4. Second Sunday of Advent

The week beginning Sunday, 10th December is the second week in Advent. The Gospel passage this week is the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel. Writing to a Roman audience who were more interested in action than genealogies, Mark gets straight to the point in verse 1. “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” Four words into this earliest Gospel we come across the words ‘the good news’. What is ‘the good news’ this Christmas? There is certainly a lot of bad news in the world this Christmas including the situation in North Korea, Syria, Yemen and Myanmar – to name but a few. Closer to home we have poverty, illness, loneliness and fear for the future pervading our local communities this Christmas as well. What is ‘good’ about any of this? Mark’s Gospel points to one full, complete and perfect solution: Jesus the Messiah. The response from my secular and humanist friends is, why doesn’t God (if He exists) make it easier for us to believe in Him? In a sense, that is easy to answer. The real miracle is that the God of the universe chose to come to a tiny insignificant planet in the first place. Even then, people who saw him still didn’t believe! Why should they believe any more now if He did it all again? The other comment that I receive is, I would believe in Jesus if only I could see, touch, taste, smell or hear him. Again, I wonder whether things are only real and true if we can sense them. What about radio waves and countless other phenomenon which we can’t sense but which clearly exist. However, perhaps the greatest argument for the presence of Jesus is His Church. Almost two thousand years after Mark wrote his Gospel, the world Church is still growing and remains the world’s biggest organisation. This organisation continues to affirm that all war, pain, sickness and fear will disappear when a new heaven and earth are established. Surely that is ‘good news’, not only for the Roman world of the first century, but for everyone, everywhere this Christmas as well.

3. First week in Advent

The week beginning Sunday, 3rd December is the first week in Advent. This marks the beginning of the season of the year when many families start opening Advent calendars. Inside will be pictures of Christmas trees, holly, Christmas stockings, a robin red breast and an intimidating snowman. Does this cover the meaning of Advent? The word ‘advent’ comes from two Latin words: coming and towards. The Advent message is a ‘coming towards’ and can be split into three parts. Firstly, Jesus came as a baby; secondly, Jesus is still coming to us today through the Holy Spirit and, finally, Jesus will come again in the future. For most people in Guildford and, indeed, around the world, their understanding of Advent is the story of Jesus coming as a baby to a manger in a stable in Bethlehem. However, the first Sunday in Advent focuses not on this, but rather on His second coming. The Bible passage assigned to this week is the ‘signs at the end of the age’. This is recorded in Mark’s Gospel chapter 13 and verses 24 to 37 and it focuses on a very different aspect of Advent to the common perception of Advent as a crib scene. This Bible passage highlights that Jesus’ second coming to the earth will be very unlike the first. It will not be as a tiny vulnerable baby born to a scared teenager in poverty but, rather, in glory and judgement on the whole earth. Nobody likes judgement. To be judged by an awesomely powerful and perfect God is even more terrifying. With regard to the pictures in the advent calendar, it is probably best not to frighten children with stars falling from the sky and the solar system shaking. However, and thankfully, Jesus has already given us one of his watertight promises: “whoever comes to me I will never drive away”. Thank God for this. Perhaps this is the real joy of Christmas. God is with us, Emmanuel, and if God is with us nothing can come against us – not even an intimidating snowman!

2. The parable of the sheep and the goats

The week beginning Sunday, 26th November is the Sunday before Advent and the Bible passage assigned to this week is the parable of the sheep and the goats found in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 25 and verses 31 to 46. The key verse is verse 40, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” The huge challenge for all of us who profess to be Jesus’ disciples is: do we see the sufferings of Jesus in the sufferings of people around us? Throughout the Bible God reveals his passion for the oppressed. In the earliest times, God intervened miraculously to save His people. For example, the deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt was driven by God’s love for His people and His passion for justice. In this present season, God has chosen not to intervene with grand miracles like the plagues on Egypt but has, instead, entrusted His work of compassion to the Church. Some Christians have responded to God’s concern for the orphan, widow and foreigner by fostering and opening their homes to those in need. What about us? In his best-selling book, ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’, Brennan Manning tells the story of a Catholic priest, Abbé Pierre, who worked in Paris after the second world war. In the cold winter of 1947, Abbé Pierre came across a family living on the streets with no way of keeping themselves warm. He took them back to his dwellings. He couldn’t accommodate them in his lodgings as they were already filled with vagrants, so he took the family to the chapel, removed the symbols of faith, and let them live there. Abbé Pierre’s Catholic brothers were incensed. They said: “Abbé Pierre, how can you remove the symbols of the Eucharist?” Abbé Pierre replied, “Jesus is not cold in the Eucharist but He is cold in the lives of this family.” The words of verse 40 are brought to life. ‘Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me’.

1. The Parable of the talents

The week beginning Sunday, 19th November is the second Sunday before Advent and the Bible passage assigned to this week is the parable of the talents found in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 25 and verses 14 to 30. I was recently listening to a friend who was telling me about a Hollywood screenwriter who was a Christian and had worked on some famous blockbuster films. I said that he was clearly successful, to which my friend replied, “It depends what you mean by success”. Of course, my friend was right. Success for the Christian is not measured in the same way as others might measure it. Jesus’ disciples were not people of wealth, influence and celebrity status – quite the reverse. How then do we measure success? I think the parable of the talents gives us an important clue. Jesus was not bothered whether someone made five talents or two talents but he wanted them to try to do something. Jordan Seng, a well-known Christian speaker, often says that faith is spelt ‘T R Y’. As a community, we all have different talents. Some of us are good at academic things and others are good at practical things; some of us are good at physical things and some of us are good at cerebral things. It doesn’t matter what we are good at or the measure of our ability. What matters is that we make an effort for God. What is the measure of success? The parable of the talents tells us that it is making the most of the opportunities that God gives us by trying, and not ‘playing it safe’.