Sermons from Rev Canon Dr Ian Davies
Sunday 6th December
2nd Sunday of Advent – December 6, 2015
Isn’t it the case that good news can often come in strange
I well remember around Advent time when Sue’s old lift was on its last legs and the door wasn’t working properly and I had to go up and down in the thing myself. I’d managed to get Renée safely upstairs for bed and was on my way back down to get it ready for Sue - when there was a huge metallic crunch just a few feet down and I had to clamber out.
What a mess – and a potential disaster as the carer and I dutifully took apart Sue’s bed and reconstructed it downstairs - resigned to the fact that she’d be sleeping in the dining room for Christmas, unable to get to her own bedroom.
Good news? – hardly – until the engineer said “heh, I think I might get this to work – the damage is only cosmetic. It’s not going to look pretty (the vicarage doesn’t at the moment) – the ceiling’s mangled – but it’ll work – and I think I can even get the door to work so you don’t need to be going up and down in it yourself!
Yay! We couldn’t believe it!
Things worked out
So how is it “the good news of Jesus Christ” as it begins in Luke’s gospel – which makes a point that the Romans are well in charge?
With no other figure than John the Baptist: wild-man, long-haired, dishevelled, dressed in the skins of wild animals (smelling a bit?); wandering in the desert wilderness eating wild honey and bugs, and crying out to the people – “Repent - The Kingdom of God is at hand”.
Good news? - Repent. The Kingdom of God is at hand?
Now there’s a message we associate with those well-meaning guys with ‘the end is nigh’ on the back of a sandwich board; talking about judgement – and all with a kill-joy feel to it all (a bit like we heard recently, and sadly, down at the Liberty).
Well it’s certainly not if we only look at it superficially. But you know - we get it all wrong when we consider the message of John – and indeed Jesus who followed him - saying the much the same thing, actually.
Perhaps when we connect the message about repentance with that of prophets like Malachi who spoke about preparing a way for the Lord in the wilderness, we come to the conclusion that we are the ones who must do the hard labour of levelling out mountains and hills, raising valleys and smoothing rough places.
And life can certainly feel like that, can’t it?
But that is not the message that John proclaims – and anyway it would hardly be good news if it all stands or falls by us! John’s message, like that of the prophets down the ages - like that of our Lord Jesus - is a word of grace - and all the talk of lifting up every valley, and making every mountain and hill level and all the crooked places straight - is not about what we have to do as part of our repentance.
Rather it is all about what God does in us when we turn to Him for help and forgiveness; as a result of us acknowledging our need for Him in our lives, and determining to walk in His ways. The good news of the Christian faith - the news that makes it so much different than most other belief systems in this world - is that God is the One who reaches out to us and takes the initiative. This isn’t a faith about having to do this and that; it’s not about following all sorts of rules; and it’s not about trying to earn God’s acceptance by trying to be good. (And as far as society’s concerned this Christmas, it’s not about being boring or scrooge-like – but finding proper, substantial and lasting cause for celebration!)
So let’s get this clear: that it’s God who levels and smoothes the rough roads of our lives. It’s He who lifts us up and straightens our meandering paths.
What’s our bit?
What we are called to do is to respond - to repent, to believe, and to walk the road that God has prepared for us to walk: the road that leads us to Him and Him to us - the specially smoothed, lovingly levelled road. (Now then – this all begs the question about John’s message). So let’s remind ourselves what repentance is all about (& what it’s most certainly not)? The New Testament Greek word is metanoia. So it’s not a word that’s been invented by the institutional church – or sandwich board producers.
If we look back to nomadic times, prior to the creation of roads or maps, when you were travelling through the desert wilderness you could easily get lost. You notice that the countryside looks different and you have to finally stop and say, “I’m going the wrong way”.
And if we’re going to understand repentance, that’s the first step. Admitting that we might have been going headlong in the wrong direction, that we’re all lost, and stopping to consider where we are.
When Sue, Joel and I used to travel in the Republic of Ireland we got used to a system of road signs that is – shall we say - ‘interesting’.
I liked to believe with my A Level geography that I had a decent sense of direction – and like my male counterparts was reluctant to admit I needed directions. That was until trying to find a road on the west coast of Ireland which took us around the Ring of Kerry..?! Absolutely hopeless. (and my utter repentance has involved almost complete dependence now on satellite navigation). I’ve completely changed my mind – I now think differently.
The message has finally sunk in that I am not self-sufficient when it comes to seeking directions, or admitting I’m lost. Like it or not – and this is the beginning of repentance. Okay - so far so good?
But you don’t really deal with the problem of being lost until you actually then change direction, and start going a different way. That’s the next step: taking the advice we’ve received and actually turning the car around and going in the direction that we’ve been told to go in – despite the old Irish joke – “well if you want to get there I wouldn’t be starting from here.”!
When we decide to go in the direction God calls us to go and then actually do it, God promises to take care of the rest.
We’ve experienced just this over the past two weeks when Julie helped Chris and the team venture forth into the ‘Christmas Experience’ – which they’d been talking about since going to the Leading your Church into Growth conference a year ago.
What it has convinced us about - is that God prepares the road for us and accompanies us on a journey that leads…well – ultimately deeper into himself – and we get to have a lot of fun on the way.
And let’s be clear that kind of repentance is more than simply a ‘feeling’.
We can ‘resolve’, decide – plan (even) to repent, We can make up our minds to change, we can even tell God that we’re terribly sorry; and that we really want things to be different. But until we actually do something different - we haven’t done it. We haven’t repented...we’ve just talked about it.
So repentance involves acknowledging
- that we’ve been wanting to run things ourselves- and go the way we think best;
- that we’ve been own little emperor and allowed other powers (other things, other lords or kingdoms) to control our lives.
- that we’ve been terribly, terribly busy doing stuff that maybe isn’t the most important stuff
Repentance involves putting those influences, those powers behind us, and “submitting” to the Lordship of King Jesus. It’s a significant change from travelling down one road; going in one direction and the turning around – doing a 180° and going in a different direction. It’s about allowing God into our lives to take over the reins - or the wheel of the car: allowing God to set our agenda, or typing the postcode into the Sat Nav and then faithfully following each instruction as you hear his gentle voice saying, this is the way – take a right or a left here. (& unlike Sat Nav – which can go a bit haywire, God hasn’t got it wrong!)
Now having said all this – because there’s no avoiding the challenge of today’s Advent message - let’s go back to the beginning point. The message of the prophets like Malachi and John the Baptist is a message of grace. The transformation of our lives is not something we do (or ever can do, whatever the self-help manuals and self-improvement literature tells us). This is something that God, through His gracious and patient, Holy Spirit does for us, in us, as we walk the road he’s prepared for us.
What we are called to do by John (and the prophets who came before) is to confess our need for God, to acknowledge that there are areas in our lives where we are on the wrong path, and to turn around - and to begin to walk the path He sets before us - in joyful obedience to his will, because we love Him – and know (as sure as eggs is eggs) that He loves us!
God has always intended for us to come and swim in the pool of His forgiveness; to be immersed in His ‘grace’ (which is all about His favour, and a goodness that we don’t deserve, that we can’t work for, or earn) - and then to walk in ways where true, deep joy, not ephemeral happiness, is to be found.
And as we walk with Him, He will fill in the valleys and level the mountains; He’ll make crooked paths straight and rough ways smooth (and get rid of bent, mangled, unsightly metal!).
God so wants us to be in a loving, healing, good relationship with Him – and with each other as members of His family.
In fact God wants that so much, that He gave Himself to us without qualification or reserve – in that child born in Bethlehem, His Gift to the world - in Jesus destined for a cross – (and as we’ve been hearing from the Christmas poem, we’ve been listening to at the beginning of every session with the children) – “to make what is sad into glad again; to make what is sad – into glad, again...”
So the challenge for this second Sunday in Advent is to heed the prophets’ message of peace – to repent, turn round; change direction, turn towards God - and enjoy the relationship he’s always longed for us to enjoy. And all the honour and glory goes to his name, now and forevermore.