Advent 3: Waiting in Vain?

Gaudete in Domine Semper! I love this Sunday in Advent. It is getting closer! This also brings some fear as I realize what I still have to do but also reminds me again of the waiting that is required.

Advent 3 – Year A

Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:4-9
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Prayer: God for whom we watch and wait, you sent John the Baptist to prepare the way of your Son: give us courage to speak the truth, to hunger for justice, and to suffer for the cause of right, with Jesus Christ our Lord.

It is my favourite Sunday! Rose day! Gaudete! Gaudete in Latin means ‘rejoice’. The name comes from the opening of the Mass for that day: Gaudete in Domine Semper, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’. You know that I love it because I can wear pink!

Gaudete Sunday is also a reminder that Advent is quickly passing, and that the Lord’s coming is near. The focus is turning more to the second coming than the first and there is a heightened sense of intense joy, gladness and expectation.

The Gospel readings for Gaudete Sunday always revolve around John the Baptist as the thrust of John’s ministry is the announcement that the Lord’s coming is near – in fact – nearer than you think.

I was looking back over the lectionary to see which stories of John the Baptist are used on this particular Sunday. Year B has set John 1 where John gives his testimony to the priests and Levites sent by the Jews to check him out. Year C has set Luke 3 which is the same account from last week; John chastising the ‘brood of vipers’ and calling for them to repent. Year A sets John in prison awaiting his fate.

On the face of it, none of these events provide obvious reasons to rejoice!

As a refresher, John was sent to jail by Herod. John had been attacking Herod over marrying his brother’s ex-wife which was less than appropriate. John had also been announcing that the Kingdom of God – the true kingdom was coming. Herod wasn’t the real king; God would replace him. I suspect that John was not experiencing intense joy or gladness and his expectations of getting out alive may have been low.

The four walls closing in must surely have limited his vision. So much so that John sent his disciples to Jesus with the question ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’

There are some thoughts about why John asked that question…

One suggestion is that John was disappointed. Maybe he was expecting Jesus to be a man of fire who would sweep through Israel as Elijah did and right all the wrongs. Maybe Jesus was supposed to confront Herod, topple him from his throne, become king in his palace, get John out of prison and give him a place of honour – or at least let him live.

But Jesus is not doing this – he is healing the blind and deaf, cleansing the lepers, befriending the sinners, the tax collectors, ordinary men and women and teaching them about the things of God. Maybe not doing what John wanted him to do. So maybe John is thinking ‘was I wrong?!’

The other suggestion for John’s question is that he wants to know if it is safe for him to give up – to hand the mission on. John was the one to herald the coming of God’s Messiah – how could he do that from a prison cell? Maybe he couldn’t relax until he knew whether or not he had done his job.

John’s ministry only lasted about a year – maybe John did not imagine that his purpose would be fulfilled so quickly. John is waiting (perhaps getting a little short on patience) and hoping. John is waiting to see if what he has done in the past was right; waiting in the present to see if Jesus is the one; and waiting to see if there is another yet to come.

In his waiting and hoping – John gets an answer back. And it probably wasn’t what he was expecting! What Jesus sent back could not be more different from the message that John preached. John shouted for repentance in the face of the wrath of God: he spoke of axes cutting down dead trees and unquenchable fires. Jesus speaks of mercy, healing and rejoicing. Jesus lists the great signs of the coming of the Messiah which had all been prophesied in the past.

Jesus answers John by quoting Isaiah 35 – which John would have known. It is a message all about John – the wilderness, which was John’s home will rejoice and bloom, the fearful of heart are to be comforted – John is in prison, awaiting certain death – how can he not be afraid?

I think that John knew that Jesus was the Messiah. After all – John was the baby that leapt in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when her cousin Mary and her baby (Jesus) came to visit. John the Baptizer knew Jesus the Messiah the moment he saw him at the Jordan River. John knew in his head who Jesus really was.

But time and circumstance can dull the image of our faith perception and leave us feeling not sure what we believe.

I think John’s question had more to do with his heart than his head. John had heard about the miracles and healings Jesus was doing for others and perhaps his faith was shaken. He certainly could have used a miracle for himself – and he didn’t appear to be getting one. And sitting in that prison cell – he might have been having a little trouble knowing it with his heart. Sometimes our faith gets shaken by what we don’t get or what God didn’t do for us personally.

I spoke to an older lady a while ago. She was very honest about where she was at with faith. She told me that after her husband had died after a long period of illness; she came to the conclusion that ‘if there was a God – why did her husband suffer the way he did?’ She couldn’t believe in a God like that. Neither can I.
I don’t have a good answer for that question. There are theological or doctrinal answers that are pastorally unhelpful in these situations. Equally there are pastoral answers that deny the theological problems these situations raise.

Either way, many of us have endured long stretches of suffering, waiting and waiting for God to come through for us. And maybe in those times we have seen or heard of wondrous works He was doing elsewhere. And it hurts! It is painful! The doubts that these types of situations create are probably not coming from our heads but our hearts, our feelings, our hurts.

James also encourages us to be patient and to strengthen our hearts for the coming of the Lord is near; but this references to nearness means the second coming. This James is thought to have been the younger sibling of Jesus, the first born of Mary and Joseph. James didn’t see who Jesus was until after the resurrection. James, like Mary Magdalen, Peter and Paul, had an encounter with the Risen Jesus that completely changed him. From the few accounts there are of Jesus’ family, James would know a thing or two about grumbling against one another. James also doubted who Jesus was.

James, having missed Jesus the first time, now must wait patiently for the next time he comes, like the rest of us. He offers us the prophets as an example of those who waiting in suffering and patience, like Isaiah and John.

John was not like ‘a reed swayed by the wind’ – he was a man of conviction. He was a man of little personal vanity and had a huge commitment to God’s kingdom. James went on to lead the church in Jerusalem and he too was crucified. Neither John nor James were men to buckle under pressure! I think it is safe to have some of our own doubts – if men like that can.

Ann Garrido – (Dec 11th): Today the Church is garbed in pink – that colour of hope in the midst of darkness. We are reminded that even though daylight is difficult to come by and waiting is hard, we are not to cave in to despair but to be open to and sustained by those signs already present in the world around us that let us know that God is at work. While we have not seen the kingdom of God yet in its fullness, there are ways in which that future is breaking into our own time even now – bursts of illumination and freedom, connection and healing. Our faith does not hinge on promises still unfulfilled but on promises in the process of being fulfilled this very day.’

So from the James reading: You also must be patient, Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.

And…Gaudete in Domine Semper.

Advent 2: Bear Fruit


Advent 2 – Year A

Isaiah 11:1-10
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

Lord Jesus, light of the world,
the prophets said you would bring peace
and save your people in trouble.
Give peace in our hearts at Christmas
and show all the world God’s love.

The second Sunday of Advent, over time, has been set aside to remember and reflect on The Prophets of the Old Testament. The focus on The Prophets gives us the opportunity to reflect on the way the Jesus’ birth was foretold in the centuries before it actually happened.

I love the season of Advent – I grew up in an evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada and we were always big on Advent – wreaths at home and at church, calendars (my preference has always been for the chocolate ones)!

I also know that for myself marking Advent goes some way in keeping my cynicism towards the commercialization of Christmas low. It is very easy to complain about the stuff in the shops too early or how the Christian message gets lost today. I would argue that to some extent that Christians have let it go as has the church. If we do not prepare ourselves and examine again what it all means – then how can we possibly be the Prophets of today who can share the Good News of this season with others?

Isaiah speaks of a king who is to come and what to look out for. Paul in Romans reminds the church in Rome to remember ‘whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction’ so that the church would be one voice. John the Baptist was being prepared in the wilderness to be the voice that cries out.

The people of Israel that Isaiah is speaking to have been through the mill. The first 39 chapters of the book speak mainly of punishment and the exile of the people of Jerusalem to Babylon. Chapters 40-66 begin to speak of things turning around with messages of comfort and the end of punishment for Jerusalem. Within these two main sections there are further identifiable sections. Ch 1-12 (where we are this morning) is characterized by prophecies about Judah and Jerusalem alternating between judgement and salvation.

In both Isaiah and Romans there is mention of the ‘shoot from the stump of Jesse’. This is another way of speaking about a king in the line of David – along with Isaiah 9:2-7. That king is who we believe to be Jesus.

The line of David had been devastated during the exile and many people had no hope of restoration. Isaiah is prophesying that now a new shoot will spring out of it, in the form of a Davidic king who will bring a new age of righteousness and justice for Judah. Hope is on the horizon! Isaiah’s prophesy is telling the people of Israel what kind of person to look out for and what kind of changes to see in the world. The King is coming!

The wilderness, biblically speaking, is often a place of transformation and preparation – Jesus is taken for 40 days into the wilderness at the start of his ministry, the Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness before they reached the promised land. The wilderness is also a place of loneliness, isolation and vulnerability. Christians can often speak of having those times in the wilderness when God feels distant, it can be a time of great doubt and despair. All you can do is wait and watch for God as though your life depends on it. This doesn’t sit comfortably in the season of Christmas parties and carol singing.

John the Baptist bursts onto the scene in the opening verses/chapters of all four Gospels from the wilderness. John brings the message of hope for the coming of Jesus the Messiah. John also wants us to prepare spiritually for this coming. There are two things, according to John that we need to do.

Firstly, we need to clear a path for the Lord and secondly that path is to be straight. The original Greek word for paths here means ‘a beaten pathway’; a well-worn path, a path that has seen some use, it’s been established, walked on.

In a personal way God wants us to prepare a path to him. If you were to picture what your path to God looks like – what do you see? Is it well worn? Lightly tread?

Is our path to God straight? I know that mine sometimes is more of a meandering path – taking the long way! I vividly a sermon where a rather charismatic preacher suggested we should ‘go to the throne before we go to the phone.’ Have we made a path for Him to come and do a major and powerful work in our lives? I trust that God wants us to make a beaten pathway to Him. Go to Him over and over again – in the first instance!

We also need to clear that path of debris – this can be anything that standing in the way of God being able to work in our lives fully. There are ways that we can make a beaten path. I will suggest two that I came across from a friend’s blog reflection on preparing spiritually for Christmas.

Firstly, meditate of the fact that we need a Saviour. We all need Jesus.

Ali in her blog writes: ‘My friend recently confessed that growing up in a Christian home, she has never really understood the depth of her need for a Saviour.

Another friend, after battling addiction for years, knows and relies daily on her desperate need for a Saviour, the very giver of her sanity, health and life. Most of us probably fall somewhere in between.’

I know that I need to deepen my awareness of God in areas of my life. It is embarrassing how short my memory can be sometimes.

Secondly, engage in sober self-examination. John’s first words when he appeared from the wilderness ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ It is also no coincidence that in Matthew’s Gospel, the first line of Jesus’ first sermon is ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ (4:17).

John has a serious go at the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to him for baptism. ‘Bear fruit worthy of repentance’ he tells them. Maybe this is why John the Baptist never appears on any Christmas cards or Advent calendars?

My friend Ali again in her blog, ‘This does not mean checking how many moles are on your back or how many wrinkles have appeared around your eyes (though there is a time and place for this type of self-examination).

Rather, this is a deep internal examination of how we are doing spiritually. The Christian writer John Piper says, ‘Advent is to Christmas what Lent is to Easter’. There should be time for honest self-reflection, where we invite the Holy Spirit in to show us where we need His help and healing the most.’

John’s call to baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins is a way of getting our paths clear and straight. I think that many of us would assign this kind of reflection to Lent and not Advent. Yet it is through John we have a gateway to the swaddled baby, fleecy lambs, singing angels and wisemen that we hold so dear at this time of year.

Confession and repentance bring a cleansing and a change of mind and heart can help us turn back to God. It can clear and straighten the path like nothing else can. It is not easy and may not seem to fit in the season of mulled wine and mince pies. They don’t taste as good as a clean heart and mind feel though. Advent and Christmas are full of wonderful activities – but they can also distract us from what is more important. Again, why I choose to mark Advent and it is hard work some days.

Repentance needs to be taken seriously. It means stopping and turning around. Is there anything you need to stop doing? We can of course ask for forgiveness for the things we do wrong – but if we don’t get serious about stopping sin – we cheapen forgiveness, it becomes worthless and meaningless. This is what John means in his demand that the Pharisees and Sadducees to ‘bear fruit worthy of repentance.’

It is a very dangerous mindset to enter into – thinking that we have license to do what we want because we can be forgiven. God will not be mocked. He also knows the desires out of hearts, He searches us out and knows what our true motivations are.

Stopping something is never easy – especially if it has become an ingrained pattern of behaviour or habit. Stopping means changing behaviour, becoming vulnerable and finding new ways of living and being. It is hard but not impossible. We have the God for whom nothing is impossible. He will help and provide.

Paul in the letter to the Romans talks about the scriptures written for our instruction (not entertainment) so that we might have hope. The God of steadfastness and encouragement is with us. Steadfast is a great and often forgotten word – it means immovable, unchangeable, firmly fixed in place. Not much in the world around us feel steadfast in these days. Thank God that we have a God who is steadfast!

In this Advent season my prayer is that you will know the hope of Jesus the Messiah as we celebrate his birth and await his return. I also pray that amidst the turkey and tinsel you find time to deepen your need for the Saviour who loves and cares for you. May you also know his love and forgiveness this season too. As uncomfortable as it might be, some serious self-examination might be in order to. Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement be with you. May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Happy New Year! Advent 1

I can’t quite believe I haven’t posted anything since June! Going to do better – I think, my intention is that at least. Anyway – it is a new year so time to start again. I have always maintained that a sermon is most needed not on Sunday but on a Wednesday afternoon about this time.

Advent 1 – Year A

Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

Happy New Year!

No – I mean it! Today is New Year’s Day on the church calendar. Forget about January 1st – December 1st is where it is at! Now is the time for some new resolutions – although the dietary ones might be hard to keep on the cusp of the eating, drinking and general merriment that comes with the Advent and Christmas seasons.

At the beginning of this new church year – we (I think) have a lot to look forward to! In this season of Advent, we remember again the coming of Jesus in human form as we repeat stories of that first Christmas.

We also look ahead to His coming the second time – that time known to God but not us. We wait in hope and expectation for God’s arrival when the new heaven and the new earth come to pass. We are told repeatedly to make sure we recognize him when he comes. The season of Advent helps us to do that. We can use the readings this morning as a guide and reminder for this new year.

The first thing to do is wake up! It is time to get out of bed. I am not sure what kind of morning person (or not) you are. I generally hit the snooze button a few times before I get out from under the duvet. But once I’m up – I’m up. There is no going back. I am better in the mornings, more productive.

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, is reminding his brothers and sisters that they know what time it is – it is the moment to wake up from sleep! He is not talking about physical sleep – as lovely as that is. Paul is talking about waking up from a spiritual sleep.

Many Christians are spiritually asleep. What does this mean? To not be paying attention to the work of God in the world around us, not interested, blasé. Maybe life at the minute is boring. Prayer life is dull or non-existent, no reading/feeding on the word of God – not interested, bored. I think you can come to church and yet still be asleep. We need to admit that we are asleep and stop pretending that Christianity will never require anything that is hard or costly of us.

It does feel as though there are lots of reasons to stay spiritually asleep – election, Brexit, state of the environment, the world, the church and many more personal ones.

‘No!’ says Paul ‘the night is far gone, and the day is near.’

Advent is a time for a spiritual awakening. It is a chance to wake up to the spiritual realities facing us. We need to wake up to the celebration of Jesus’ birth and what that means for us. We also need to look ahead to the return of Jesus and what we will have to account for.

Have we, as Paul declares, lay aside the works of darkness and lived honourably? Put the quarrelling and jealousy down? Paul also mention revelling, drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness – might not be big issues here. But I bet quarrelling and jealousy are more obvious! Make no provision for it says Paul.

Wake up to the realities of who and how we are.
After we wake up, we need to get dressed. Again, from Romans, put on the armour of light and live honourably as in the day.

Many people live in the cover of darkness – metaphorically and physically in some cases. Why? So that no one can see what they are doing! It is easier to hide in the dark and not be seen.

I know this from spending some night shifts with Thames Valley Police in the last few months. They are busier at night-time – as soon as the sun goes down. What’s more – Monday & Tuesday nights can be the busiest of the week!

But we can hide in the dark too – dark thoughts, words, beliefs about God or ourselves. This is no way to live my friends!

To live in the light, according to Paul, is to put on the Lord Jesus Christ.

How do we do that? Follow him, become more like him. The name is on the tin, Christian, means little Christ. Jesus loved first and foremost. You, me, everyone in the whole wide world as mind-bending as it is to understand that.

Jesus loved, he cared, he helped, he was generous with people, he encouraged them, forgave, taught, corrected them and so much more. We don’t have to do it all. Start with love and see where it takes you. Live in the light!

The Advent season falls at the darkest time of the year, and the natural symbols of darkness and light are powerfully at work throughout Advent and Christmas. We may live in dark times, but the light of Christ will show us the way.

Thirdly and finally, after waking up and getting dressed, keep watch. We need to prepare for Jesus’ return. This means taking the promises of God seriously. Where are our priorities towards God right now? Is he 2nd place behind the distractions of the Christmas season or other self-interests?

Matthew reminds his Jewish audience of the story before the Great Flood in Genesis and the story of Noah. Life was ticking over – eating, drinking, get married – party! But then the flood came and swept them all away. Noah was the one righteous person that God could find.

Luke has a similar account to Matthew, but Luke tells of the signs that are coming – in the sun, moon, in the stars and on earth. There will be distress among the nations and confusion in the seas and the waves. In Matthew’s account, it just happens the Son of Man will come back. No warning, no signs – highlighting the unexpectedness of the return.

Keep awake, says Matthew for you do not know what day your Lord is coming. In his teaching, Jesus is comparing himself to a robber, a thief in the night. I wonder how this squares with you and your view of Jesus. The baby we remember at Christmas, the Jesus who loves and heals and the one hanging on the cross at Easter describes himself as a thief!

Think about a thief prowling outside your house, stealthy and silent. The front door broken through, broken glass, your prize possessions disappearing maybe never to be recovered. We are given a picture of Jesus as an invader, intruder, a disrupter.

During Advent we are called to make preparations, make room for the long-anticipated Christ. Is there space for him, for the new life that is coming?

Maybe we actually need to be robbed of some things? Maybe some of the things that we won’t willingly give up need to be taken from us? Jealousy? Quarrelling? Debauchery? Unforgiveness? Hardness of heart? Apathy? Spiritual sleepiness?

The seasons are going to change, and we need to be ready to change with them. Not only that, we need to watch for the signs of the coming of Jesus.

We need to wake up, get dressed and pay attention to the world around us, pay attention to what God might be saying to us. This is part of spiritual awakening – get serious about it. This is not a time for shallowness and false cheer, the gooiness of the season that threatens to invade.

Spend time in prayer if you don’t, more time if you do, read the devotional, the Bible – again start or do it more. What are you clinging on to that needs to go?

In Advent, we are waiting for God’s arrival, to celebrate the first one and to anticipate the second. We need to recognize him when he comes. Advent begins in the dark, it is not a season for the faint of heart.

It is time to wake up! Walk in the light!

Happy New Year!