I have a confession to make. Against the traditions of this church, and the sermons given from this lectern, I do not watch Strictly Come Dancing.
I know. I’m sorry.
I do, however, watch The Great British Bakeoff. I love hearing about the beautiful ideas the contestants have about what they’re going to make - there’s always a really nice drawing of what it’s hopefully going to look like. And the intrigue always comes from, in the very short amount of time they have, how close to that plan are they going to get?
This season’s final was just a few weeks ago, with the three absolute best bakers ready to show the peak of their skills in the final showstopper challenge.
The judging was going okay for one masterpiece, a three-tier lemon and raspberry celebration cake. The general bake was good, it looked lovely, but then Paul and Pru discovered that the lemon flavour didn’t go all the way through the cake! And his decorative macarons… were underbaked!
And they were! They needed much more time in the oven. This is a classic problem on Bakeoff - someone’s cake just needed twenty more minutes in the oven. They couldn’t quite get everything done in the time they had.
However the contestant was pretty happy with what he’d accomplished. Despite the flaws, it was still a completed cake in the Bakeoff Final. He came third out of the original twelve contestants, and was rightly proud of everything he’d got done.
I’m bringing this up because Isaiah 61 is kind of like that initial drawing of the cake. The prophet is showing us the big dream. He describes a vision of a kingdom where the sick and heartbroken are healed, the poor and oppressed are liberated, the hungry are fed, and destroyed towns are rebuilt - something that feels especially poignant with the current news about the ongoing conflicts in Palestine and Ukraine particularly.
I get very passionate about Isaiah 61. Because this is the goal. This is the big target we’re all aiming for. I love it. I want to live in the world Isaiah describes! I want to somehow help make that happen in some small way.
In a minute we’ll say the Lord’s Prayer together, and that’s what we’re praying for when we say ‘Your kingdom come. Your will be done. On Earth, as in Heaven.” All those beautiful things.
But the reason we pray for it is because, it probably hasn’t escaped anyone’s notice, the world Isaiah is describing is not the one he was living in. Or the one Jesus was born into. Or the one we’re living in right now. There is a gap between the drawing and the cake, the big dream and the reality.
At this point John the Baptist chips in from our gospel reading. He’s about 700 years after Isaiah. It’s a bit like someone today doing a riff from the work of Geoffrey Chaucer, which just shows the staying power and inspiration that this picture has.
John gives a reprise on how we might head toward this gorgeous kingdom. He echoes Isaiah’s words, recognising that this is an ongoing, almost perpetual journey that each generation needs to take up as their own.
He says “Make straight the way of the Lord’, and the choice of words there is important. He doesn’t say ‘the way will be
made straight’. He says ‘Make it straight’. As in, YOU make it straight. Join with God and create a direct, clear route by which this beautiful, holistically whole, justice-filled kingdom can come increasingly into being.
And before we get into metaphors about road construction and tarmac, remember that John is writing from the first century and, with the exception of a few Roman innovations, they didn’t have any of that. Paths back then, especially long-distance ones, were packed earth, created and worn in by the passage of thousands upon thousands of human feet. Everybody travelling the same path, one after the other.
There’s something I love in the world of urban planning. It’s called a ‘desire path’. It happens when somebody puts in a paved route for people to get from A to B. Very good. Very sensible. We need level accessible paving, but for some reason the people who use the path start making… modifications.
They cut corners, make little windy routes through gaps in hedges, free-wheel across the middle of open grassy flats. Maybe it’s shorter, or more interesting, or avoids an awkward step or a hole, or it’s just no fun to travel in a series of right-angled turns. A desire path demonstrates what people really value, not how someone in an office halfway across the country wishes they would behave. It becomes the easiest, smoothest, most direct route to where we want to go. And a smart urban planner, on discovering that people keep ignoring their original path for very good reasons, will pave that desire path and make it the new official route for everyone.
When John says “Make straight the way of the Lord,” and we yell back at him across time “How, John? Where are our instructions?” this is how. To steal a phrase from the Brazilian educator and activist Paolo Friere, “We make the road by walking.”
At this point in our readings the Apostle Paul jumps in, with his letter to the Thessalonican church in Greece. Because he too is not living in a world where that vision Isaiah speaks of has been fully realised. Like us, they are not there yet. And his passage brings in the final piece of this puzzle - how do we live now, with that gap in mind? How do we deal with it?
Because it can wear us down. And actually it’s often most evident at times like Christmas.
There’s just so much we feel we’re supposed to be doing. You might be in the midst of it right now. Whether or not we’re involved in preparations, or just aware of them happening around us, it can get a bit much. Either we get overwhelmed, or we feel left out of this almost enforced energetic cheerfulness that sometimes we just don’t feel, for any number of reasons.
I’m sure we’ve all noticed that every TV Christmas Special and festive movie shows a Christmas in a huge house, with no family drama or burned pudding (my family Christmas 2014. Very memorable!) It also always snows at the finale, despite the fact - and I looked this up - that the chance of a White Christmas happening somewhere in the UK is actually only about 1 in 10.
We’re shown this image of something finished and perfect, like Isaiah’s vision, and it can be hard that we’re not living in it yet.
And this probably isn’t what you’re meant to say on the Third Sunday of Advent, when I’m meant to be geeing everybody up for the big day, but…
You will not have a Perfect Christmas. There is no Perfect Christmas. No Christmas is perfect, because life isn’t perfect. Which is a bit of a relief really! The pressure is gone. We’re all off the hook, and can have the day we’re actually having!
But here’s where our final reading comes in, with Paul giving advice to the Thessalonians on how to live in a world that felt like it wasn’t heading where it was supposed to. Advice I need as much as they did. “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances.”... “Hold fast to what is good.”
Now, I don’t want us to hear this as ‘work harder, take on even more, don’t take breaks if you’re tired’, because in the wider context of the passage I don’t think that’s what Paul’s getting at.
He’s not saying you personally need to pray without ceasing - you’d never sleep! These were things that the Thessalonican Christian community were already doing, so what he’s saying is that these practices are taking them in a good direction, and they should keep going that way.
‘Give thanks in all circumstances’ doesn’t mean ‘Ignore pain and disappointment, don’t complain, pretend it’s all fine’. It might mean something closer to ‘The struggles of life are real, but don’t let them blind you to the ways God is moving, even through those times. Don’t let them rob you of really rejoicing where you see God’s love realised around you. When you care enough about something that you want to bring it to God in prayer, keep caring, keep bringing it. When something is good, hang onto it.’
Keep doing the things that are worth doing. Don’t give up on them.
This idea of being resilient, pig-headedly so, about doing good in the world in the face of adversity, is far older than Paul. He’s tapping into the wisdom of Old Testament writers when he says this.
The poet and theologian Padraig O’Tuama, who is involved with reconciliation work between communities in Ireland, said recently “I get enormous comfort when I think of the… people who wrote the book of Ecclesiates, who were saying, ‘Look. What do we know? You know, the sun shines on the good and the bad. The bad die happy and the good die hungry. Do good anyway.’”
If something is good and righteous, it’s worth doing regardless of the times. It's worth doing even more, because of the times.
And when it feels fruitless, we are to expect that feeling as part of the natural cycle of emotions we go through, and not let ourselves be put off from clearing the next section of the way of the Lord, and keeping it free of weeds for whoever comes next and wants to go that way. We walk towards the vision of the kingdom of God, because it’s a vision worth holding on to. And even when it doesn’t feel that way, enough of those steps will create a road through the desert.
Which makes it feel extra appropriate to be able to say for those who don’t know yet, the Church of England has published ‘Prayers of Love and Faith’; a selection of readings and prayers of thanksgiving, dedication and asking for God’s blessing for same-sex couples. They can be used in services, starting from today.
So much time, effort and heart has gone into reaching this point from so many people, and it’s going to mean so much to so many more.
To go back to my opening analogy of the Bakeoff cake with the undercooked macarons, the cake is still baking, it’s not complete yet. But to take the advice of Paul the Apostle, let’s not let that get in the way of rejoicing in this moment that is so worth it.
The kingdom of God is a society where the ill and heartbroken find healing, the poor and oppressed are liberated, the hungry are fed, and where enemies are reconciled and rebuild their towns. This is our showstopper Bakeoff cake. This is the big dream.
So hold fast to what is good.