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

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

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.