It’s beginning to look a lot like Advent

Actually it isn’t. But I wrote this on the train the other day, as a very belated response to someone’s request for a song to go with the lighting of the Advent wreath, and I thought I might forget about if it I waited till November. 

Advent Wreath Song
to the tune ‘Father we place into your hands’

Mothers and fathers of the faith, who lived in time of old,
Leaders and judges, kings and queens were faithful, true and bold,
Travelers, heroes, shepherds, all with stories to be told:
Still they show us how to follow you.

Prophets and seers who spoke the truth in answer to your call,
finding new ways to bring your word to people great and small,
living their lives to show your love was meant for one and all,
still they show us how to follow you.

John, in the desert calling out, ‘The Kingdom has come near.’
‘Come and repent, and be baptised, there’s nothing then to fear.’
‘Jesus is coming now, the One you’re waiting for is here.’
Still he shows us how to follow you.

Mother of Jesus, angels called her favoured, full of grace,
Holding the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, in her embrace,
She is the one whose ‘yes’ helped God to save the human race,
still she shows us how to follow you.

And this last verse, for Christmas day, is by my friend and colleague Gill Robertson:

Jesus our Saviour, born a king, we welcome you today,
Lord of all time, Immanuel, with joyful hearts we say:
You are the Christ who came to earth for us; and now we pray,
Help us all to daily follow you.

Morning prayer thought – 7th December

I didn’t really fancy drawing a picture of today’s reading from morning prayer (the beheading of John the Baptist, Matthew 14.1-12).

Corruption and sleaze are nothing new, but have always been there, and that when those in power try to save face rather than face up to their mistakes, there are often casualties. We may lament at this, and at how those who speak up and speak out so often seem to pay too high a price for their integrity.

But there is no good news in any of that, no gospel, merely confirmation of what our sometimes-cynical minds know represents some of the worst of humanity. If anything, this shows us how much we – just as the world in Herod and John’s day – need the gospel.

And that gospel had been the whole meaning of John’s life. He’d spent his adult years preaching essentially three things:

  • Repentance and forgiveness are real, and necessary, and they are for everyone
  • The kingdom of God is coming closer, and this a promise of hope and a threat of judgement
  • There is someone greater coming: Jesus the Messiah.

These three messages were John’s whole reason for being.

The last one, that Jesus was coming, had finally started to be fulfilled. The baton has well and truly been passed on.  John’s role as the last great prophet has been accomplished, and his work is done.

But the other parts of John’s message are not yet finished. And Herod stands as the final person to whom John brings them, and with whom he tries to share them.

John brings Herod the gospel of repentance, the truth about sin and forgiveness.  Would Herod’s hesitation ever have led to a change of heart heart, that could, eventually have found expression in the way he lived his life?  We will never know. But undoubtedly John’s last act was to keep on preaching repentance to Herod, and keep offering him the chance of God’s forgiveness, the chance to make things right. John never gave up his calling to show Herod the reality of God’s mercy, even though in the end, no mercy was shown to him.

And John also spend his last days showing Herod what the kingdom of God was like. This, I think, must have been what really intrigued the king. It’s as if he caught a glimpse of a different way of doing things, of a different kind of power, or a different world order, and was both fascinated and frightened by it. I am sure he would have kept John around far longer to see more of this kingdom of God at work, had he not made that rash, wine-fuelled promise.

So Herod was faced with a choice. Save John, and keep alive the glimpse of another kind of kingdom, or sacrifice John to save his own kind of kingdom, his own political reputation. Herod fails the test, just as Pontius Pilate would fail his own test when Jesus showed him a glimpse of the kingdom later. Herod, like Pilate, chooses the values of his own kingdom over the glimpse of the kingdom of God, and rejects his own shot at receiving mercy by failing to show it to others.

There are so many pre-echoes in John’s story of the story of the passion of Jesus. Not only the corrupt leader who can’t seem to make the morally right and spiritually right choice, the condemnation on a whim – but above all the way in which both John and Jesus approach their deaths offering to those who are hurting them a glimpse of the kingdom and a chance at forgiveness.  Right up til the end.

Jesus and John lived their lives as a blessing from God to the world.  But God’s blessing was not always straightforward or painless. They brought life and truth and mercy, and these values are sometimes so much at odds with the ways of the world that they may seem impossible to accept.  Jesus and John showed how to make good choices even when bad choices were easier, and they showed integrity even when self-interest was easier. But above all they showed us that there is nothing that God would not do, no length to which he would not go, to keep on giving his people glimpses of the kingdom and offers of forgiveness.

This is also our calling – it may not lead to our death, but it may lead many to life.

The Baptism of Christ (Matthew 3.13-end)

Jesus doesn’t half get a good build-up in Matthew’s gospel.  Matthew 1 gives us Jesus’ family tree – tracing his lineage back to Abraham himself – and goes on to relate the events around his miraculous birth, complete with angelic messengers in dreams. Matthew 2 tells of the visit of the Magi, and the subsequent flight of the holy family to Egypt to avoid the wrath of Herod, and their eventual return  to the normality of Nazareth, where Jesus would spend the remainder of his childhood, about which Matthew’s gospel is silent.  But we have heard enough already, between the genealogy and the birth story, to know that Matthew is introducing Jesus as the real deal, the Messiah, the one that God’s people had been hoping and praying for for centuries.  We are simply left waiting for the rest of the story to unfold.

Chapter 3 jumps ahead somewhat, and the next thing we hear about is not Jesus himself, but his cousin John.  John the baptist’s job – his entire vocation – was to prepare people for Jesus’ arrival, to sow the seeds about baptism, about repentance, about the coming kingdom and about what it really means to belong to the household and family of God.  In the passage immediately before today’s gospel he is heralded by the gospel-writer as the one about whom Isaiah spoke his potent and portentous words, and then immediately sets about underlining his own humility in the light of Jesus, the One who is the come.  

So Jesus makes his first adult appearance in Matthew’s gospel.  It is clear that John is simply the warm-up act, but Jesus’ first action is to submit to John’s baptism – even John finds this hard to understand, and resists the idea at first. But Jesus insists: he wishes to be baptised not because he has sinned, but because it’s the right way to start his ministry.  All that pressure, all that expectation. All that taking on the identity of the Messiah, but knowing that he’s not going to be quite what everyone’s hoping for.  All that promise. All that that work to do. No wonder Jesus needs to be baptised before he starts doing it all.

And he would be glad that he did.  Because when Jesus left the water, he heard the most wonderful words:

“You are my son, my beloved, and with you I am well pleased.”

They’re the words that make audible the gift of the Holy Spirit that he receives at that moment, the words that make the Father’s love for him feel real.  If you’re the Messiah, if you’re confronted by all that pressure, all that expectation, all that promise, all that work to do, what you need most in the whole world is to know that you are loved, not because of what you have achieved, nor even because of what you will go on to achieve, but simply because you exist.

It’s what everyone needs to hear who has a challenge to face, or who approaches a metaphorical mountain to climb, or who simply has a life to live, which is often a challenge enough.  Every child needs to hear those words, again and again, as they grow in body, mind and spirit. And I tell every parent that as they bring their children for baptism: enabling a child to be surrounded by the knowledge that they are loved is the greatest and most essential gift that they can ever receive, and the greatest gift that any parent can give.

And Jesus needed those words, too – just as much as any of us. That’s part and parcel of his taking on our full humanity.

In the strength of those words, he faced temptation in the wilderness, beating the Devil hands down.

In the strength of those words, he emerged from his ordinary family to embrace Isaiah’s prophecy and announce the manifesto for his mission – to bring release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favour.

In the strength of those words, he went three years of ceaseless ministry, healing, teaching, embracing, arguing, challenging, and bringing life and love to those who needed it most and making some enemies along the way.

In the strength of those words he walked the Way of the Cross, and accepted the suffering that was God’s love for the world, written in blood.

If anyone needed to hear those words, it was Jesus.

You are my son, I love you, and I am pleased with you.

But those words were not just for him. They are for all of us. We are not the Messiah. We do not have to face the Devil in person, we do not have to work miracles, we do not have to bring the dead to life.  But whatever we do face today, this week, over these next months, we need a safe place to stand, something to hang on to that is utterly reliable.  Especially at those times when we are feeling the pressure, when we feel like we have a lot to live up to, when we are having to step up to the mark and ‘be the man’ or ‘be the woman’, when those around us are looking to us to make things right, to fix everything, to live up to all the expectation.

Today, we can put our own name on the front of God’s affirmation.  Because, like Jesus, although we’ve lived half a lifetime or more, but today is the first day of the rest of our life. And we have God’s affirmation, his great words of love and encouragement, not because of what we have done, nor because of what we will do, but as a free gift, because we need it.  And in the strength of that free gift we can face whatever life will bring us.

And more than that, these words and what is behind them are not only for parents to share with their children, they are for all of us to share with one another: what ways today will there be for you to show another human being, another child of God, by your words and actions, that they are beloved and valuable in the sight of God?

Advent 2 (Isaiah 11.1-10 & Matt 3.1-12)

Today’s readings treat us to some wonderfully resonant words about what, or rather who, is to come.

It is likely that Isaiah spoke, or wrote his words over seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, while John the Baptist spoke his in the months immediate lead-up to Jesus’ own ministry; Isaiah speaks of hope, reconciliation and renewal, John’s words emphasize  repentance and judgement, but these are just two sides of the same coin. The ‘Day of the Lord’ that many of the prophets promise inspires both hope and fear; the promise of judgement brings both hope of justice and restoration, and fear of condemnation.  As a friend of mine once put it, The Wrath of God is what the Love of God looks like from Sin’s point of view.  Thus, John stands as the last in the long and honourable (though rarely honoured) line of prophets who, each in their own way, ‘prepared the way of the Lord and made his paths straight’.

As Christians, we hear their words and we think of the person of Jesus as the promised Messiah, the shoot from the stock of Jesse (as we can read in the gospel genealogies), the one whose sandals John was unworthy to carry.  We see in Jesus’ life and ministry, his death and resurrection, and his promised second coming, the fulfillment of the prophets’ dreams, the culmination of everything they hoped for and promised.  During Advemt we re-live that ancient hope, fulfilled for us in the Christ-child, and we re-kindle our present and future hope, for the renewal of the earth the the purging away of all that is broken and polluted and destructive in God’s world.

But for me it always comes down to this: what is our own place in the hope that we cherish, what is our own role in creating the future that we long for?  I have preached many times about the need not only to long for the kingdom of God, but also to work for the kingdom of God. And it appears that John the Baptist agrees: ‘bear fruits worthy of repentance’, he tells the Pharisees. In other words, when you place your hope for renewal in God, do not forget your own part in making that hope come alive; for repentance to have any integrity, and indeed any lasting effect, it must be lived out in a life that is transformed and renewed, and John doubts whether the Pharisees are ready for this level of engagement with what he is offering.

It would have been easy, too, for the first hearers of Isaiah’s words to sit back and say, ‘One day God will send such a person, a Messiah, who will be all these things – full of wisdom and understanding and full of the Spirit of God – and our job is simply sit here and wait for that day’.  But Isaiah, and all the prophets with him, were at pains to point out that the justice that the Messiah would bring, and the peace, are also the work of every single one of God people. The prophets are constantly pointing out the inequalities that pervade even the chosen people, urging both the leaders and the people themselves to act with justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God. Undoubtedly, the living out of the covenant in the Old Testament and the building of the Kingdom of God in the New Testament, are two sides of the same coin as well.

Working hard to establish the values of God’s Kingdom on earth, as well as praying for that end, does not in any way undermine the centrality of God’s free grace; rather it is about allowing that grace to work through us to bring about God’s purposes in this broken world.

This week we have been celebrating the life of a man whose who life’s meaning could be expressed in the words of Isaiah.  Nelson Mandela has been acknowledged as a man upon whom the Spirit of God rested, a man full of wisdom and understanding, a man who did not judge by appearance, but who strove his entire life for justice, for equity, and who, ultimately witnessed the reality of the miracle that he had prayed and worked for: a South Africa in which equality was possible, and in which the lion could lie down with the lamb. A man who, like John the Baptist, preached repentance, but who, even more remarkably, preached forgiveness.

He was also a man who embodied the wideness of God’s mercy for humanity. John talks of bringing forth children of Abraham from the very stones underfoot, and Isaiah speaks of a radical peace between diverse and conflicting creatures.  The sheer scope and generosity of God’s desire for the earth’s renewal is astounding, and we have heard again this week of the many ways in which Mandela’s legacy has had a profound impact not only on South Africa but on the whole world.

Nelson Mandela strove to be what Isaiah promised.  And if we find ourselves uncomfortable with anything that looks like a comparison between Jesus Christ and an ordinary human being, then we can remind ourselves both that Jesus came to earth as an ordinary human being at least partly to show us what true humanity looks like when it is lived out as God intended; and also that we, as the body of Christ, are called (both individually and communally) to be Christ-like, to continue the work of Jesus in the world.  If Isaiah describes our Messiah, then he also describes us, and every community that models itself on Jesus.

Thank God for those who show us that hope is not just an idea for the future, but a present possibility, something worth working for. Thank God for those whose lives mirror that of Christ: risking everything, giving everything, forgiving, bearing, enduring so much.  Thank God for the million and one small opportunities (and perhaps some big ones) that we have in our own lives to be all that Isaiah promised, and all that John asked for as fruits of our repentance. Thank God that he still uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things in his name.  And as we pray for the coming of the Kingdom – God’s kingdom of justice and joy – let us also pray that we may be the means by which that Kingdom comes and play our part in drawing heaven and earth that bit closer this Advent and Christmas and beyond.




Advent 3: this really is good news…

Since I wasn’t preaching today, this is just two random thoughts about today’s gospel (Luke 3.7-18).

Here’s the first:

At first glance it’s all rather grim, especially if one postulates that life-long anglicans are the nearest modern equivalent to those that John criticised for treating salvation like a birthright.

But John’s retort, rather than filling me with dread, fills me with hope. “God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones,” he says.

Praise the Lord for that. Because I don’t want my salvation to be dependent on my track record, or my pedigree.  I want it to be dependent on the grace of God.  Because, frankly, I trust the grace of God more than I trust my own past.  And, yes, I trust the grace of God more than I trust the church and the illusion of solid reliability that is increasingly showing signs of wear and tear.

Here’s the second:

Although I don’t much like justification by works either (see above – I prefer grace), I love the fact that John takes seriously the questions posed to him by the tax collectors and the soldiers.

“Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” John tells them. They hear the words, and they want to live them out, they really do. So do I, I really do.  They ask him, “What do your words look like in real life?  What do they look like in my life?”

And the answers John gives are answers that can last a lifetime.  They’re practical answers that honour the situations in which these people find themselves, and show them, gently but firmly, how to make good choices in difficult times.

This gospel reading prompts me to ask my own question: What do the fruits of repentance look like my life?  And how will God help me, a mere stone on the ground, become a child of Abraham?  I give thanks today, because although John’s words are challenging, with God, everything is possible.