Advent Sunday: I Thessalonians 3, 9-13 & Luke 21, 25-36
Hands up who's gloomy about the news and the state of the world ... that’s most of us then! We are united in a solidarity of despair.
And yet, as Christians, we are called on to be both light and hope. Being light and hope is our Advent vocation. Being light and hope has always been the Christian vocation, for just like us the early Christians inhabited a world characterised by ‘confusion’ and ‘fear and foreboding.’ Just like the early Christians we, as the people of God, need to be on our ‘guard,’ less we capitulate in the face of all the uncertainty and despair that surrounds us. Like the early Christians we too need to make sure that we keep our eyes firmly focused on God so that the ‘worries of this life’ do not destroy us. Like the early Christians we must dare to believe that the answer to the problems we face is belief in God, through the person of his son Jesus Christ. In the face of the unfolding saga of pain, tragedy, selfishness and despair that surrounds us we, as Christians, must continue to be people who believe in and share Good News. In a world of bad news we must be good news : this is our Advent calling.
To be good news and to share good news, the good news of Jesus Christ and all that this implies in terms of love for neighbour, care and compassion for the outcasts, the downtrodden, the isolated and forgotten requires commitment and discipline. It also requires us to build up a sense of Christian resilience, the sort of resilience that allows us to keep going as believers in the Good News whatever else is going on around us, alongside a spirit of repentance; resilience and repentance are my Advent themes for this year. Let’s start with repentance, or as I prefer to call it radical repentance.
Radical repentance implies, for me, one thing above all else: a desire and determination to keep our eyes firmly fixed on Christ and his teaching. It means letting go of the fanciful notion that all of our problems will be sorted out through a new government, a new political ideology, a new guru-led spirituality. True repentance means in the words of Eugene Peterson a willingness to be delivered from the snare of the liars; ‘from the lies of advertisers who claim to know what I need and desire…...from the lies of politicians who pretend to instruct me in power and morality, from the lies of life-style gurus [my alteration - the original reads psychologists] who offer to shape my behaviour and morals so that I will live long, happily and successfully, from the lies of the religionists who offer cheap healing [my alteration from the original], from the lies of the moralists who pretend to promote me to the captain of my fate, from the lies of the pastors who get rid of God’s commands so you won’t be inconvenienced in following religious fashions….and from the person who tells me of life and omits Christ.’
True repentance, according to Peterson, with whom I wholeheartedly agree is simply this ‘saying no to the lies of the world, and yes to Christ.’ This Advent can I invite you to reject the lies, the seductive lies, and to say yes to Christ; for to do so is the essence of radical repentance.
To do this will require building up your, or our, stock of resilience. So how do we do this? Well, St. Paul provides the answer in the reading we have heard from the epistle: firstly, by cultivating a spirit of thankfulness in the face of turbulence, and secondly by prayer:
‘How can we thank God enough,’ and ‘night and day we pray earnestly for you.’
To put it mathematically resilience is a function of gratitude and prayer.
To help us build a sense of resilience this Advent we have produced a Short Form of Daily Prayer for use in the morning and evening. Yvonne and Carol have also produced an Advent painting and prayer for your use. Please do take these prayer resources away with you, and this Advent let them lead you to repentance, that quality of saying no the lies and yes to Christ, and resilience, so that we, God's people can, in the midst of the dark clouds of ‘fear,’ ‘foreboding’ and ‘worry,’ be agents of hope, light repentance and salvation.
Christ the King : Daniel 7, 9-10, Revelation 1, 4-8 & John 18, 33-37
Hands up who enjoyed studying history at school, or even beyond? I really enjoyed history. I think I enjoyed it for two reasons: first, history is the record of events which explains how we have got to where we are, in this way history shows how the past informs the present and the future. The second thing I really enjoy about history is the insight it provides into people; their characters and motivations, the things that drove them and inspired them. I think that two of the most basic lessons we can learn from the study of history are that our actions always have consequences and that our lives are fleeting.
In a standard British school history curriculum a lot of time and effort is devoted to studying our monarchs: our kings and our queens, and quite right too for we are and remain a monarchy.
Theology – and don’t be put off by the use of the word theology for all it really means is spending time thinking about the nature and consequences of religious faith – also takes seriously the study of kingship. In the Old Testament we have two books entitled Kings. The Jews prized and valued the concept of kingship. Through the Gospels and into the New Testament the notion of kingship is ascribed to Jesus. Jesus is of course also described in other ways: friend for example. The message is clear: Jesus is a new form of king.
Whereas, throughout history – religious and social history – kings have had a tendency for tyranny, Jesus is a servant-king, a friend-king, a truly incarnate and intimate king. Jesus is the prototype king. He is the king who is content to touch, and be touched, by lepers, women with menstrual problems, Samaritans, tax collectors, fishermen. He is the sort of king that counts amongst his best friends women such as Mary Magdalene. He is the sort of king who gets down and dirty, caring about the loss suffered by the likes of the Widow of Nain. He is the sort of king who touches the dead, (Lazarus) and who speaks about the necessity to care, really care, for the outcast and the refugee. He is the king who insists that the poor should be the first guests to be invited to a great banquet, and he is the king whose training to those responsible for building on his legacy reaches its epic climax in the washing of their feet. Jesus is the King who dares to break every protocol and who confronts every taboo. A couple more things: Jesus is the king who knows no earthly home, he has no mansion to call his own – he is a vagrant king – and whose only throne turns out to be the cross. Phew! It is for all of these reasons that I am intrigued, fascinated and inspired by the historic Jesus.
But, as Christians, what we can’t do is to leave Jesus in the history books and to say to ourselves ‘what an interesting character he was.’ We can’t do this because Jesus, for Christians, is the king who continues to reign and will always reign. He is, as John puts it so eloquently in the book of Revelation, the ‘Alpha and the Omega,’ or as Daniel writes, the king whose ‘dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship shall never be destroyed.’ We should take great confidence from these words of Scripture.
So what should our response be in the here and now as subjects of the Eternal King? Just a few thoughts:
We should be people who ‘testify to the truth,’ in both word and deed. We should never be afraid of telling the Jesus story, or giving an account of why we believe in the Jesus story.
We should seek to live out the Jesus story, searching out and relating to the sort of people Jesus sought out and related to: those who live, or dare I say exist, on the very margins of society; those who might seriously challenge our preference for some form of domesticated church.
And, finally we should pray, with total sincerity and conviction, the words of the Lord’s Prayer, perhaps especially the phrase ‘thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.’ But, be warned. I suspect that these are the most challenging, unsettling, life changing and yes, history-making words you can ever pray, but if we are to truly affirm Christ as King then they are words we must learn to pray without hesitation or equivocation. Amen.
In Loving Memory : 1 Corinthians 13
It's wonderful to welcome so many of you here today for this very special In Loving Memory service. Of course you are all here because you have suffered a loss, a bereavement. In many ways I suspect that you are continuing to suffer your loss, because death is always painful, and loss is hard to bear. When someone dies a hole is left and the way we experience life changes.
When a loved one dies, we don’t stop relating to them, but we do start to relate differently. We relate through our memories. Memory is an important human and biblical concept. Before Jesus died he implored his friends to keep on meeting together, and eating, to gather ‘in remembrance’ of him. Jesus asked his family and friends to learn the art of remembering well.
Remembering well, remembering with love, is all about a healthy and continuing relationship. Remembering well accepts the pain of separation and death whilst also giving thanks for the qualities, and the impression on your soul, that the person you miss has left behind and passed on to you. Loving memory’s concern is a commitment to keep living as though love matters and as though love, as St Paul rightly insists, is the final word: ‘now these three remain, faith, hope and love and the greatest of these is love.’ So can I encourage you to live well, as people of love, even though you have suffered the pain of loss. May your loving memory be a very active and transformative way of honouring those who have gone before.
As a Christian I believe that the notion of Loving Memory is best animated through a sense of faith and hope. This intermingling of faith, hope and love is captured beautifully in our readings and hymns. The twenty third psalm comes to its epic conclusion with the suggestion that God really does walk with us ‘all the days of our life’ and, that we truly shall ‘live in the house of the Lord forever,’ whilst the hymn that we are about to sing anticipates that God will ‘be there at our sleeping,’ gracing us with us ‘peace in our hearts...at the end of the day.’
For me such sentiments are very real; they reside at the core of my faith. At the beginning of most funeral services that I take I read the words of St. Paul where he says that he is ‘convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,’ (Romans 8, 38-39).
These verses get to the heart of things, they are a statement of faith, written in a spirit of hope, expressing an eternal truth: love can never be defeated, not even by death. Faith and hope, animated through love, are the virtues that have the capacity to transform our memories into eternal treasures.
So even as you continue to suffer the pain of loss and to bear its scars can I encourage you to keep remembering well, to remember in the spirit of faith, hope, and love, in the sure and certain knowledge that the transformative power of love, your love and God’s love, never comes to an end; it is an eternal treasure.
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