and Blood of the Son of God on their altars and in their tabernacles. It is perhaps these same stones that Jesus is referring to when He condemns the Pharisees and the Sadducees who are not following the example of the Levites who saw their duty of old as bearing God’s presence to safety, not to conspire to condemn the Son of God. We might ask ourselves when do we interrupt our plans so that God might be worshipped, so that God might be praised, so that neighbour might be loved.
But there are more stone analogies to be had, my friends. Remember the words that St Matthew associates with John the Baptist: He is “a voice [that] cries in the wilderness: prepare a way for the Lord.” It’s a quotation from Isaiah 40. The voices continues to cry out there: “The uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.” There will be things that need smoothing out in our lives that the graces God gives us might better flow over us. God’s grace works through sufferings and trials but there will be sins and obstinacies and jealousies and longings that need to be thrown out so that God’s glory might better be perceived.
These rocky places are referred to also in the parable Jesus tells of the Sower: “Other seed fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil” (Matthew 13:5). It’s a warning to those who have all the enthusiasm to do this or that, maybe especially if they’re new to the practice of the faith, but for whom that bounciness doesn’t go anywhere and indeed the person ends up being in a worse place than before. What soil needs going in to us that we might bear fruit? A confession before Christmas? Making sure we’re on time for Mass? A healing of a relationship with someone? A personality trait we need to own that causes us to sin and that we need to work on? All this can be achieved with that extra grace sought at Mass this evening and the resolve then to work on it.
One final reference in the Scriptures to stones.This is from the vision of the last things that St John received one Sunday centuries ago. As the sixth seal of the Scroll is opened and great portents unfold, with the sun becoming black, the stars falling from the sky and the sky vanishing, rolling itself up like a scroll. As all this happens the rich and the powerful, and all people flee, crying to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the lamb” (Revelation 6:16). It’s reminiscent of the scene described by our Lord elsewhere but the notion of the stones falling on the fleeing people is to cover them and attempt to hide themselves from the judgement that was to come.
None of us like admitting we have done stuff that is wrong. The book of Genesis describes the ancient and inherent desire within us to blame someone else perfectly when God asks Adam, “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” (Genesis 3:11). The response was, of course, “It’s Eve’s fault!” and Adam even tries to blame God by saying and you made her! Eve blames the serpent and uses the word “trick” to make it sound like her responsibility was diminished. Human beings have been doing it ever since, blaming God, blaming each other, blaming those with no voice, saying they didn’t really know it was wrong. All this to cover ourselves from the judgement of God. Let the stones fall on us and “hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne.”
So, hold this image of a stone before you as you consider the pending judgement to be delivered on this world. The stones in the River Jordan showed the natural course of events needed interrupting so God could do something different. The stones in the parable show that which would suffocate the word of God from taking root in our lives. The judged long for stones on the last day that they might try to avoid that penetrating gaze of the Almighty. Let us not be rock-like in our discipleship this Advent but have our hearts melted by the love of the Saviour. Amen.