« Mugabe's fantasy ..... | Main | Cat in charge »

December 14, 2008

Advent 3

Today is the Third Sunday in Advent, a day in which tradionally we look at the ministry of John the Baptist and the whole ministry of "preparation". At the Abbey we will begin our High Mass with Asperges, the ritual sprinkling of Holy water over the congregation, furniture and floors and anything else that gets in the way. This starts at the High Altar and the Priest, Deacon and Sub-Deacon then sweep down the Quire and through the Nave liberally spraying water with a bunch of Rosemary and a bowl of Holy Water.

It is a symbolic cleansing in preparation for the coming of the Christ Child and perhaps even the Coming of Christ in Glory at this Christmas. As I said in my sermon last week - Advent is about preparing for His return. I am preaching again this week and you might like to take a look at the text I will be delivering at Evensong. It is based on Malachi 3 1-4 and 4 and Philipians 4 4 - 7.

“See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me.”

May I speak, and may you hear in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Malachi spoke to a disillusioned nation, one under the Babylonian heel probably around 400 BC. Around the time Nehemiah had succeeded in getting the people to rebuild the temple and there was still a lot of ambiguity in what people followed or believed. It is very likely that the leaders of the nation still had a foot in both camps – pagan and Judaic, after all, the Babylonian Rulers had imposed, as the Book of Daniel intimates, their pantheon of gods on all their conquered peoples and the reality is that, much as it is in our own society, many will simply have complied without a second thought. Much of his argument will have been directed at the leaders; to get them to return fully to the faith in the knowledge that the people would then follow.

Does this speak to our own age? What does it say to us as we prepare for the coming of our Lord? Perhaps more loudly than ever, for we too live in an age where our leaders preach and practice a form of inclusiveness Malachi would have recognised; one where the desire to “include” means embracing all manner of things from other faiths and from no faith at all. It is an insidious message, one which suggests that God has no place in our daily lives and should be confined to Sundays (or any other ‘Sabbath’ you care to use) and should play no part in any other dealings we have with the world. He would have recognised too the statement by a government front bencher in the Guardian recently that it was “right to exclude from the Commissionership a man who was a practicing Christian since his faith might bias his judgement”. You could be excused for thinking that such an exclusion showed a distinct bias among those making the decision.

We tend to think of the prophets of ancient Israel as wild looking and sounding men who thundered from hilltops and street corners, predicting doom and destruction to everyone who failed to follow their pronouncements to the letter, but was that really the case? And who did they actually address in the prophesies. Quite often it wasn’t the people “in the pew” or even in the market place, their warnings and messages were addressed directly to the rulers and their courts and were very often very unwelcome. You have only to look at Herod’s response to learning of the prophecy of a ‘King’ born to rule over Israel to see what I mean.

The Prophets of ancient Israel were often teachers, leaders themselves and gathered about them “schools” of disciples. Look at John the Baptist, the last Old Testament prophet and first among the Christian ‘Saints’. He followed that prophetic tradition and had a school of disciples, some of whom may even have joined Christ after John’s imprisonment or the revelation that Jesus was the one whom John proclaimed. Malachi’s disciples would have taken his teaching and his prophecies out of the court and into the wider congregation, many no doubt, having small ‘schools’ of their own who would also spread the word – and perhaps this is a lesson for our time. Have we a ‘school’ preparing people for the reception of the Gospel and the coming of our Lord? And what, if anything, are we doing about it? Consider for a moment the effect of each and every one of us going out from here to discuss the sermon among our friends and families – or, horror of horrors – among our colleagues at work. Yet that is exactly what the disciples of the prophets and of our Lord himself did. That is why they made such an impact.

Malachi gives us some interesting images of the coming of the Lord, speaking as he does of the “refiner’s fire” or even the “launderers soap” – images of making clean or purification. But his message is not one of doom and gloom, but of a new start, one which is God centred. And that is the message for every age including our own – good things do come from God, but only if we are truly focussed on Him – in short, we need to become God-centred in everything we do. But there is a warning too –
“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire.” With my fire service background, that is an image that is certainly evocative, but who will be the arrogant and who the evildoer on that day? That is certainly a question his hearers would have asked, for they, as with us, would hardly recognise themselves as falling into such a description. And that is, of course, the problem, we confuse our concepts of “reasonable” and sometimes “rights” with God’s direction and call to us to do His will.

It is imagery that St Paul among others, draws upon regularly and even our Lord himself uses the analogy of the “refiner’s fire” in one of his conversations with the Pharisees. The “Day of the Lord” and the need to prepare for it is a recurring theme in the prophets and in the writings of the New Testament, where again, the hearer of the Word is called upon to live in the way of the Lord and to prepare for his return.

So what challenges do we face today in our society that might be familiar to Malachi and the prophets? Sadly I think, quite a lot.

The official approach of an “agnostic” if not an openly “atheistic” state has created a moral and spiritual vacuum into which all manner of things are being drawn and proclaimed as “fair” or “reasonable” or even as “necessary to redress past imbalances”. The problem, as Malachi and the other prophets would tell you, is that “no faith” doesn’t mean “no belief” – it means a transference of belief into all manner of other things both good and bad. Ask yourself the reason why so many now feel it essential to lay flowers, soft toys or even photographs at the scene of a tragedy. In time past they would have brought their grief here, into the church and sought comfort and solace from the Word of God – but now they feel adrift, cut off without hope in the hereafter because they do not know the truth of Christ’s teaching, they have not heard the Word proclaimed and they have no contact with it outside of the Baptism, Weddings and Burials.

You may know too that the Muslim Faith is currently growing faster among young people than any other. In fact it is predicted that in one generation from now the electorate will be in a position to elect a fully Muslim government to power in this country. What does that say of our stewardship of the Gospel, of our commitment to preach it in everything we do? What does our tacit acceptance of the constant onslaught of misinformation and propaganda in the media, in literature and in government against our faith, our church and by implication the Gospel we are to proclaim? I suggest to you it says a great deal of our failure to live up to our call to ministry – for we are all called. We who gather week on week are called to proclaim that Gospel in all the world whatever else we do.

So what can we do to check this slide? As it happens there is a great deal we can and should be doing. First, we should be living our faith – and yes, I kid myself that I do from time to time – but how do I do that? Do I pray daily for the strength to serve the Lord my God? Do I show my faith in my dealings with others? Do I seek opportunities to do as St Paul famously did in Athens – proclaim the “Unknown God” and make His good news known? Do I listen diligently to the sermons preached week on week in this place as a willing pupil of the “Preachers School” and then take that word out into the world in the week ahead? If not then I certainly should be – and so, I suggest, should you.

And what is our message to the world? Is it one of doom and gloom? Of hell fire and damnation?

Not a bit of it, it is one of hope and joy. Hope in the resurrection of our Lord and Saviour and joy in the grace and forgiveness God shows to us daily. Our message needs to be clear, it needs to attract, not repel and it needs to be true to the message of the Gospel – and most importantly, it needs to be shown in our daily lives.

As the writer to the Philippians says: -
“Rejoice in the Lord always, I will say it again; Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all.” And there lies the key, if we show ourselves filled with joy in our faith, if we show ourselves steadfast in faith to a world blown this way and that be fads, trends and ideologies, if we show ourselves faithful to the Gospel word, the world will take notice. But it cannot simply be left there, we have to learn to teach our faith to others if they are to see what we see, to rejoice in the things that make us rejoice. This is perhaps the lesson we need to relearn from the ancient Prophets and their ‘schools’. We need to rediscover the joy of studying what we believe and hope to bring others to understand. We need to rediscover the joy of exploring our faith and putting it to work in our lives – and to do that fully, we really do need to study.

So how do we receive the call of Malachi or of John the Baptist? In Malachi we hear “I am sending a messenger,” and in the Baptist we see the messenger and hear the cry of Isaiah – Make straight the way of the Lord.” In the Gospels we hear of the birth of our Lord and of his death and resurrection – and of the hope that is ours if we have the courage to heed to call to believe, to hold to faith and to fulfil our calling to be disciples and teachers of the Word.

Only when we fully grasp that calling can we truly discover the joy that springs from being able to put aside our cares and concerns, our burdens and our sorrows and accept the true peace that our Second Lesson described in its close.
“And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”Amen

Posted by The Gray Monk at December 14, 2008 09:50 AM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Post a comment

Remember Me?