Sermons from Rev Canon Dr Ian Davies
Sunday 13th December
At last – after weeks of foreboding, of warnings that the coming of the Lord is not something to take lightly, or to be unprepared for (or else..!) – at long last the sense of excitement is beginning to mount. So writes Jane Williams as she reflects on today’s Advent 3 readings.
Yet on this third Sunday of Advent, the church asks us to consider some equally strange advice from scripture. On the one hand Paul tells the folks at Philippi to
Rejoice in the Lord always...
And Zephaniah's message is
Rejoice and exult with all your heart.
...and it all sounds like what this season of Christmastide is supposed to be about - good cheer and holiday exuberance and all that. But, when we get to the gospel for this week, John the Baptist is doing what John the Baptist does best - lambasting the tar out of us as one American commentator put it:
Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that
bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
And once again we are reminded that the God who is coming is not Father Christmas "who knows whether we’ve been naughty or nice" – and whether we deserve any presents or not, but rather
· God with us,
...the one who demands that we "turn around" and "follow" him.
You see, that's the trouble with listening to the Bible. Instead of finding peace through a positive and upbeat psychological assessment of ourselves – and support for the mindless advice to ‘be happy’ no matter what is happening aroud us, we are told that real joy is what happens when we respond to that which God demands of us. And what is that in the words of John the Baptist – and Jesus following on? Well it’s repentance - or a change of heart.
What the gospel is trying to do for us today is to release us from the counterfeit ‘joy’; of popping another pill, reaching for another drink or turning up the Muzak. Note that despite the tone and content of John’s message – Luke tells us “So, with many other exhortations (and you can read ‘like this’), he proclaimed the good news to people.
Axes, Broods of vipers, fleeing from wrath, a God able to make stones better children of Abraham than the people? How can that be good news?
But it is. The Scriptures teach us that real ‘joy’ is what happens when we dare to confront what’s wrong in us – and in our world – when we face up to what keeps us unhappy, and when we consciously turn toward God's redeeming love.
We spent yesterday up at Nicholaston House above Oxwich Bay - with the gale lashing the building –for the second meeting of the Ministry Area Council – to remind ourselves again of the excitement and privilege of sharing the gospel – the good news.
And the Good News of Advent is that God is coming to us, always comes to us, not to destroy us (he loves everything he has made – as our Eucharistic prayers say) but to refine us, to help us to become what we were meant to be. Repentance is God's great gift to us: because we get to own up to what we’ve been and done, to express our sorrow and be relieved of the terrible burden of having to think that we are in the right all of the time. We can be filled with the freedom of knowing that we’re not and the joy of knowing that we don't have to be!
To really ‘get’ today's readings – and understand where we are in the Advent process, we probably need to appreciate that most of the prophecies of Zephaniah, which took place during the reign of Josiah during the seventh century, are angry denouncements of corrupt religious practices. Yet the reading we have today is different both in tone and content from the rest of the book. Instead of predictions of judgment and doom, the prophet predicts a kind of amnesty for his people, a return to the land and the Temple, the removal of guilt, the freedom of salvation. This is good news: the Lord who is coming intends good things for his people.
Let’s be encouraged. Even in churches about which the Apostle Paul was justifiably proud, there was conflict - and if we read the verses that precede this week's little extract from Philippians, they’re all about two leading women in the church at Philippi who’ve been fighting about something: important figures whose feud might well have caused irreparable damage to the church. So Paul reminds them and everyone else that such behaviour is not appropriate and urges everyone to ‘wait’ for the Lord in a manner that reflects the spirit of Christ. It’s a good lesson for us to ask ourselves sometimes:
One of Luke's favourite words is ‘repentance’. His Advent message is that we need to come ‘clean’ and come ‘empty as we receive God's gift of love. John the Baptist didn’t mince his words – his was a clear voice of truth that robbed people of the illusion of innocence.
How we live and what we do are the things that count before God, not ancestry or religious pedigree, not faithfulness to tradition. John's purpose in preaching such a stern message was to lead people into a better way of living with each other. And here we need to realize again, in spite of the severity of the message, it really was (and is) essentially ‘good’ news: it’s an invitation to be in on what God cherishes: which is human goodness and human flourishing
We’re three weeks in. Our Advent journey is designed to take the time it does because we need to prepare for the birth of the baby of Bethlehem. Like the human biological process that takes 9 months from conception - and despite a mother's wish to hold the baby in her arms sooner (or get rid of the horrific discomfort, I’ve heard said!). Unless there are medical reasons for doing otherwise, the process cannot be rushed.
So we still have much to do to prepare for the birth of Jesus; and I'm not talking about getting in the presents and food – or deciding on the family visiting arrangements. If it was all about that they’d better lock me up now – because I’m useless!
So a thought as I close. At Christmas it's not just a baby's arrival we celebrate, but the breaking-in of God’s little King into the human realm. It’s a birth that has the power to transform our lives, if we let it, and if we are prepared.
This 3rd bright Sunday in Advent once again calls us to take a look at our own lives, to examine our own priorities. It calls us to rebuild the road of vital Christian faith, a road that may have become a bit shabby and slipshod over the years with lack of use, or even because of the heavy traffic of faithful church attendance without paying due attention to how this needs to have an palpable impact on the way we live the rest of the week.
We are on a holy journey together. We might have come a long way but we still have a long way to go. I’ll say it again, please let’s slow down in our frenetic, preparations for the tinsel and presents and food and all of that, and prepare to be changed this Christmas. It could be the best ever if we deepen our relationship with the King – and with each other.
Emmanuel- God with us – here in Waunarlwydd - into 2016 and beyond.
We can be profoundly changed by this arrival, but we need to be ‘prepared ‘in our hearts’ as Margaret and Mair have been telling the children: to be ready, to lay down a good road, a way through the wilderness of our self-absorbed schedules and plans – and – please, let's not rush things, but instead, slow down a little and be still as we prepare for this holy event.