Sunday, 29 November 2009

Advent Sunday

1 Thes 3:9-13 and Luke 21:25-36

It’s Advent! For Christians, it’s a season of reflective preparation; it’s a time of anticipation - what we might call ‘expectant waiting’. The question is, what are we waiting for? Some are waiting for a Christmas party invitation. Some wait ever-so-patiently each day to open the next window of the advent calendar to eat another tiny morsel of chocolate. Some are going to wait till the very last moment to buy Christmas gifts for family and friends. What are you waiting for?

Last year there was an ad campaign launched by the Christian Advertising Network that included a nativity scene posted on bus shelter walls all over the country. And I thought, ‘What an appropriate setting for the birth of the Messiah!’ A bus shelter: a place where people wait – people who are making a journey. And as God’s people, we are on a journey. In the Christian calendar, Advent is the season for revisiting how that journey began, and where it will end. Advent reminds us of the waiting, the yearning for something to happen; for something new to change the way things are.

Advent is a double reminder: first, of the yearning that Israel had gone through waiting for the arrival of the Messiah, prophesied clearly in the Old Testament by Isaiah, in chapter 24, and by Daniel, chapter 7; and secondly, Advent is a reminder that we are waiting for the second coming of Christ as judge and King.

In our gospel reading from Luke chapter 21, Jesus is responding to questions asked of him earlier in the chapter after he made the startling declaration that the Temple would be destroyed, in verse 6. He said, ‘…the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.’ - ‘When will these things happen?’ they asked Jesus – ‘and what will be the sign that they are about to take place?’

The answer Jesus gives in verses 10 to 24 includes wars, natural disasters, persecution and distress. And in the verses from today’s reading we hear: ‘There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ Sounds like the end of the world, as we know it.

Yesterday my family and I went to see the film 2012 at the cinema. For those who haven’t heard of the significance of the year 2012 (and I hadn’t until this film came out), 2012 is the year predicted by the calendar of the ancient Mayan civilisation to be the ‘end of the world’. The film depicts widespread earthquakes, volcanoes erupting and tsunamis - Hollywood knows that people get a thrill imagining that they could be one of the few who survive such a cataclysmic event! The trailer for the film poses this question: ‘How would the governments of our planet prepare 6 billion people for the end of the world?’ The answer given is… ‘They wouldn’t’.

But should we prepare for the ‘end of the world’? Many modern Christians see Luke 21 as revealing signs to look out for today, signs which will signal an imminent destructive end to the world, as they wait for the Son of Man to come ‘in a cloud with power and great glory’, to collect them up into the air and whisk them away from this wicked world.

But deeper study of what the bible says as a whole, and what the early Christians believed, reveals that Jesus is not speaking of the signs of his second coming in these passages from Luke. He is speaking of the total seismic and cosmic significance of it all: his birth, his death, his resurrection, his ascension and the time of his judgment. So where does that leave us in terms of the ‘second coming’ of Jesus? We know that most of those events have already happened. Christ was born, Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ has ascended into heaven. There is one event yet to happen for everything to be complete: as we say in the Creed, ‘He will come again to judge the living and the dead.’

This is the expectation that we Christians live with now. The New Testament declares that we are in ‘the last days’ already - that is, the time between Christ’s first and second comings. In Mark’s gospel, chapter 13, verse 32, Jesus teaches that no one knows the hour or the day when he will come again. We shouldn’t get particularly concerned about the year 2012 because we don’t put out trust in the Mayan calendar over and above the bible. Only God knows the date – but Jesus tells us to keep watch. This is why the season of Advent is helpful – it reminds us to be prepared: to keep watch, to keep waiting and keep expecting.

This is a time to reflect on what we should be doing while we wait. One thing we are commanded to do as followers of Christ is to build for His kingdom. Advent reminds us there is a purpose to it all, and there is a destination. And we need to be patient. In his second letter, the apostle Peter says in chapter 3, verses 8 & 9, ‘do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’

When Christ comes again, he won’t take us all back to heaven, because heaven isn’t our ultimate home. Heaven is a ‘waiting room’, a glorious shelter; more restful, joyful and refreshing than any bus shelter, of course, but it isn’t our ultimate destination. ‘Heaven and earth will pass away’ - the trailer for the film 2012 states, ‘The end is just the beginning’, and there’s some truth in that. ‘Heaven and earth will pass away’ – they will be replaced with the ‘new creation’. Heaven and earth will no longer be separate places. 1 Corinthians 7:31 tells us ‘this world in its present form is passing away.’ Heaven and earth will come together, completely integrated. As Tom Wright, the bishop of Durham, says, ‘the final redemption will be that moment when heaven and earth are joined together at last, in a burst of God’s creative energy.’

Until that time, we wait. The Church is the shelter we wait in (and I’m not talking about the building). As the Church we are fed and refreshed by word and sacrament and prayer and fellowship, by the Spirit. As the Church, the absent Jesus is present among us, and he is present to us in those whom we are called to serve for his sake. But one day he will be present with us, face to face.

Jesus will come again, and he will bring with him the saints that are in heaven, and those believers who are still on earth at that time will rise to welcome him – this is what is meant by meeting him ‘in the clouds’ – they will give him a royal escort into his completed kingdom – a fully redeemed and transformed world – God’s new world of justice, wholeness, and peace. So we wait, and we work: and nothing that is transformed for good in this present age will be wasted. Martin Luther once said that if he knew the Lord was returning tomorrow, he would still plant a tree today. The work done in the Lord’s name is not done in vain. Love never dies. But there will be a dramatic, earth-shaking change from this world of suffering and struggle to one where everything has been put right, including us. This is the Christian worldview – this is our story, with its beginning, middle and end.

Many of us love Advent because we are longing for Christ to return. But if you watch the television or look at your junk mail at this time of year, you might be fooled into thinking that unless the run-up to Christmas is full of parties and drinking and shopping, you’ll be missing out! There is a lot of pressure for us to conform to the secular way of celebrating Christmas.

But listen again to verse 34 of our gospel reading, ‘Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap.’ I had to look up in the dictionary what the word ‘dissipation’ meant – it means ‘wasteful expenditure’ or ‘self-indulgence’. That’s what December seems to be full of for many of us these days (me included, if I’m honest).

I like Eugene Peterson’s take on that same bible verse, in The Message translation: ‘Be on your guard. Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping. Otherwise, that Day is going to take you by complete surprise, spring on you suddenly like a trap, for it’s going to come on everyone, everywhere, at once. So, whatever you do, don’t go to sleep at the switch. Pray constantly that you will have the strength and wits to make it through everything that’s coming and end up on your feet before the Son of Man.’

As Christians, we are called to be different. In Advent, let’s endeavour to go against the popular grain. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy the Christmas season. After all, we have the best reason for celebrating the birth of Christ. But let’s take the time of Advent to think about, and to pray about, what it is we are waiting for: the whole of creation reconciled to God.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Thumbs Up

I just found a new website that I wanted to highlight here:

It has short (5 min.) videos on various books of the bible, and aims to eventually cover them all. So far it has videos for Genesis, Psalms, Song of Songs, Amos, Matthew, 1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy and Philemon.

It's from the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Nottingham.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Lost and found

A sermon for mid-week communion

Luke 15:1-10

The tax collectors and sinners were gathered around Jesus. The Pharisees and ‘teachers of the law’ were grumbling – it was absurd - Jesus was so welcoming to people who were so obviously not up to scratch.

The Pharisees and teachers of the law considered themselves to be ‘righteous’, but Jesus knew that wasn’t the truth, and he tried many times to point out to them what it really means to conform to God’s will. They just didn’t get it. I wonder what the Pharisees thought Jesus meant when he said there would be ‘more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent’.

There are three ways of locating our selves within the parable of the lost sheep in today’s gospel reading from Luke 15. We can think of our self as one of the 99 sheep who are not lost: that’s those of us who are safe and sound with perfectly worked-out non-heretical beliefs and behaviours. Or we can think of our self as the shepherd, whose responsibility it is to seek and to save the lost. Or we could think of our self as the lost sheep, that which is not forsaken, but is searched for until it is found and made safe.

Earlier this year, our beloved cat Mary went missing. We contacted the RSPCA. We contacted the vet who had tagged her with a microchip ID. We made notices to put in shops and on signposts. My daughter made a huge poster for her bedroom window, which said ‘COME BACK MARY!’ It was visible to everyone passing on our busy road. My husband produced over 500 leaflets with Mary’s photograph, and together we posted them through people’s doors all over the village. Every evening the family went out searching, and calling out Mary’s name.

Strangers were so willing to help – some even held stray cats in their homes and phoned us to come see if it was her. But none of them was Mary. Each night we went to bed wondering where she was, and if she was ok.
Ten days after Mary had gone missing, she suddenly turned up at the door, frantic to be let inside. She was very thin and much the worse for wear and tear, but she was home, and we were overjoyed! We told all our neighbours and friends that Mary had come home! My daughter took down the ‘Come back, Mary’ poster from her bedroom window and put up another one that said ‘MARY IS BACK'!!! Everyone was so happy, and all seemed right with the world.

Most of us can relate to stories of lost pets, or a lost sheep or coin, and even more powerful is that parable which follows in Luke’s gospel – that of the prodigal son. These three parables are all about how much God loves us. The lost sheep and the lost coin are immensely valuable to the shepherd and to the woman. Both the shepherd and the woman in these parables represent God, who goes to great lengths in pursuit of us.

Ezekiel chapter 34 describes well the shepherd-like qualities of God:
For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them… I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak…

And in chapter 10 of John’s gospel our Lord Jesus says: ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’. Christ’s mission, as he says in Luke 19, verse 10, is ‘to seek and to save what was lost’.

The word ‘lost’, of course, isn’t just about losing track of your global location. For Christians, it’s when we aren’t able to ‘locate’ our identity as God’s children; when we don’t feel secure, and have no sense of God’s direction.

I would guess that many of us have felt lost at some stage in our Christian journey, probably more than once, and in different ways. Sometimes we can go down the wrong path in life, away from God’s will for us, and be guided back so gently that we didn’t even fully realise we were getting lost. Other times it can be more dramatic – in several of the Psalms, the psalmist speaks with painful honesty of crying out from ‘the Pit’ of despair.

I want to tell you now about a time when I felt most aware of being lost, and most aware of being ‘found’ in the end.

Nearly 11 years ago, I gave birth to our second child. Everything should have been perfect – we already had a healthy daughter and now a healthy son. But something went wrong. I didn’t realise at the time, but it was post-natal depression.

I wanted to keep it hidden. I wanted things to appear to be all right. I pretended I was in control, but that even made things worse. Anyone who has experienced depression will recognise the feeling, it’s like living in a vortex that spirals down and down, with no way of controlling the descent. Feeling disconnected from other people and from the world; alone, even when not alone. And I had tremendous guilt over dark thoughts and resentments that I would not normally have entertained. I thought I was going mad – I thought I was a terrible mother and a failure. I let my pride get in the way of seeking medical help. Eventually, while on holiday with family in the States, things were so bad that I couldn’t hide it any longer and I told my mother what was going on.

She recognised my sense of being lost, and she told me her own ‘lost and found’ stories, especially one of how she coped after her mother died. She told me how important Jesus was to her during these times. I had been acquainted with Jesus on and off since I was baptised as a baby, but at this point I hadn’t yet come to follow him.

A few weeks later I was at the point of being crushed by the weight of my depression. In desperation, I cried out to Jesus for help from what felt like the bottom of a pit, but was actually the kitchen floor. And from that moment, my life changed. I’d like to be able to say that my condition went away in an instant. It didn’t. But the vortex slowed down, and I gradually crawled out of that pit, holding tightly to the outstretched hand of Jesus. I didn’t know at the time, but God had been pursuing me for years through certain people and circumstances, seeking and calling out, until the time came when conditions were such that I would turn to him. What characterised that moment was that it was a moment of surrender, of turning to Jesus, of yielding to him, and that is what repentance means. And I was lifted up, I felt carried, like the sheep in the parable that was found and lifted onto the shepherd’s shoulders and brought home.

In the parable Jesus tells us of the joy in heaven when even one sinner repents, or turns to the Lord. Surrendering to God’s way is not easy, and perhaps it comes easier when we are desperately lying at the bottom of a Pit. But what about other times, when life is running smoothly? What about at times when we’re feeling really ‘righteous’? Jesus doesn’t rate self-righteousness very highly, does he? It’s something we have to guard against. God’s children have a curious habit of getting lost - returning to God is a continual necessity.

So where do you locate yourself in the parable of the lost sheep? Probably at times we are amongst the 99, and at times we are the lost sheep. But also at times God needs us to work with him as the shepherd, helping him to seek out and save the lost.

Those of us who have been lost, and found by Christ are called to share our stories, and so to point people towards Christ, who is the way, who is our safety and our salvation – he will search for us no matter how often we get lost, and lead us home each time we give in to him. And God wants to use our stories to make a difference in someone else’s life. This is a challenge for us all, but this is part of our mission as a church. It’s our personal witness to our faith. As St. Paul says in the letter to the Romans, chapter 10:

…how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?

So, whether your 'lost and found' story is gentle or dramatic, share it! Share it with your family and friends, with neighbours and strangers, with tax collectors and sinners! There will be someone, somewhere, who needs to hear it. You may not see the return – you may not know when that person has been ‘found’, when they turn to Christ and all heaven rejoices! But you just might be the instrument God needs to use in that circumstance, as he seeks to find that person and turn them towards home – our true home, where we are secure in the knowledge of God’s love for us and of our identity as his children.