How good are we at waiting? In a task-driven society, it is easy to be overwhelmed with meeting deadlines and hitting targets within a strict timeframe. Indeed, in many countries of the ‘Commonwealth’, Britain’s obsession with getting things done on time is the subject of much humour. John Cleese’s iconic film ‘clockwise’ underlines the absurdity of always trying to get things done at exactly the right time. Perhaps we need to learn the art of waiting – waiting on God. The Gospel passage for this week, the week beginning Sunday, 31st December, is the story of the prophet(ess) Anna. In the story, Anna is very old, perhaps well over 100 years old and she had spent all her adult life worshipping God in the Temple. Day and night she fasted and prayed while waiting on God. In the end, just before she died, her patience was rewarded. She was one of the few people to see Jesus in the flesh. Her eyes had seen the Son of God! Perhaps in 2018 one of the best targets we can have is to devote less time to worrying about meeting tight deadlines and more time to waiting on God. If we do this, it is my prayer that, just like Anna, we may see God.
Would you trust (another) teenager? Would you base your entire life’s plan in the hands of one so young? The week beginning Sunday, 24th December is the fourth, and final, week of Advent. The Bible reading for this week is the story of the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary. The news that the angel brought must have terrified Mary. She was to become pregnant, out of wedlock, and was to give birth to God’s Son. To become pregnant outside of marriage was to risk, at best, being disowned by her family and, at worst, being stoned. Then, if she survived, there was the whole issue of being responsible for raising God’s Son in the correct way. No wonder she was ‘greatly troubled’. And yet, Mary said: “Yes!” Was it Michel Quoist, the Catholic theologian, who speculated about how many Mary’s God could have approached before He found one who would say yes to his request? It is the most remarkable act of faith from this young teenage girl. However, there is another aspect to this story. This story demonstrates the remarkable faith that God has in us, as humans, to carry forward His plans. This Christmas will we say yes to God’s plans or will we eternally frustrate them by not making ourselves available for Him? Perhaps, these plans may even require us to trust young teenagers we know.
Great characters in history challenge the status quo. Perhaps the most famous examples of this in the last few centuries include: Emmeline Pankhurst, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. The week beginning Sunday, 17th December is the third week in Advent. The Gospel passage this week is the very beginning of John’s Gospel where the focus is on the testimony of John the Baptist. John was an unusual character with an equally challenging message. He was not part of the ‘religious establishment’ and didn’t hesitate to say unpopular things. Indeed this was also the case with most of the Old Testament prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. It would be wrong to think that these were the only prophets of their time; there were many others who said more palatable things. However, the difference is that they were not speaking for God and, as such, they were wrong and their words never ended up in the Bible. This Christmas, perhaps God is calling His Church (i.e. us) to say some challenging things to our world. While the Church is often happy to talk about justice, we seldom talk about judgement – which is an indispensable part of justice and a key advent theme. While God is pure love, He is also the God of judgement. If we don’t heed the warning of John the Baptist and repent and confess, then the wrath of God remains on us. If, on the other hand, we do turn to God, confess and proclaim Jesus then we have the enormous privilege of joining John the Baptist in being people calling out in the wilderness: “Make straight the way for the Lord.” Perhaps we are called to be the new ‘history makers’.
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.
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!