There are certain church congregations in Scotland where they have an old adage, “If you’re not shouting, then you are not preaching.” It seems to me that this passage would be made for that particular style of churchmanship.
As we progress through Advent, we busy ourselves with erecting our Christmas trees, plastering our houses with lights, putting up the decorations, preparing ourselves for the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the beautiful baby boy who, as the Christmas Carol ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ states has, “The hopes and fears of all the years, are met in thee tonight”, what we wait for is beauty at this time of year, something peaceful, something wonderful, something joyous. Instead, this morning, what we get is this, and what exactly are we meant to make of this? There are no children dressed as shepherds with tea towels on their heads here.
And when we look at the Advent wreath with its two candles lit we can easily see Advent as little more than a countdown to Christmas. It would be easy to give this wild man, John the Baptist, a bit of a wide berth. Dismiss what he has to say as metaphorical, something symbolic or the ravings of a man who spent too much time on his own in the desert eating grasshoppers. But as has just been proclaimed after the Gospel reading, “This is the Gospel of the Lord” it is part of the Good News and it is just as much a part of that Good News as the miraculous birth of our saviour.
John isn’t all that interested in a manger, Mary’s innocence is not something that that gets covered, in fact Jesus’ name does not get mentioned once! In the Gospel, John is looking for God to do something drastic. His message is to repent, to change...or else.
I suspect that part of what makes this message so uncomfortable for us is not so much the timing of it but that we sort of know it to be true. Looking at the world around us, at the way that we interact – nation against nation, with the way that we disregard God’s creation we know, deep down in our hearts, that things are not as they should be.
Each of us here today could easily name the broken places that we have in our lives and in the world more generally. Places of anger, violence, poverty, homelessness, lives controlled by fear, or it could be the years of guilt that have crippled our lives. The list just goes on and on. But I have to say that there is one sin worse than all of the others, it could well be worse than evil itself, and that is the sin of indifference. It is more insidious, more universal, more contagious, and I think, much, much more dangerous.
We are so busy, so exhausted by the relentless bad news in the media that we inevitably become indifferent to what is happening, indifferent to the needs of others, indifferent to the way that God’s creation is crying out. But that is not all indifference does, we can also become indifferent to ourselves. To the point that we lose sight of the original beauty with which God created us. This struck me earlier this week at the Milton Keynes night shelter, seeing first-hand just how indifference had affected some people who were much more gifted and intelligent than I was and yet had found themselves in the desperate situation of not being able to have a roof over their head. The indifference that others had shown them and in some cases where they had shown to themselves showed me just how poisonous it is. Indifference is sneaky, it takes on many forms.
Yes that is all very well, but what has this to do with John the Baptist’s rant, how are these things connected?
I believe strongly that it shows us clearly that God loves us enough to get angry. He is not indifferent to the unfathomable beauty and delicacy of his creation, he is not indifferent to the suffering, to the relationships we have with him and with each other. He is not indifferent to you, he is not indifferent to me and he definitely is not indifferent to those less lucky than ourselves.
The opposite of love is not hatred or anger, it is indifference, and God is not indifferent - how can he be? God’s anger is the rejection of indifference. He pays attention. It is not offered as punishment but as encouragement. To encourage us to care, to tend, to nurture, to hope and to blossom. God is saying, “You are worthy of my time and attention. Your lives are worthy of being judged. I care enough to get angry when you settle (or are coerced) into settling for less than you are and all that you can be.
This reminds us that Christ came to comfort the afflicted, but he also came to afflict the comfortable.
Advent: Isaiah 2, 1-5 & Matthew 24, 36-44
When I was a child I remember looking forward with great excitement to my grandparents coming to visit. We didn’t see my grandparents – who I called Nana and Bampa (because when I was little I couldn’t pronounce grandpa) – very often, because we lived in Marlow and they lived in Blackburn; a distance of just over 200 miles. On the day when my grandparents were due to arrive I would go and sit in the lounge, by the window, and simply sit and wait; sometimes for what felt like hours on end. Of course when I saw their car turn into the drive I would then run with excitement to the front door.
This little story, vignette, in some ways illustrates the season of Advent; the season in which we are asked to learn the art of watching and waiting, in stillness and quietness, so that come Christmas day we are able to run with excitement to greet our Lord and Saviour. But, of course when we greet our Lord and Saviour it is with the intention that we will then, from henceforth, in the words of Isaiah, continue to ‘walk in the light of the Lord.’
There is, I think, a misplaced perception that the season of Advent is simply a precursor to Christmas. It is for sure the season that both kicks off the Church’s New Year and leads us into the wonder and majesty of Christmas – there is no denying this – but maybe it’s so much more than this? Maybe Advent is the season that sets us off on a journey that only ends when we see our Lord face-to- face? Maybe Advent is the season that sets us up for the encounter that is to have no end? You see when my grandparents came to visit they always left after a few days but when we invite Jesus into our midst he sticks around. My grandparents had to leave in order to return to their work – Bampa was a printer – whilst Jesus' work is to be God with us, and God for us; the God who never leaves.
In the business of life it is very easy indeed to ignore God, to fail to see or perceive God, for the very simple reason that God doesn’t force his way in. God doesn’t want to be the unwelcome house guest who arrives at an inconvenient time and leaves at an even more inconvenient time. God simply wants to be the enduring presence; the relationship and the strength that resides within our very hearts; that’s what God wants to be.
Our Advent-tide job, or vocation, is to ‘ready’ ourselves to greet God and be inhabited by God, for as the gospel makes clear our hearts are going to be captured and our desires are going to be channelled, irrespective, so the only question that remains is what is to be the orientation of our hearts and therefore the purpose and direction of our lives? Are we going to be the sort of people who, in the words of Isaiah ‘go up to the mountain of the Lord.....that he may teach us his ways,’ and where the fruit of our learning is peace, justice and reconciliation – the very things the world so badly needs - or are we going to going to follow a narrower, lazier, easier and yet ultimately less noble path? A path which begins and ends with self? These are Advent questions.
The purpose of Advent is simple and straightforward: it is to prepare and ready our hearts for the greatest, yet least glossy gift of all. The gift that doesn’t come in wrapping paper, but in flesh and blood. The gift that doesn’t depreciate in value but grows in value. The gift that can never be bought, either outright or on credit, but only ever received. The gift of the Christ-child. The gift of the one who invites us to ‘walk, walk in the light of the Lord,’ not just in this world but the world which is to come, for as the Advent Gospel reading reminds us, we are people that live under judgement; divine judgement. Advent asks us to consider whether we want to walk a path which begins and ends with self, or a path which begins and ends with God.
So how do we actually prepare ourselves so that we can see the Messiah when he comes? I can only give three answers and you probably already know what I am going to say: daily prayer (and please do take away and use the Advent prayer cards we have put together), reading the bible, and receiving the sacrament of the Eucharist. I literally know of no other way to prepare my heart to receive Christ.
This Advent we – all of us of us – need to relearn the art of watching and waiting; watching and waiting for the Lord, for the ‘Son of Man is coming.’ May he find us ready and waiting, Amen.
Christ the King
The more astute amongst you may have noticed by now that I am not native to Buckinghamshire, I know that it will astonish some of you but I actually come from Scotland. In Scotland, there are some things that we are very good at. Amongst them is really unhealthy food, drinking and it has to be said that we do love a party. The biggest of which is New Year and the build up to it (what you call New Year’s Eve) we call Hogmanay.
Today is sort of the church’s Hogmanay, it is the final Sunday of the church’s year, before Advent begins and we prepare ourselves for Jesus’ miraculous birth. It is always good to go out with a bang, and this Gospel reading does exactly that. The festival of Christ the King isn’t all that old, it was only inaugurated in 1925, partly in response to the church seeing what was happening around it in Europe and further afield, with totalitarian regimes setting up their own leaders, their idols, as something to be revered...effectively like Gods. (How times have changed!)
Now today is also ‘Stir up Sunday’, I mentioned this up at Gt Horwood school on Friday and nobody, absolutely nobody knew what I was on about. Are you aware of it here? Excellent. I have to say that it isn’t just about making Christmas puddings in time to let them steep so that they are all tasting their best on Christmas day. It is also about stirring us up, stirring us up to be drawn deeper in our relationship with Christ the King, stirred up to deepen our worship and discipleship with the man who died on a rubbish dump, almost 2000 years ago on the outskirts of Jerusalem. A man who died for the whole of his creation.
This notion of Kingship is something that is largely lost on us today, there are very few absolute monarchies around today, but in a nutshell, what it alludes to leadership. When leadership is poor or non-existent, then everybody suffers. The vulnerable and the powerless suffer more than the rest, but the entire social fabric is adversely affected.
Today, almost as a New Years Resolution, we should decide to look in a different direction for leadership. This direction can transform not only what happens in the corridors of power, but it can also transform the leadership each of us offers, however plainly and simply, in our church, our community. We look not only to Christ who reigns forever in heaven; we look also to Christ the king at Calvary. We look for leadership on the cross, and we find it there.
In Luke’s version of the Passion story, Jesus speaks three times from the cross. (Today’s Gospel, Luke 23:33-43, includes only the first and second of these three words from the cross.)
- First, he speaks to his Father about the people who put him there.
- Second, he promises paradise to the thief who acknowledges him as king.
- Then with his last breath, he places himself into his Father’s hands.
We look to the cross for leadership, and we are not disappointed. These three brief sentences from Jesus constitute a course in leadership of a kind that is unique. They are an example worthy of a king, but they are filled with humility and concern for all.
Jesus’ leadership gives us a template to work to, and his words on the cross show his cross was not a trap, but a throne. He forgave those who mocked him, shamed him. They laughed and jeered; he prayed for them: “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing. He realised that they mocked him because they didn’t understand the significance of who he was and what they needed wasn’t condemnation but pity. How can someone be so full of love that they can do that? And if he can do that for them, what can he do for us? There is a King that is worth following, someone who rules with loving kindness, compassion and gentleness.
So, as we go into a New Church Year, let us make a resolution, a resolution that will be kept, not lose sight of the man, who through his arms wide upon the cross, embraced us and broke all the rules with his Kingship. For there is someone to be reckoned with.
Rev'd Mark Nelson
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