Advent 3: Isaiah 35, 1-11 & Matthew 11, 2-11
My Sunday nights are not the same now Poldark has disappeared from our screens. I do miss Demelza and, I know some of you feel the same about Ross.
Every episode of Poldark starts with a quick recap of the previous week. Of course central to the plot is the battle, and maybe even the spiritual battle between Ross Poldark and George Warleggan. The fact that it is a battle and that George is on the side of evil is made clear by his name being WARleggan. Ross of course is far from perfect but, perhaps like John the Baptist, he does recognise that it is time to reappraise the old givens. He cares for the people he works with, they are his friends, they are colleagues in the truest sense of the word. He believes in the betterment of their condition. He is on the side of justice and human dignity. George Warleggan, by contrast, sees people not as people, but as mere instruments to be exploited to achieve his ends. He has a bad attitude, and one from which he shows no sign of repenting. Warleggan doesn’t want to undergo a spiritual conversion, a reorientation of life. His life and work begins and ends with his own vein ambition. Ross understands and relates to the picture presented by the prophet Isaiah through our Advent readings, Warleggan either doesn’t, or perhaps worse, won’t.
John the Baptist is a Poldark like character, he longs for a better future but knows that without repentance there simply isn’t one. This is why John the Baptist even from his prison cell rejoices when he hears that Jesus is giving sight back to the blind, cleaning the lepers and, raising the dead; for what Jesus is really doing is bringing people back into right and righteous relationship. Jesus, like John before him, is walking what Isaiah calls the Holy Way. And, this is the way we are asked to walk.
What might this mean for us?
Well at a corporate level it means our aspirations to holiness, healing and hospitality. It means being committed to the picture of an inclusive community where all are given their due dignity, where it becomes possible for the lion to lie down with the lamb, the sheep with the wolf and so on. It means all of these things at the corporate level. But, what might it mean at the individual level?
At the beginning of Advent I invited you to pray each day the Night Collect which begins with the words ‘Lighten our darkness we beseech thee O Lord.’ I invited you at the Advent Carol Service to befriend and welcome your own inner darkness, suggesting that in doing so you might find light. What I hoped and prayed that you might find was your very own Holy Way; just as John the Baptist did, just as Ross Poldark, deeply fallen as he is seems to have done.
I have tried to enter into my own darkness. I have tried to do so through prayer and prayerful reading of the Scriptures. So I want to take a risk and say what I have found:
I think that I am being called on simply to trust. Like many in the congregation I have had some real challenges and pain this year. I am someone who likes to think things through. On the Myers Briggs test I am off the scale for thinking! I love academic theology. I once wrote an entire book devoted to understanding what one word, charity, might mean. But trust is a different thing. I hope through Advent to move from belief, which is a consequence of thinking, to the trust revealed by the likes of John the Baptist and, the Blessed Virgin Mary.
And, then there is humility. Did you know, have you suspected, that I like to be right about all manner of things?
Service is also something I constantly need to focus on and, replenish. I am here to serve you and, the wider parish, and, even the Church itself. And, of course here in Winslow, if I am to honour our very own patriarch, St. Laurence, who was only ever a deacon in the church, I need to take service incredibly seriously.
Finally, gratitude. Yes life can be challenging, but I have home and family and I am called to trust in a God who is both with me and, for me. I need to cultivate the attitude of St. Paul who knew both riches and poverty and yet who remained grateful. And, by the way I have been given you as brothers and sisters in Christ.
So there you have it, four aspects of spirituality I need to orientate myself towards, so that I along with John the Baptist, Isaiah and maybe even Ross Poldark can continue to make tentative steps along what Isaiah calls the Holy Way.
One final thought maybe these four characteristics of trust, humility, service and gratitude can be neatly summed up in Mary’s words following her encounter with the angel Gabriel: ‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word,’ (Luke, 1, 38). Maybe all I am being asked to do is walk a way that has been trod before so that I can also help give birth to Christ in, and for, this generation? Amen.
Rev’d Andrew Lightbown
Sermon 4th December Advent 2
One of the things I most like about Advent is that we get to encounter some of Scripture’s most vivid portrait painters; the likes of Isaiah and John the Baptist.
Isaiah is of course a mega prophet and John the Baptist, for someone who only makes one or two brief appearances in the gospels punches well above his weight. John the Baptist is in many ways the wild man of the gospels. He dresses unusually, eats a very odd diet and, ultimately dies a rather horrific and bizarre death. He comes across as a bit odd and unusual, even a bit course and rude. He shocks with both his image and his use of language. Isaiah on the other hand is refined in his use of language he is one of the Old Testament’s best poets. But, what I would want to suggest to us is that both paint a new and critical picture of what religion, at its best, is all about.
John the Baptist has no real right to point us in a new direction, unlike Isaiah he is a self trained portrait painter. He literally cries out from the wilderness. The religious classes must have found him extremely irksome. Where Isaiah is all prose, he is all energy and, his energy is driven by his conviction that what is needed above all else is the requirement to repent. The religious elite have impressed on folk that the way to gain favour with God is through strenuous effort and sacrifice. Balderdash says John, ‘it’s all about repentance.’
But, we need to be careful with the word repentance for it doesn’t just mean feeling, or even saying, sorrow. The modern word repentance is actually derived from the Greek metanoia which means spiritual conversion, or revolution. The sort of repentance John the Baptist is speaking of means rejecting the accepted orthodoxy that the way to God is through sacrifice. John stresses forgiveness over and above sacrifice. He is able to do so because he knows that this is what God requires, he knows what his cousin is all about and, he is aware of the Divine picture painted through the words of prophets such as Isaiah.
So what is this picture that John wants us to inhabit?
It is the picture painted by Isaiah the prophet who dares suggest that the Messiah, Jesus, cares for the poor and, the meek of the earth. It is the portrait that suggests that the lion shall lie down with the lamb and that the cow and the bear shall graze together. In other words it is a picture of harmony within diversity. It is a picture of reconciliation and integration. It is a picture where seemingly natural foes find friendship and security in each other’s company. It is a picture of compassion, mutual respect, righteous relationship and due dignity. It is a picture of Eden. It is a picture of a garden where all are welcome and no one is hurt or destroyed.
Alongside John and Isaiah we too need to become artists painting this form of picture and then populating it. That put bluntly is our mission. If we, like John, want to be evangelists for the kingdom we need to ensure that our lives are correctly orientated so that we can invite others to go on that same journey of metanoia, reorientation and, spiritual conversion. We need to take our stand against hypocrisy, especially dare I say it religious hypocrisy and, we need to live out the image created by Isaiah. If we do this we will be an authentically evangelical church; one which will grow in both number and holiness, Amen.
Rev’d Andrew Lightbown
Advent Sunday 2016: Isaiah 2, 1-5, Romans 13-11 end, Matthew 24, 36-44
Sometimes it feels as though we spend our lives getting ready, preparing for the next big thing. Getting ready can of course make us feel impatient; sometimes we even manage to lose patience with others! It is both events and other people that seem to conspire to hold us back, preventing us from just getting on with things. The real problem, of course, might not be events and other people but ourselves!
The trouble is that it is difficult to slow down with Christmas just around the corner. But we need to slow down so that we can do some real spiritual work for Advent is a time when we are asked to consider our own spiritual growth. Spiritual growth, or growth in holiness, cannot, must not, be hurried.
Advent is gift which affords us the opportunity of focusing purposefully on ourselves and, the quality of our spiritual relationships. If we do this through Advent the good news is that we will become ready to receive Jesus at Christmas.
Can I encourage you this Advent to spend just ten minutes each day alone in silent prayer before God. Maybe one of the ways you could do this is by slowly and meditatively praying the Night Collect just before you go to bed:
Lighten our darkness we beseech thee O Lord and in thy great mercy defend us from all dangers and perils of this night for the love of thy only Son, our saviour Jesus Christ.’
If hurry and impatience are two of the issues we are asked to confront in Advent another is complacency.
The gospel reading we have heard compares ‘two women grinding meal together’ where 'one will be taken and one will be left,’ the passage also says of the two workers in the field ‘one will be taken and one will be left.’
We can all slip into complacency. I know that there are times in my life when my own prayers have been dry, and sleepy. I do know that there have been times when I have attended church and said my prayers as if by rote; operating from an ethic of duty rather than love.
Advent asks us to reverse any notions of complacency, in the words of St Paul, ‘waking from sleep,’ and stepping from ‘darkness’ into ‘light.’ Advent asks to so orientate our hearts that we will not be the one left behind at the coming of Jesus.
Again, the only way I know of to avoid spiritual complacency and reverse the trend is through prayer. My favourite Advent prayer goes like this:
God of hope who brought love into this world be the love that dwells between us. God of hope who brought peace into this world be the peace that dwells between us. God of hope who brought joy into this world be the joy that dwells between us. God of hope, the rock we stand upon, be the centre, the focus of our lives always, and particularly this Advent time.
So this Advent could I encourage you to join with me in spending just a few minutes each and every morning in quiet before God and slowly praying the advent prayer and then, just before bed, the night collect so that come Christmas we will be truly ready to receive our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, Amen.
Rev. Andrew Lightbown
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