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I THIRST

Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent

Genesis 9.8-17, Psalm 25.1-9  & Mark 1.9-15  (Year B)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

We have two very different readings today.  The Gospel reading from Mark’s records the baptism of Jesus followed by his temptation in the wilderness, which, of course,  provides the pattern for the forty days of Lent. 

Then there is the Genesis reading – the story of God’s covenant with Noah after the flood and the sign of that agreement, the rainbow.  But the rainbow seems somehow out of place in this season of Lent – a season traditionally stark and austere. Look around – there are no flowers in church.  The colours are dark and sombre, with purple on the altar.  Lent began on Ash Wednesday with its reminder of our sinfulness and mortality and of our need to repent.

And yet, there in the first reading on the first Sunday in Lent, we find the bright colours of the rainbow, a symbol of hope and promise.  

The rainbow reminds us that our spirituality cannot be disconnected from the world around us. It cannot be the kind that is so heavenly minded that it is of no earthly good. God’s covenant with Noah was one that was centred on the earth. It was a promise that God made that never again would He destroy the earth with a flood. And did you notice that it was made not only with humans, but also with the animals and, in fact, with the earth itself.  I’ll read that bit again:

“This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.” (Gen 9.12-13)

God is making an agreement with the badgers and the foxes, the pheasants and the ducks, the frogs and butterflies, the polar bears and the pandas.  God makes a solemn promise that never again would He send such thorough destruction upon the earth.

Whatever Lent or our Christian faith may mean to us, it must be rooted in the world in which we live. We live an incarnational faith.  The Son of God came and dwelt among us, the Incarnation.  The very stuff of life, matter, matters.

So our faith must be concerned with others, with other people and with other living creatures and with the earth in which we live.  We are called to be stewards of this beautiful planet.  How are we doing with that, do you think? 

Back to the rainbow – did you know that the rainbow in other ancient cultures was seen as an ominous sign? It represented to them a bow, a weapon, used by the gods.  Even in Hebrew the word for the war bow and the rainbow is the same word, ‘Qeshet’. But the Hebrews saw the rainbow as a weapon that had been disarmed. It points harmlessly upward. The rainbow, for them, was a sign of hope and promise, a symbol of peace.

As Christians we understand how a negative symbol can become positive. The symbol of the Christian faith is a cross. A cruel instrument designed for nothing but the infliction of pain.  A means of capital punishment, though not one made for causing death swiftly, but rather for prolonging death. Yet it has become the sign and symbol of the Christian faith, because it speaks to us of new life, forgiveness, and a new creation. 

So today, at the start of these 40 days of Lent as we practice the disciplines which root us in God and also care for the world, that of prayer, fasting and alms-giving, I offer you the symbol of the rainbow.  If you would like to delve deeper into the Rainbow and its theological significance, then do join me on Saturday for our first Zoom Lent discussion.  

The rainbow – colourful, bright, a sign of hope and promise, of a new beginning with a closer relationship with God, and a symbol that takes our spirituality and our prayer life and roots it firmly in the world in which we live, a world full of people and other creatures. 

The rainbow – a perfect symbol for Lent.         Amen.

(Artwork: ‘Noah’s Thank Offering’ by Joseph Anton Koch)

Sermon for The Next Sunday before Lent

2 Corinthians 4.3-6, Psalm 50.1-6 & Mark 9.2-9

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Veils, for being a simple piece of cloth, have a surprisingly complicated history.  They are often used symbolically, representing modesty, purity, devoutness and being set aside for a specific purpose.  They can be used practically, to hide the face from the sun or to provide a shield from prying eyes, for someone in mourning, for example.  We veil the statues in church doing Passiontide, and remember how the curtain in the Temple was torn in two at the moment of Christ’s death.  Veils can be used for good and for mischief.  Today we find ourselves in a time of a new veil, the Covid mask, which opens for us a new understanding to the readings we’ve just heard.

Let’s begin with the Gospel reading, Mark’s account of the Transfiguration.  Jesus ascended up the mountain to pray, and something spectacular happened.   He was transfigured, illumined in some way. His clothes became dazzling white, but it must have been something more than just clothes.  Jesus himself became dazzling, as his divinity was shining out.   The appearance of Moses and Elijah alongside him point to a further revelation of Jesus as the fulfilment of both the Law and Prophets. 

This is a timeless moment when the glory of God shines around.  When Peter tried to move from awed observer to participant with his offer of a shelter, a cloud came down like a veil descending over the scene.  God spoke but when they were finally able to look around once more, the other figures had gone and they were alone again.

This echoes the Old Testament when Moses ascended into a dark cloud in order to speak face to face with God. When he returned to the Israelites his face shone with such reflected glory that the Israelites could not bear to look at him.  So Moses veiled his face.

In our other reading St Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians implies that because of the Israelites misunderstanding and because of their behaviour and unfaithfulness, not only was Moses’ face veiled, but so was the Law.  It became only half-known, partly understood but not fully.

Paul goes on to say that in the early church, the veil is still in place, not because Moses or Christ didn’t do their jobs properly, but because the people still didn’t understand what the Old Testament was pointing to, what it was revealing to them.  After Christ’s death and Resurrection the early church was busy at work sharing the Good News, but not everyone wanted to listen.  Paul explained that someone needs to turn to God, then they will be able to see that hidden light, because everything is revealed in Christ.  Christ is like the groom who lifts the veil from the face of his bride, the Church, and we can all see clearly, face to face.

We understand better now what a veil, or mask, means to communication.  I can’t see clearly if the person talking to me is smiling or grimacing.  I see only part of their faces and have to work out as much as possible from their eyes.  I’ve spoken to plenty of people who can’t hear as well when people are wearing masks, as everything is slightly muffled.  From a hygiene point of view we know exactly why we are wearing them, but they have effects beyond preventing the spread of Covid.  This is a good metaphor to help understand that when the Gospel is veiled or masked it too is prevented from speaking clearly and shining forth with all its glory.

So we must be like Paul, ready to remove the veil, and step out of the cloud to look for and share the truth boldly.  When we turn to the Lord, the true and full meaning of the Bible becomes available.  And it is at that point that, through the power of God, we will be transformed, just as Moses was, just as Paul was, from glory into glory.  It means that we will see where God has been at work, in ourselves and when we look at each other.  We might not have shining faces that dazzle, but glory is something you recognize by faith.

So firstly, let’s try to get rid of that veil over our hearts and minds. And then, let’s be bold.  Let’s use clear language, stand face to face, and look for Christ, in the words we read, the prayers we make, and the life we lead.  He is there, waiting for us.  Amen.

(Artwork: ‘The Transfiguration’ by Alexandr Ivanov)

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Epiphany

Revelation 19.6-10, Psalm 128 & John 2.1-11 (Year B, 2021)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Last week I talked a little bit about invitation, relationship and mystery, and how we don’t instantly get to know Jesus.  We grow in our relationship with Jesus, but there is always more to come. It is our human desire to have all the answers immediately that makes living with the inherent mystery of God so difficult.

A prime example of this is when the Gospels record the miracles of Jesus.  

For example, you may have heard the Feeding of the Five Thousand described as a miracle of generosity, that by sharing the bread and fish, Jesus inspired those around him to share the food they had brought with them.  It’s okay as a metaphor, but I can’t really imagine anyone spending their lives following a man just because he could get people to stop hoarding their food, or perhaps more currently panic buying.

Where is the glory of God in that?   

Likewise any attempt to explain away the turning of water into wine risks suggesting that Jesus was just a second rate conjurer doing a cheap trick, when in fact this was a sign of Jesus’ divine nature, his ability to have control over the very stuff of life.  It is a miracle.

So instead I encourage you to listen for the echoes of how God acts. Whilst there is much of God that is a mystery, God also chooses to reveal himself to us, most perfectly in the life, death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.

What are we looking for in that incident at the wedding in Cana?  

Need.  Response.  Generosity.

At the wedding feast, the need is almost unknown.  Only the servants, Mary and Jesus seem to be aware of what is happening.  But it’s a very real need.  A common understanding of the situation is that for a wedding party to run out of drink, for the hospitality to run dry, this would have been a cause of disgrace.   And although Jesus seems to initially hold back, ‘My hour has not yet come’ he said, he did respond, and in such an extraordinary way.  The wine is not just good enough; it’s sweet and delicious.  And there is soooooo much of it!  

The prophet Isaiah gave us a vision of the heavenly banquet which is prepared for us:

“The Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.”  (Isa 25.6)

It’s such a wonderful prophecy.  We are made to yearn for it, to crave an invitation to this feast.  (Keep in mind – invitation, relationship and mystery)

And this is the type of banquet that Jesus creates.  Manna in abundance.  Baskets full to capacity.  Wine overflowing.

And of course, we are invited.  Not only that, but we’re invited to a foretaste of it, here where we gather at the Lord’s Table, to his meal, of broken bread and wine outpoured.

What happens here isn’t a cheap trick, either.  

Instead we find that the Holy Spirit comes in to make real what Jesus said at that Last Supper two thousand years ago.  

Grace turns ordinary bread and wine into extraordinary true food and true drink, for it is through Jesus we are truly nourished.  

That’s why the words of Institution are so important, because we must never forget that we are doing what Jesus commanded us to.  He is the sign to our redemption.

There we see this wonderful mystery coming together – Jesus’ life and his sacrifice, bread and wine, body and blood, earthly meal and heavenly feast.

And what a joyful thing that is, because it promises eternal life as we are united with Christ.  We become one with him.  That’s why a wedding is the perfect place for Christ’s first sign, for as a wedding couple become one flesh, so too are Christ and his Church united as one. 

That is what John the Divine is speaking of in the Book of Revelation: 

“Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.”  Amen

(Artwork: mosaic of the Wedding at Cana, artist unknown)

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Epiphany

1 Samuel 3.1-10, Psalm 139.1-9 & John 1.43-end v(Year B, 2021)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

‘Come and see’.  God calls.  It is what God does.  

Most of the time we don’t even realise it is God who is calling.  Like the child Samuel, we’re aware of someone, but often the moment slips past without us paying attention and the opportunity is gone.  

There’s a scene in the film ‘Angels & Demons’ when Camerlengo McKenna asks Robert Langdon, played by Tom Hanks, a simple question : “Do you believe in God, sir?”

When Robert Langdon replied “Father, I simply believe that religion…”, McKenna interrupts and says “I did not ask if you believe what man says about God. I asked if you believe in God.”

I’ve always found that a really striking interaction.  I myself have spoken to a lot of people who are searching for God – they feel uncomfortable with organised religions but they believe in something, drawn by that feeling that there is something more to this world.  They can’t put a name to it, but I call that mysterious ‘something’ God.

We want so much from religion: instantaneous answers, promises of things which can’t be promised, the world to be re-written as we would like it.  

However, faith has at its heart not a database or a slot machine of promises, but a relationship.  We are first called into relationship with God.  

Picture in your mind your best and oldest friend.  Can you remember how you met?  What was that first interaction?  Then remember, did you instantly become close?  No, it took time.  There had to be layer upon layer of interaction; shared time, experiences, jokes, long conversations.  But somewhere along the way you realised ‘this person matters to me’.  And it all started from one moment.

In our Gospel reading it begins with Jesus finding Philip and saying ‘Follow me’

Now what happens next? Actually there’s a small fib.  Philip finds Nathanael and says that he has found the Messiah, but like all relationships with Jesus, it was God who reached out first; we simply have to respond.

Nathanael then ponders if this truly can be the Messiah, and is greeted with the same words that Jesus said to the two disciples of John the Baptist who in the passage immediately preceding today’s Gospel reading asked where Jesus was staying.   ‘Come and see.’

Invitation, relationship and mystery are all held together in this encounter, and this mirrors Christian discipleship.    

Philip knew that he couldn’t sit down next to Nathanael and list out why Jesus was the Messiah.  The Christian faith is not unreasonable, but you can’t argue someone into it. This was not the time for man to speak about religious prophecies and theology.  This was the time to invite Nathanael to ‘come and see’ Jesus.

This is the same for us.  We can read books and go on courses, and these are good and helpful things to do.  They help us move from theological milk to solid food, challenging us and helping our understanding of our faith to grow deeper.  But, and most importantly, every day we wake up and have to decide to answer God’s call to us to come and see, to follow Jesus.

The call is answered in prayer and praise, in good works and here in church, where we meet Jesus in word and sacrament.  What happens in worship is not a puzzle to be solved, or something to be explained step by step.  Here too there is invitation, relationship and mystery.  It means that the more we do these things, the more we will get to know the one who calls us, the one who is faithful, the one who already knows and loves us, and yearns for us to know him.  

So, whether this is the first time or simply the latest in a long relationship with the Lord, come and see.  God is here.

Amen

(Artwork: ‘Nathaniel under the tree’ by James Tissot)

Sermon for the Baptism of Christ

Acts 19.1-7, Psalm 29 & Mark 1.4-11

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

What are you worth?

That’s an impossible question to answer, but there are lots of people who would like to put a value on us.  It happens all the time, because labelling other people is how we make quick judgements.

Are you a key-worker?  Valuable.  Key means critical, vital.

Are you minimum wage?  Not valuable, apparently.  Minimum, least, paid little. 

And yet both labels could be applied to the same person.

Another example, at the very beginning of this pandemic when the death rates first began to be released in the news, they were often followed by the caveat “but they had underlying health conditions”, as if that made their death less tragic, inevitable, even expected.

Sometimes another phrase is used when someone dies in a tragedy and the response is, “they were someone’s mother, someone’s brother” as if, again, their worth is based on their relationship to others, that someone without siblings or children might be ‘less’ in some way.

Words matter.  We absorb their subtle messages and they shape how we see the world and ourselves.

But listen again to how God speaks about Jesus:

‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’   (Mark 1.11)

Jesus hasn’t done anything yet.  The Father doesn’t say this after the Crucifixion or the Resurrection, in response to Christ’s obedience.  God says this at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus’ identity, from the start, is that he is the Beloved Son of the Father.

And when we are baptised God says the same to us, and we are given our true identity.  We share in the same baptism, in the name of Jesus Christ, and we too are called the beloved children of God.

Within the Sacrament of Baptism there are lots of symbols to help us understand exactly what is happening and how we are changed in this supernatural event, in which God is fully involved.  Baptism has consequences for our identity and lasts into eternity.  

First, there is the water.  Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan.  Water is vital for life. It cleanses, washing away sin.  It can also drown, and in the waters of baptism we die to sin, entering into Christ’s death, the tomb where he lay, and then we are raised to new life, Christ’s new life.

People who are baptised very often wear white clothing, just as a priest wears a white alb.  White is the symbol for purity, and as the person is raised to new life, so in the white clothing they symbolically put on the life of Christ, free of the chains of sin and death.

Then there is the anointing, a symbol of the Holy Spirit, the setting of a seal of God’s love for each baptised person.  It’s where the word ‘Christening’ comes from, because Christ means ‘the anointed one’.  So in baptism we use oil to make a cross on the forehead, making an invisible mark to symbolise that person is a follower of Christ.  The oil is very special and has been blessed by Bishop Martin, the Bishop of Chichester, especially for baptisms.

And then finally, there, in the Bible reading, is the heart of faith, Jesus, the light of the world.  Whenever we hold a baptism here in Highbrook and West Hoathly, we give the new Christian both a candle and a Bible, all part of helping them to build and remind them of their relationship with God.

So today, as we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, let us be reminded of our true identity, our true worth – we are the Beloved of God.  If you were the only person in the world, Jesus would still have come to be born at Christmas, to live and die for you.  He would have come to destroy death for you in the Resurrection, and in the gift of the Sacrament of Baptism he opens to us the doorway to the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Remember who are you are: God has called you by name.  You are his.

Amen

(Artwork: The Baptism of Christ by Grigory Gagarin)

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Romans 16.25-7, Psalm 89.1-8 & Luke 1.26-38 (Year B)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Our journey towards the manger moves on from prophecies foretold to the enacting of the Incarnation.  If God was to be en-fleshed, the divine Word as a human, then there are only a couple of routes God could have taken.  

The first would be to arrive, fully formed.  The entrance might be quiet, out of sight or like someone on Star Trek beaming down from above.  Or God could arrive noisily, swooping down on a chariot as in the Norse and Greek tales of gods made in the image of man.

God did not do that.  God chose a very different route, to be born, as human, as a baby, and like all people made in the image of God, a perfect circle of Incarnation.  This tells us something very important about the nature of God, and the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary tells us a lot about how God was at work then, and is at work in Advent now.

Advent is a season of invitation, which is a foretelling of an event to come.  

This is an odd year, but how many Christmas parties and work lunches, school nativity plays and carol services do you usually get invited to? And because of the Covid restrictions how much time have you put into thinking about who will be invited to your house this Christmas?  

We can ‘t help ourselves from inviting people into our lives.  If this year has taught us anything, it is how important community, friendship, simple human contact is to us – and that is because we are made in the image of God, who is constantly inviting us to be part of His story of salvation, inviting us to come closer and get to know Him better.

And 9 months before the birth of the Christ-child, there was a very important invitation.  

This strange encounter between an angel and a young woman holds at its heart an invitation from God to Mary.  Like all invitations it was optional: Mary could have said ‘no’, but she didn’t.  And God knew that she was going to accept the invitation for one reason.

Invitations are about relationships.  At the moment we can barely invite anyone into our homes, but certainly not complete strangers.  Even under normal circumstances, we tend to invite only people we know through the door.  We might invite those whom we would like to get to know better, but generally, they are people we already have a relationship with.  

The invitation that the angel brought to Mary was carefully made.  A thoughtful, humble and devout young woman, Mary found favour with the Lord.  God knew her.

And Mary accepted the invitation because she knew the One she was receiving the invitation from – knew Him to be steadfast, trustworthy and true.  ‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ she said.  And so Mary’s ‘yes’ meant all the foretelling of the prophets over the centuries came to pass.  

This same God knows you, and invites you to receive His amazing gifts of light, truth, and love.

As we prepare for Christmas we rightly think a lot about giving – to the people we love, and those in need.  But Advent is also an opportunity to practise an open heart in receiving; when we receive gifts, and when we receive the company of others.

This isn’t always easy.  Advent and Christmas can be a time of stress, of high expectations and of relationship tensions, and this year we may be feeling even more under pressure. All this can make us feel vulnerable and pinch on our hearts, and make us close down, so that receiving can feel painful.  Think of St Peter’s reticence to receive Christ’s service of the washing of his feet.  

For many people it’s difficult to comprehend how much God loves us, and wants to give to us.  But receiving of others with an open heart is a good habit that will lead us to receiving God Himself.   And the Annunciation is a wonderful example of gracious receiving; Mary, with her gentle and open heart, full of grace, ready and willing to accept the message that she was to be the bearer of Emmanuel, ‘God with us’. 

We shouldn’t be under any illusion that Mary had any forewarning of what the angel’s message was to be, or what it would cost her personally: what it might have done to her relationship with Joseph, or the deep sorrow as well as great joy of being the mother of Jesus.  The wonder of Mary is her openness in receiving God’s invitation.  

This Advent, God is inviting each one of us into the Christmas story – not our expectations of what Christmas has looked like in the past, of what we are or are not allowed to do – but the true Christmas story, stripped bare for us to gaze upon, and asks us, with an open heart, to receive from Him the greatest gift of all, the Son of God, born for us.  

Amen.

(Artwork: ‘The Annunciation’ by Piermatteo Lauro de’ Manfredi da Amelia)

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

(1 Thessalonians 5.16-24, Psalm 126 & John 1.6-8, 19-28 – YrB)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

In our journey to the manger, the third Sunday of Advent traditionally focuses on the strange figure of John the Baptist.  He follows on from the Old Testament prophets who had spent centuries telling the people of Israel to repent, to turn back to God, and to prepare for the coming of the Messiah.  John’s message is fundamentally the same, but he has an urgency about him.  The Messiah is coming, he says, and he is coming now.

Two aspects of John the Baptist always impress me.  The first is his authenticity.  

We live in an age where the term ‘fake news’ is something that gets mentioned almost daily.  How do we work out when our politicians, our military and religious leaders, advertisers and  media are telling us the truth?  And there is a difference between truth and opinion.

Because the truth matters.  Without it we make decisions based on the wrong information; and when what we see around us doesn’t match up with what we are being told, we lose our faith, either in our leaders, or in ourselves.  We feel like we can’t rely on our own judgement. The risk is of being gas-lighted within our own reality.

What was it that brought people out of Jerusalem, all the way to the banks of the river Jordan, to hear John preach?  What was he saying that connected with them?

I think the people recognised authenticity.  They could see and feel the truth of what John the Baptist was saying.  And that’s because John didn’t just speak the truth, he lived it.  

Last week we reflected on the prophets being signposts to the coming of the Messiah.  Well, John’s whole life had been a pointer to Christ.  His conception through the elderly Elizabeth and Zechariah was a sign for Mary that God could do anything, including a virgin becoming pregnant.  John leapt in his mother’s womb when Elizabeth met Mary, giving witness to the truth of Jesus’ status as the Son of God.  John’s ministry pointed people to Jesus.  His baptism of Jesus was a turning point in Christ’s ministry, and later whilst held in jail John’s questions about Jesus’ identity led to further confirmation that Jesus was the Son of God.  His whole life can be summed up in the words he spoke recorded in John 3.30: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’

And that acceptance takes courage, which is the second aspect of John’s life.  

It took John the Baptist courage to stand up and deliver his message.   We forget that sometimes – the description of John in the Gospels is of someone so self-assured, so confident in what he had to say.  But John was delivering a message that was at odds with how society was running.  Like many of the Old Testament prophets, John wanted people to notice that how they were behaving was not how God wanted them to behave.  He wanted people to repent of their sins, turn back to God and be ready for the coming of the Messiah.  And he went about it in his own strange way, preaching in the wilderness, in clothing of camel hair and leather, and dining on honey and wild locusts.  

John didn’t only speak out to the general public, he spoke truth to power, including to King Herod Antipas.  He did not keep quiet to save himself, to have a quiet life.  He was bold in telling people ‘repent’ even when it made him unpopular with the religious leaders of the time.  And with courage he gave his whole life to be a witness to Christ.

Being a Christian requires authenticity and courage.  Jesus has a message that the world doesn’t always want to hear.  In Palestine, Syria, Iran, Eritrea and Egypt, just to name a few places, Christians worship the Father, Son and Holy Spirit knowing that it could cost them their lives.  What if that were here? Tough as it sounds, that shouldn’t stop us from trying to be like John the Baptist.

We receive the light of Christ and we are called to reflect that light out into our world.  

Like John the Baptist, let us live lives full of authentic joy and hope in Jesus.  Let’s care deeply, and speak out against injustice in the world.  Let’s help those who are helpless, and be brave enough to offer a moment of peace to our enemies and pray for them.  Above all, this Advent, let’s be ready to praise our God and radiate love to everyone we meet; and have the courage to point the way, telling the world that that joy, that light, it isn’t ours –  it’s the light of Jesus Christ.

Amen.

(Artwork: ‘John the Baptist’ by Leonardo da Vinci)

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 40.1-11 & Mark 1.1-8 (Yr B)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

When I was growing up I was told that it was rude to point at someone.  When you think about it, though, it can be quite difficult to make yourself clear if you don’t point!  You end up with elbow waving and head bobbing.

Prophets, however, have no problem with pointing.  It’s part of what they do.  Prophets tell the truth.  They tell people when they going in the wrong direction, and they explain what the consequences of their behaviour will be.  Their name, “prophet”, has also given rise to the task which most people associate with them – prophecy, the foretelling of something.

So who do the prophets of the Hebrew Bible point to? 

Well, in our first reading, Isaiah was speaking to the Hebrews after they had been exiled into Babylon around 7th century BC.  These are prophecies of hope to people to whom it felt like the worst things had already happened.  They had lost their home, their freedom, everything.  So Isaiah’s prophecy begins with an announcement that the time of harsh judgement is over, and God has forgiven their sins of disobedience and neglect.  He knows that they will need to rebuild their relationship with Him before they will be able to rebuild Jerusalem.  So he sends words of comfort – always worth remember that comfort comes from the Latin. ‘Com’ meaning with, ‘fortis’ meaning strong, so this is good news designed to strengthen the people to cope and face the future.

The prophet Isaiah then speaks of two different people.  The first is the man who will prepare the way for the second person.  This man will stand in the wilderness and call the people to repent.

Who is this?  Well, as Christians we see this is a clear foretelling of the role of John the Baptist.  

And so who is the second person that both Isaiah and John the Baptist point to?  Who is the one who will care for his people like shepherd, and will rule the people?  Who is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit? 

The prophets were pointing to the Messiah, who we name as Jesus.

Why does any of this matter?  

Because Jesus didn’t appear in a vacuum.  His coming was foretold, and indeed John the Baptist’s role was foretold, so that when the began their ministries those who had ears to listen would hear, would understand.  They are signs that it is God at work in our world and God is in control of the future.  Only he knows what is going to happen, and through the prophets we get glimpses of this.

When it is suggested that Jesus was just a good man, it is the prophets whose words argue against that.  They point to someone beyond mere man, but to God who came to be with us, our Emmanuel.

And that’s what we’re called to do to, point to Jesus, in our worship and in our lives. 

In fact, when you think about it the whole of Advent is a great big pointing sign to Jesus.

The star projected on our church – just as the star led (or pointed) the way to the magi to the place where Jesus was born.

The Advent wreath and calendar both counting down the days to Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus.  And also check out our Advent Windows, telling the Christmas story.

Even preparing for the big feast on Christmas Day, both a celebration and a taste of the heavenly banquet we are promised in heaven, all point to Jesus.

So in this second week of Advent I encourage you to spend time reflecting on your Christmas preparations and look for how they point to Jesus, for His coming is comfort and Good News.

Amen.

(Artwork: ‘Prophet Isaiah’, 1968 by Marc Chagall)

Sermon for Advent Sunday

(1 Corinthians 1.3-9, Psalm 80.1-8, Mark 13.2-end, Year B)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

We’re familiar with the idea that Advent is a time of waiting.  That’s why we have Advent calendars and crowns to help us count down the remaining time.  But if we are waiting, we must be waiting for something.

The obvious and immediate answer is Christmas.  And yes, the season of Advent ends with the first Mass of Christ’s birth, which is where Christmas gets its name from.  We celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation, that moment when heaven came down and touched the earth – something which we also celebrate at every Eucharist, the touching of heaven and earth at the altar as earthly bread and wine is blessed by God as the priest recites the words of Jesus at the Last Supper.  

And certainly Christmas is not whole if we only think of Christ’s birth.  We also have to think of why Jesus came.  You can’t have the CRIB without the CROSS.

However, even with all that in mind, we’re not actually waiting for Jesus’ birth.  That has already happened, over 2000 years ago.  So is Advent an empty, pointless waiting, just a show? Are we just prying open cardboard windows until we can unwrap random presents and scoff more food than you can shake a stick at?

As St Paul was fond of saying – By no means!

So, what are we waiting for?

Our readings today tell us: “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory.” (Mark 13.26)

The answer is, we are waiting for the Second Coming.  

In Advent we focus on the final part of the Memorial Acclamation, the words we often say during the Eucharist Prayer:  Christ has died.  Christ has risen.  Christ will come again.

Every year, on Advent Sunday we enter a new Lectionary Year.  We are now in Year B, which is focused on the Gospel of St Mark, and it begins Advent with this passage of Christ’s glorious return.  

And it really is glorious – it’s why we sing about how wonderful it will be when people from all over the world will gather together to worship Christ – ‘Hills of the north rejoice…’  There is this sense of the enormity of what it will mean for us to see Christ in all his glory.

However, apart from the global scale, what does that feel like for each of us?

It can feel a little overwhelming, even scary.  It’s why when we hear the parables of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, or the slaves awaiting their masters return, we hope fervently that we will be wise, we will be found at work, not sleeping on the job.  Keep awake! (Mark 13.37)

And Jesus made it abundantly clear, there would be hints that the time was coming (earthquakes, war and so on), but equally he will come like a thief in the night, unknown and without warning.  

So it is on us to be vigilant.

That’s part of the purpose of Advent – to remind us to keep waiting, keep watching; to be ready.

Christmas isn’t about presents, nice though they are.  St Paul tells us that we have already been given the best gift.  It began at the dawn of time, bore fruit at the Incarnation and Resurrection, and was delivered to all who believe at Pentecost.  St Paul explains: “The grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Cor 1.4)

We didn’t earn it, or pay for it.  God gives it to us freely.

So if Jesus were to return today; if he were to walk through your door, right now, how would you feel? 

You might be ecstatic – this is Jesus, after all, our Lord and Master.

You might feel overwhelmed – this is God, who gives us life, and makes us tremble with love and awe.

You might feel panicky – I know He loves me, but have I responded enough, been kind and loving to those around me enough, have I tried to live a Christ-like life?

Probably we’d feel a bit of each.  But here’s the thing – we have the opportunity, right now, to do something about the third emotion.  

We can repent, turn our hearts back to God, and each day invite the Holy Spirit to enter into our hearts and lives a little more, “so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor 1.7)

Amen.

(Artwork: Greek Icon of the Second Coming, dated 1700)

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