This Advent I would like to offer you three challenges: the first is to accept and acknowledge our own sense of failure – this is the theme for the first short reflection. The second reflection will invite you to identify and even befriend your own darkness. In the third and final reflection I will ask you to consider your own perception of the Jesus we will welcome at Christmas; are we only welcoming the Babe of Bethlehem, or are we welcoming the Alpha and Omega coming us amongst us as a weak and vulnerable baby? A baby who will ultimately become the Saviour of the Word?

My three watchwords for this Advent are: failure, darkness and, vulnerability, for it is out of these that we are able to receive and become light. So to the first reflection:

 

Reflection 1 :  Isaiah 9 : 2-7 & Isaiah 42 : 1-9

The readings we have just heard from the prophet Isaiah feel especially poignant this year. This year to borrow a phrase from Her Majesty has been in many ways an annus horribilis. Just look at Syria and, then consider the depths that political discourse plummeted to on both sides of the Atlantic. This year has not been one characterised by peace and righteousness. I wonder then how you react to the descriptions that the prophet uses to characterise Jesus: Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace? Looking at the world around us have we failed to take his counsel and, bring his peace. Has Jesus himself failed? No, it is humanity that has failed; we have failed God and we have failed each other. Uncomfortable as it feels we need to let this feeling of failure grow throughout this short Advent season. We need to let it grow so that we can accept Jesus at Christmas as the Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. We need to accept our sense of failure so we can really value the Present which is to be given and, to accept the charge given to us in the second reading: ‘to open the eyes that our blind, to bring prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in our darkness,’ to work with God in ensuring the ‘former things come to pass.’ The supreme paradox of Advent is this: that is only in accepting our own sense of deep rooted failure that we can become partners with Christ and, agents of liberation. Amen.

 

Reflection 2 :  Ephesians 5 : 1-14

In the reading we have heard we have heard ourselves, you and me, described as ‘children of light.’  It is a wonderful and poetic phrase. This Advent one of the things we can usefully do is consider the contrast between light and dark. The temptation is, of course, always there to fear darkness and night but, as we know, light follows darkness. But this fear is something that should be resisted. As Christians we asked to enter with Jesus, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, into the darkness of the world, into the world’s or even Winslow’s hidden places and, we are asked to help transform them. Yes, as Christians we are asked to speak out against the powers of darkness, evil and corruption but we also have a bigger purpose which is to help transform them; after all Jesus entered into the darkness of the world and as St. Paul says we are to ‘be imitators of God.’ Becoming imitators of God implies discovering and confronting our own inner darkness and let it be transformed into light and, goodness. This Advent why not spend a few minutes sitting quietly and praying the wonderful night collect:

Lighten our darkness we beseech thee O Lord, in your mercy and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night for the love of your only Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, Amen.

 

Reflection 3 :  Revelation 21 : 1-7 & 21, 22-22, 5

This reading we have just heard challenges us to consider how we perceive Jesus. Do we desire a cuddly domesticated Jesus, or can we accept the challenge John presents in his revelation to accept a much bigger, grander and transcendent Jesus? If we reduce Jesus to a domesticated, once a year Messiah, we run the risk of always being slightly disappointed in Jesus, we run the risk of letting our faith be just a tad nostalgic. But, what if we take John’s word for it and accept that the Jesus who comes among us as a vulnerable baby is nothing more than the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and end of all history, the one for whom we exist? If we can do this we will have taken the leap of faith. We will be able to live in the here and now, accepting all life’s difficulties and challenges, confident in God’s eternal promises. If we accept the vulnerable Babe of Bethlehem as the Alpha and the Omega then we will be able to accept that God truly is making all things new,’ that ‘every tear will (ultimately) be wiped away,’ that ‘death will be no more.’ We will be able to live as people of faith and, hope. We will become agents of faith and hope and surely that is good news. The bizarre, counter cultural paradox, is that in order to become agents of faith and hope, imitators of Christ, we first have to, just like Jesus, render ourselves highly vulnerable and enter into our own darkness so that we can become Light. This is our third and final Advent challenge.

 

 

 

The gospel reading we have just heard is extremely haunting. It is also highly relevant in the context of our times, despite being possibly an ‘end times’ narrative.

It is relevant because 2016 has been a shocking year. It has in many ways been an awful year. Just think of Syria, and way people are suffering there. Just think of Mosul. Just think of the vitriol in the U.K. referendum and U.S. election campaigns and, you will see that hatred is alive and present in our public debates. Such hatred and vitriol has divided families and friendship groups; that is what hatred and violence does. Division is hatred’s aspiration.

Of course wars and insurrections were characteristic of much of twentieth century history, and it is absolutely right that we will be remembering those who gave their lives for the causes of freedom and, justice at the War Memorial later this morning.

 

So when the world seems so fractious and violent what should our Christian response be? I think that this is one of the questions that today’s Gospel reading is asking of us. Put another way, what is our Christian language, for I would like to suggest that Christianity has its own distinctive language.  The reading with its insistence that the Holy Spirit will give us both ‘words,’ and ‘wisdom,’ hints at this.

When the world seems, and is, hostile I would like to suggest that the only authentic Christian response is to speak of love, justice, mercy, reconciliation, peace, forgiveness, hospitality, charity and good neighbourliness. This is our language, these are our words. Those who claim to be religious but do not use these words are in fact religiously illiterate.

But, here is the sting in the tail. These are not just technical words. You can’t learn and use these words as though you were studying a foreign language. These are not words that make the journey from the head to the lips; they are words that must make the journey from the heart to the lips. These are words that require commitment, they are words that need to be lived. They are words that need to be formed inside us by our faith in the person of Jesus Christ and by our willingness to let the Holy Spirit do his work in our hearts. And, when we use these words from the heart we become the sort of people who bring something of the Kingdom of God into the here and now. We become not only speakers but doers of the word. So how do we truly learn these words?

 

I would like to suggest that there are only three ways: prayer, bible study and, the sacraments of the Church. This morning how about asking God to transform our hearts and give us new words to speak through the simple act of sharing together in the Eucharist? And, can I offer you two key passages from Scripture to study slowly over the coming weeks; passages to take into your hearts. The first is Micah chapter 6 verse 8 where the prophet says: What does the LORD require of you, but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? The second is the parable of the Good Samaritan.

These two Scriptures I believe contain all that is necessary for Christian Religious literacy. Can I encourage you to make these Scriptures yours, lodging them securely in your hearts. In a world characterised by war, hatred, vitriol, division, vain and naked ambition, and indescribable cruelty, we need to both learn and become the living embodiment of the Christian virtues; the world is depending on people like you and me becoming both speakers, but far more importantly doers of the Word, Amen.

 

Rev. Andrew Lightbown

Have you ever been asked a question where you are aware that someone is trying to catch you out?  I suspect most of us have.

Another question: have you ever been in a situation where an individual, or group, have behaved in a very aggressive fashion when you suspect, or know, that they have no real stake in the issue?

This is what is happening in the Gospel account we have just heard. The Sadducees, unlike the Pharisees, as we have heard didn’t believe in eternal life. Yet, for some reason they try to catch Jesus out on the subject of eternal life. It’s a bit odd. It’s a bit like the New Age Atheists arguing with massive evangelical zeal against religion in general and, Christianity specifically. Why spend so much energy arguing against something you don’t believe in; what’s the point? It is at one level a little bit illogical. For me it leads to another question: What’s really going on?

 

I have a suspicion that when folk like the Sadducees and the New Atheists ask straw man type questions they in some way reveal tensions they have not really resolved within themselves.

The Sadducees seek to create a patently ridiculous notion of the after-life, one which will continue to be governed by human laws and institutions, the New Age Atheists create a notion of God I too don’t believe in and, engage with Scripture using a method shared with the worst of religious fundamentalists.

But, groups like the Sadducees and the New Age Atheists do in some ways provide a real gift to the Church and, believers. They invite us to respond and, clarify what we really believe. Its a bit like when teachers say ‘don’t be afraid to ask any question, however silly.’  The sub text to this, of course, is ‘if you keep your mouth shut folk might think you don’t really get it, or you could open your mouth and remove all doubt.’

 

So, what do I believe about death? And, this is a pertinent question to ask at this time in the Church’s year.

Well as I say at most funerals I do believe that the immortal soul lives on, and that it lives on in two ways:

First, in the memory. We all leave an indelible footprint. This is good news for in itself it affirms that our lives have real meaning. Most of us leave a predominately positive footprint, sadly a few don’t. One of the things we can do is decide what sort of footprint we would like to create and live our lives accordingly. The best footprint to leave is of course a Christ like one.

Secondly, I do believe in the ongoing life of the immortal soul. I can’t explain in terms of the natural sciences how, but I can say that Scripture and, the person of Jesus Christ point towards life beyond death. I don’t believe that life beyond death is just a mere wish, or psychological crutch. I have faith, and hope, that God’s purposes are eternal and we are all part of that eternal plan. And, that’s enough for me. I don’t feel the need to know more.

I supposed if really pushed I would give the answer that C.S. Lewis gave to the question of immortality. He suggested that there are only really two types of Spirit: those who ultimately gaze God lovingly in the eye and say with utter conviction ‘thy will be done,’ and those who God looks in the eye and says, again with utter conviction,’ ‘thy will be done.’  

 

To live in heaven with God is to rest in His eternal purposes.  Amen.

 

Rev. Andrew Lightbown