Advent 1 - Plant a Sapling and then Meet the Messiah
READINGS - Isaiah 2:1-5 Psalm 122 Romans 13:11-14 Matthew 24:36-44
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. The word Advent comes from the Latin verb advenire, which means "to come toward, to draw near, to approach."
If we are young (or young at heart), the first Sunday of Advent is exciting because it is a reminder that Christmas day is drawing near, Christmas is approaching, Christmas is coming towards us, and if we have our own advent calendar, the first little window has been opened and the first little chocolate has been eaten.
From a slightly more religious perspective, during Advent, we remember and celebrate God's drawing near to us in the person of Jesus Christ, as we celebrate his birth on Christmas Day.
Traditionally on the First Sunday of Advent, it has been an opportunity to reflect on the theme of the second coming of Christ and that wonderful hope of the final victory of God’s love when God will be All and in all and when all things will be made new.
The Lectionary Readings for this Sunday all pick up this theme. In Matthew’s Gospel the key verse for today is verse 42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.”
In the reading from Roman’s 13, Paul picks up the same theme “You know the time has come: You must wake up now; our salvation is nearer than it was when we first came to believe. The night is almost over, it will be daylight soon. Let us give up the deeds of darkness and live as people of the daytime, as people of the light.”
The Apostle Paul clearly believed that the second coming of Christ would happen any day in his own lifetime… In a literal sense, we need to admit that Paul was wrong. But in a mystical sense, his words still ring true. Whenever we choose to live as people of the day, as people of the light, Christ comes again into the world.
It reminds me of a saying of a Jewish saying: “Do a good deed, for every time you do a good deed, the Messiah, the Christ, comes one step closer to the world.”
It is a little saying that reminds us that however we may interpret the second coming of Christ what it is ultimately about is the victory of God’s Goodness and Love and every good deed that is done in the world is another small victory for Love.
In our passage from Isaiah today we get one of the earliest Jewish visions of the Victory of God’s love in the world. The passage was written in the period 750 – 700 BC. It was a time of great uncertainty for the people of Judah. The Great Assyrian Empire had already destroyed and devastated the Northern Kingdom of Israel, perhaps a little bit like Putin’s Russia has devastated Eastern Ukraine. And the Assyrian Empire remained a constant threat to the little Kingdom of Judah in the South that was left. In the midst of these dangerous and uncertain times, the Prophet Isaiah has a vision of a world of the future in which God’s love and goodness is victorious. He imagines a scene where the small vulnerable and threatened city of Jerusalem has become the great centre for the outpouring of God’s love and goodness in the world.
In the Days to come he says: The mountain of the Temple of the Lord shall tower above the mountains and be lifted higher than the hills. All the nations will stream to it. Peoples without number will come to it and will say, “Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord… that he may teach us his ways.
...Swords will be hammered into ploughshares, and spears into sickles. Nation will not lift sword against nation. There will be no more training for war.
And with this vision of the future, of a world that has been healed and made whole, the prophet Isaiah encourages the people into a new way of living in the present as he concludes with these words:
“Oh house of Jacob, come let us walk in the light”.
The vision of the final victory of God in the future is meant to inspire us to walk in the light of God’s goodness in the present to do our little bit to bring light and healing in the world.
Some Christians don’t feel we should be caring about the environmental crisis because with the second coming of Christ everything will be sorted, and so they say is doesn’t really matter how we treat God’s gift of the earth in the present. I think there is a great danger in such attitudes. I would be far happier with the approach of the first century Jewish sage Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai who once said: “If you should happen to be holding a sapling in your hand when they tell you that the Messiah has arrived, first plant the sapling and then go out and greet the Messiah.”
In other words, from a Christian perspective, be careful about getting too quickly drawn into claims that the second coming is just around the corner. Go and plant a tree first and then go and greet the Messiah. Let us be careful of being so heavenly minded that we end up being of no earthly good. Let us nurture with love and care the life and the world that is here in front of us for this too is the work of God, and with every loving and caring action towards each other, and towards God’s creation, with every sapling that is planted, the Messiah, the Christ, comes one step closer to the world.” Amen.
What Kind of a Strange King is this?
1 Samuel 16:1-13 & Luke 23:35-43
For those who might not know it, this Sunday is officially the last Sunday of the Churches Liturgical Year. Next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent which is the First Sunday of the new Liturgical year as we start the journey to Christmas. But on the last Sunday of the Churches year, the theme that is normally look at is Christ the King. Or the Reign of Christ as King. And so this Sunday at our Church Services in Banbridge and Dromore we will be exploring the concept of Kingship…
The sermon takes place in two parts:
PART I: Children’s Address
I wonder who knows when the coronation of the King will take place?
I see on the Royal Website is says that Coronation of His Majesty The King will take place on Saturday 6th May, next year.
I wonder what is going to happen?
I looked it up on the internet. I see that 6 things are going to happen on that day:
1. All the people present need to recognise him as King and the way they do that will be to say together: “God save King Charles”
2. The oath, - The King will take an Oath / make a promise to service his people faithfully with God’s help
3. The anointing, - The King will be anointed with special oil that has been prayed over. Not just cooking oil. It will be mixed with lovely smelling oil.
4. The crowning, - The King will be crowned and given other special items that show he is King
5. The enthronement – The King will be led to the throne where he will sit
6. The homage – the people will come and bow in front of King Charles to show their respect.
In the Old Testament Book of Samuel, God told the prophet Samuel to find some oil and go to a man named Jesse because one of his sons was to be anointed as king.
When the Prophet Samuel arrived Jesse brought out all of his sons to see which one was going to be anointed God’s king. The prophet started with the oldest. God said no, this isn’t the one to be King. The the prophet went to the tallest. God said, no, this isn’t the one to be King. Then the prophet went to the strongest. God said, no, this isn’t the one to be King. And so the prophet went through all 7 of Jesse’s son’s but none of them were God’s choice.
The prophet said to Jesse… are these all your sons? Do you have any other son’s? Yes, he replied. My youngest son is David. He is looking after the sheep. And so they called David. God said to the prophet! Yes! This is the one I have chosen to be King. And the Prophet anointed David with oil.
Let us pray. Thank you God for this story that shows that you don’t only choose the oldest, or the strongest or the tallest, but in David, you chose the youngest, the smallest and the weakest to be your chosen King. Amen.
The story of the anointing of David is a very significant one in the Bible. According to the Biblical Narrative, it was never God’s intention for Israel to have a King. But all other nations had Kings and so Israel wanted a king also. The people pleaded with Samuel to anoint a King. God spoke to Samuel the prophet and told Samuel to tell the people that this was not a very good idea.
The King will tax you and he will make your sons serve in his army. It is not a good idea. But according to the story, the people insisted that they wanted a King like all the other nations. Eventually God gave in and Samuel anointed Saul as King. At first it all went ok, but the longer Saul was King, the more things didn’t go well. The power went to Saul’s head and he turned out to be not such a good king after all.
The story of the anointing of David reveals that God’s choice for a King was different from the way people choose a King. God chosen the unexpected son of Jesse, the youngest. Overlooking the older and stronger brothers. The story reveals that God doesn’t look at outward appearances. God looks at the heart. God’s priorities and values are not our priorities and values.
But even though David was mostly a good King, David was not a perfect King. He made some pretty big mistakes. The older he got, the less effective he was at being a good King. The rest of the Old Testament is really about the failure of the Israelite Kings to lead God’s people properly. Solomon David’s son loved wealth. And with his high taxes he brought people to their knees. From there they split into two Kingdoms. The Kingdom of Israel in the North and the Kingdom of Judah in the South. Relations were not always good.
As the Old Testament story continues there is a growing hope that God will anoint a new King. Who will rule justly and properly.
The New Testament is the story of the coming of this new king: It is Jesus.
But even more than David, he is not what people expect in a King. Jesus comes to serve, not to be served like most Kings think.
Across the Gospel stories, most of the 6 things that will happen at King Charles’s coronation happen to Jesus.
In the New Testament, the moment of Jesus baptism, is the moment he is chosen to be King. (In our baptisms, we too are chosen to become part of God’s royal family with Jesus). At his baptism he is chosen to be King: “This is my Son”. Some say he is also anointed at this moment to become King… anointed not with oil, but with God’s Spirit who comes down in the form of a dove. Later on, an unknown women will anoint his head with oil, just a few days before he dies on the cross.
When Jesus is tempted in the desert, that is the moment of his oath. He will serve God and God alone.
When Jesus rides into Jerusalem (not on a war horse but on a donkey), he is acclaimed as King: The people say, Hosanna! God bless the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory to God!”
Next Jesus is crowned, but not with a crown of gold, but a crown of thorns.
Next, the soldiers pay homage to him, but they do so by abusing him and making fun of him.
Next Jesus is enthroned, but not on a throne made of gold and jewels, but on a cross which he is made to carry himself all the way to the place where he is crucified.
Some might say that Jesus’ enthronement took place in two parts: Part one was on the cross; Part two was in his resurrection. Some might say that Jesus enthronement takes place in 3 parts, first on the cross, then in his resurrection, and lastly it needs to take place in our hearts.
I don’t know about you, but this is a story that turns upside down all that we thought we knew about what it means to be a King. A crown of thorns and enthroned firstly on a cross. What kind of a strange King is this?
The question is: Will we follow this King? Will we allow this King, God’s chosen King to be enthroned on our hearts?
John 15: 9-13 & John 20:11-13
I have shared previously that my grandfather and two of his brothers served in the British Army during world war II.
My Grandfather served as an officer mainly in North Africa. He was a land-surveyor by profession, and it was in this capacity that he served in the military, going ahead of the army to help map out the terrain that they were traversing and also engaging in battle on. His unit was initially with the SA forces that drove the Italians out of Ethiopia, and then served with the 8th Army in the North African desert. After Rommel was defeated by the 8th Army under Montgomery his unit was transferred to the American 5th Army that fought its way up through Italy. Their troop ships were attacked by Stuka dive bombers crossing from North Africa to Italy although fortunately my Grandfather’s ship wasn't hit.
But my grandfather’s youngest brother St Clair was not as fortunate. He served in the RAF as a navigator in a RAF Coastal Command plane that was responsible for doing protective patrols around the British Isles. On 27th December 1943, just two days after Christmas, his plane and the entire crew went missing, lost without trace while on patrol. Neither the plane nor any bodies were ever recovered. In the end it was believed that they had been shot down by a German submarine using its deck gun.
About two years ago my brother and his family went to visit the farm near Cape Town where my grandfather had grown up. While staying in the guest house they had opportunity to see some of the old letters that had been kept by the family. In and amongst them, they found a poem that was written by my great grandmother in which she was clearly seeking to process the sense of loss and grief at the loss of her son, who had gone to war, and had never come home. The poem is entitled:
St Clair 27 December 1943
Misery! She waited heavy eyed
In Pain. Benumbed. No pride.
Sustained. She had not even tried.
Shattered and torn, to ride, driven with storm.
In fearful wonder
Nevertheless, and wretched, to that pure calm
God and his angels provide.
It is a poem that vividly describes the pain and grief of all those family members who had to deal with the trauma of losing a loved one in war, often in a different part of the world, and not even being able to receive the remains to give a proper burial, or to be able to find some sense of closure.
Never receiving the remains of one’s loved one must make grieving particularly difficult. I can imagine that the mind may wish to play tricks, with one always left wondering if it is true. Did he or she really die. What if it wasn’t really true. Is it possible that they might still one day come home. How difficult to grieve and find closure under those circumstances.
The musician and song writer Sting captures this experience very vividly in his 1987 song: They Dance Alone. The song was written as a protest song written to express the grief of the many thousands of grieving mothers and wives in Chile in South America when the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was responsible for the disappearance and the murder of thousands of people between 1973 and 1990. They just went missing. The song refers to the mourning of the Chilean women who dance the Cueca, the national dance of Chile, dancing alone with photos of their disappeared loved ones in their hands.
Loved ones who went missing, never to be seen again. Missing.
The experience of my great-grandmother was not unique. I understand that in the course of the First World War at least 500 000 soldiers from the British Empire were missing in action. That would amount to at least 500 000 mothers left grieving like my great-grandmother let alone the many fathers, wives, brothers, sisters and children. I couldn’t find comparable numbers for World War II, but I can imagine they would have numbered in the 10’s of thousands if not the 100’s of thousands.
In the Bible, one catches a glimpse of the trauma of losing someone, and not being able to find the body and not knowing where to lay or direct one’s grief. In John’s Gospel, it is part of the Resurrection narratives. Jesus has been tried, sentenced to death and killed by the Roman Empire in one of the most cruel ways known to humanity. His body has been hastily buried according to Jewish custom by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. Early in the morning while it is still dark, we read that Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb, and finds that the stone had been removed and the body of Jesus is missing. One catches a sense of the grief and loss as she runs back to Peter in a panic saying “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
The same sense of loss and bewilderment is expressed as she encounters two angels seated where Jesus body had been. “Woman, why are you crying?” they ask her. “They have taken my Lord away” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him”. Missing!
For Mary, it is not just that she doesn’t know where the body of Jesus is, but without the body of Jesus, she doesn’t know where to direct her grief.
In the passage from John 20, one gets the sense of Mary flailing about, disorientated because the body of her Lord cannot be found. But for Mary, within just a few verses, her grief and confusion finds resolution and closure in the discovery that Christ is Risen, but for hundred’s of thousands of women in this country across the two great wars, there was no easy resolution and no easy closure.
On Remembrance Sunday, we mostly, quite rightly pause to reflect on those who made the ultimate sacrifice of their lives on behalf of their fellow countryman. But beneath the sacrifice of each of those whose lives were lost, is perhaps an equally great sacrifice of those left behind, left flailing about trying to make sense of a life that no longer makes sense in the absence of a loved one.
In the Gospel Story, the Eternal, Risen Christ asks Mary: “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
How many hundreds of thousands of women, mothers, wives, sisters, along with fathers and brothers have scanned the crowds looking, hoping against hope, to see the face of their missing family member coming home, but to no avail.
The poem of my great-grandmother speaks of the devastation of losing a loved one, missing in action, and not knowing where his body has been laid.
And yet the poem is not without some sense of hope or comfort.
She speaks of being driven with storm, in fearful wonder, to that pure calm that God and his angels provide. And yet it is not a calm that erases her wretched state. It is not a peace that erases the emptiness and the loss. They seem to sit side by side, the peace along with the storm. The pure calm along with the wretchedness of grief.
I wonder if that is why the Apostle Paul calls it the Peace that passes understanding. It passes understanding, because it does not make sense. It passes understanding because it is a peace that does not remove the pain and the grief. It is a peace that passes understanding because it is felt and experienced even in the midst of the storm. That sense that though this world has been torn apart by an unresolvable grief and loss, that can never be undone, in another dimension of life that mysteriously intersects with this one, there is an eternal realm, where, in the words of Julian of Norwich, all is well, where all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. It is that same light of eternity that Mary glimpses when she realises it is the voice of the Risen Christ who calls her by name, saying “Mary!”. Amen.
New Light and Perspectives on Communion
Today I would like to share two moments of insight that I have had regarding Communion that gave me fresh insight and new perspective on what it is that is happening when we share in Communion.
The first was in my second year of ministry I was stationed in a small town called Matatiele at the foothills of the Lesotho Mountains. It was the first place that I properly experienced snow in the early spring of the year 2000. It was (and I imagine still is) a very beautiful place, a place surrounded by farms, hills and mountains. It was quite a magical year for me.
I was 26 years old, and for first time was really beginning to spread my wings, enjoying also some of my first significant contacts with some of the other clergy in the town. I had made friends with the Catholic Priest Fr. Richard, who was originally from Ghana. Together we started attending the aerobics class in the Methodist Church Hall. I also enjoyed attending the midweek morning Eucharist or Holy Communion service at the local Anglican Church on a Thursday.
In the Easter week of that year I was invited to attend a Passover Meal hosted by the Anglican Church and led by the Anglican Priest. The experience of that Passover Feast made quite an impact on me and gave me a new insight into the nature of Communion. During the course of the Passover Meal, as the Anglican Priest followed the traditional format of the Jewish Passover, those who were eating the meal found ourselves being invited not just to think or the Exodus or the escape from Egypt as an event from the past. In a very real sense the liturgy was inviting all of us who were gathered there to imagine that we had been part of the original Exodus, that we had been slaves in Egypt and that by the hand of God’s grace we had been led out of the land of slavery and been set free. It was quite a powerful experience. It helped me to understand why it is that the Jewish faith has been so enduring through many centuries of hardship.
Communion is often spoken of as the Christian Passover. It made me realise that the communion service is meant in some way to do something similar to the Jewish Passover. It is meant to be more than just a memorial of events of the past, but an invitation for the events of the past to become something that we can experience and participate in, in the present, so that it is we too who join Jesus with his disciples in that upper room, on the night of his betrayal, as he takes bread, breaks it and gives it to them saying: This is my body, do this in remembrance of me, and has he takes the cup saying, This is my blood of the new covenant given for you. I had the sense from that Passover meal in MAtatiele that in Communion, the events of the past are intended to become events of the present in which we can participate, and in so doing to be transformed in the here and now.
As Jesus shared that last supper in the upper room, so Jesus shares that last supper with us also here and now in the present today. As Jesus shared meals with sinners and outcasts, inviting them to draw near to experience themselves as the beloved of God, so Jesus shares a meal with us too, in all our sinfulness and in all of our brokenness so that we too can experience ourselves in the here and now as the beloved of God. As Jesus sacrificed his life on the cross for the life of the world, so in the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the cup, we are invited to imagine that we are standing at the foot of the cross as witnesses and like the Roman Centurion to say to ourselves “Surely this man was a son of God” or “Surely this man was the Son of God” depending on how one translates the original Greek of Mark’s Gospel. As the hymn writer puts it: “Love so amazing, so Divine, demands my life, my soul, my all!” The remembering of the sacrifice of Jesus invites us into a life of loving sacrifice in the present here and now today. As Jesus says in John 20:21 “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you!”
The second moment of insight came in more recent years in 2015 or 2016, watching the semi-fictional British TV series called Outlander in which a former Second World War English military nurse, on a visit to the Scottish Highlands in 1945, finds herself transported back in time to 1743 into the events leading up to the Battle of Culloden.
There was a scene that really stood out for me in the 4th episode of season 1 where all the members of Clan McKenzie, gather together in order to renew their pledge their allegiance to the Laird. In that scene, each of the clan members were required to stand before the Laird, verbally offer their allegiance, and then as a symbol of that allegiance, to drink whiskey from a common cup or bowl that was offered to them by Colum McKenzie the Laird.
In watching that scene, suddenly a light went on for me about the meaning of Communion that I hadn’t quite understood before.
In my teens when I was confirmed in the Methodist Church, during our confirmation classes I was taught that Holy Communion was a sacrament, and a sacrament was defined as an outward sign of an invisible grace. The outward sign was the bread and wine. The inward grace was the forgiveness of sin and the presence of Christ.
But when I was studying theology, I saw that the origin of the word sacrament was in fact from the latin word sacramentum and originally referred to an oath of allegiance taken by Roman soldiers offering their allegiance to the Roman Emperor. The root word sacrō meant to hallow or to consecrate. Those who took the sacramentum as an oath to the Emperor were taking a sacred oath consecrating themselves to the service of the Emperor. And this oath was a sacred oath and a religious act, because the Emperors after Julius Caesar were all considered to be divine, gods or sons of the gods. In ancient Roman religion and law, the sacramentum was also an oath or vow that rendered the swearer ‘sacer’, in other words, "given to the gods," in the negative sense if he ever violated the oath he had taken.
The ancient historian Vegetius writes writes a summary of the meaning of the sacramentum. He says: "...The soldiers swear that they shall faithfully execute all that the Emperor commands, that they shall never desert the service, and that they shall not seek to avoid death for the Roman republic!"
When I first came across this in my studies I couldn’t quite understand how this oath of allegiance that Roman soldiers took to the Roman Emperor had any relevance to the ritual of Holy Communion.
But seeing that oath of allegiance by Clan McKenzie to the Laird of Clan McKenzie on the TV series Outlander, suddenly it all became clear. A central part in this Scottish Highland act of allegiance was drinking from a common cup of whiskey that was offered to them by the Laird.
Suddenly the penny dropped. The outward sign of drinking from the Laird’s cup was the an inward symbol of the Clans commitment to standing in loyalty with the Laird and being willing to fighting on his side if necessary. Being willing to die for him, or with him if it ever came to that.
That was certainly the experience of the Christian community in the first 250 years or so of it’s existence. It was often a dangerous thing to be a follower of Jesus and to call oneself a Christian.
From the earliest times, the Christian Community understood themselves to be owing their allegiance to a different Lord. Although the Roman Emperor Caesar was the Lord of the Roman Empire and ruler of the then known world, the ultimate allegiance of every Christian was to a different Lord. We catch a glimpse of that in our reading from Luke today where Jesus celebrates the Last Supper with his disciples. While the Roman Emperor’s lorded it over the people under them, and their high officials exercised authority over the people on the Caesar’s behalf, as we read in Luke’s version of the Last Supper, it was not to be so with the followers of Jesus, for Jesus had come to serve and not to be served. The early Christians faced a choice. Would they offer their allegiance to Caesar and follow the ways of Caesar as the secular authority, or would they offer their primary allegiance to Jesus as Lord, and follow the ways of Jesus?
It remains an important question: We all owe our allegiance and loyalty in some way to the country in which we live. It is part of being a good citizen. But ultimately, as Christians, there is a higher authority that we owe our ultimate allegiance to, and if faced with a choice between following the ways and policies of our secular authority or following the ways of Christ, as Christians our primary vow of allegiance (our sacramentum) should always be to Christ.
And so that is one perspective on what we do here today, as we participate in the sacrament of Communion, as we eat the bread and drink the cup, symbols of the sacrificial offering of Christ’s own life for us, so in return we come to pledge our allegiance to Jesus as Lord and commit ourselves to his Kingdom of Love. From this perspective, it is not a matter of whether we are worthy or not. It is rather a question of who we will choose to serve. Will we serve the ways and the lords of this world, or will we serve under the ways of the Lord Jesus Christ. Or perhaps if we were in Scotland, would we serve the ways of the Laird Jesus Christ, who has already in his death made his pledge of allegiance towards us and in fact towards the whole world. Amen.
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