Would you trust (another) teenager? Would you base your entire life’s plan in the hands of one so young? The week beginning Sunday, 20th 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.
Old Testament Reading: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
New Testament Readings: Luke 1:46b-55 and Romans 16:25-27
Gospel Reading: Luke 1:26-38
I heard someone jokingly say recently, “Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without John the Baptist. “In a sense this comment is true in that we really only think about this great New Testament prophet at Christmas time. Jesus described John the Baptist as more than a prophet, so who was he? The fourth Gospel gives the following account.
(John 1 Verses 6-8) 6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. (Verses 19-28) 19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” 24 Now the Pharisees who had been sent 25 questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” 28 This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
What is the background to this passage? The Jewish leaders were the Sanhedrin who had dispatched a delegation to investigate the activities of an unauthorized teacher. Levites were descendants of the tribe of Levi who not only looked after the Temple but also had teaching responsibilities. The Jewish leaders remembered that Elijah had not died (2 Kings 2:11) and believed that he would come back to earth to announce the end time. There was also an expectation of a variety of others to accompany Elijah. It was sometimes believed that a prophet par excellence like Isaiah or Jeremiah would accompany Elijah (Deuteronomy 18:15). John the Baptist emphatically denies being either “Elijah” or “The Prophet.” Instead, he quotes the prophecy written in Isaiah 40:3 and sees himself as helping people come to the Messiah (the Christ). The Pharisees, the third part of the delegation (Levites, Priests and Pharisees), probe more deeply. Messiah means “Anointed One” in the Old Testament but here The Messiah is ‘The’ Anointed One. What confused the religious delegation was the kind of baptism that John was carrying out. Only Gentiles needed to be baptized by full immersion since Israelites were already clean and did not need to be washed. What John was therefore implying is that the chosen people of God had become unclean and had to be cleansed themselves. Untying sandals was the lowest of menial tasks. Disciples would perform many tasks for their rabbis (teachers), but they would never stoop so low as to untie their sandals. What John the Baptist is saying therefore is however great he is perceived to be, the gap between him and Jesus is so much bigger than they can imagine. Of course, returning to where we started, Christmas would not be Christmas without Jesus so however much we revere the work of John the Baptist, the work of Jesus is infinitely more important. That is the voice we need to listen to this Christmas above everything else.
Old Testament Reading for this day: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Gospel Reading: John 1:6-8, 19-28
Epistle Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
The week beginning Sunday, 6th 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 as countries around the world suffer with Covid. At home we encounter similar problems of isolation, loneliness, fear and bereavement stemming from the ongoing implications of the pandemic. 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 – despite Covid. 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.
Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 40:1-11
Epistle Reading: 2 Peter 3:8-15
Gospel Reading: Mark 1:1-8
Psalm: 85:1-2; 8-13
The week beginning Sunday, 29th November 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!
Old Testament reading for this week: Isaiah 64:1-9
Gospel reading for this week: Mark 13:24-37
Epistle reading for this week: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Psalm for this week: Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
What does it feel like to be chosen – to be chosen by family, friends, work colleagues or others we respect? What does it feel like to be chosen by God? The theme of the Bible reading this week is fundamentally one of being chosen. God chose humanity, God chose the people of Israel, God chose Mary and Joseph. That is the Christmas message. What did it feel like to Mary and Joseph to be given the baby Jesus to care for and raise? It must have felt like a mixture between terrifying and an indescribable honour. In the Bible we also read that we have been chosen to belong to Jesus Christ. Two initial thoughts spring from this. Firstly, how should we feel about this slightly terrifying but indescribable honour and, secondly, we might ask the question, what have we been chosen for? As we journey through this Christmas season into the new year, our prayer is that we might marvel at what God has done for us and discern his true purpose for our lives.
How spiritually fortunate are we? In the Bible reading for this week we have Jesus’ words about John the Baptist. What was the significance of John the Baptist? Was he more significant than Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and all the minor prophets? Crucially, was he more significant than Elijah? Jewish custom was that before the Messiah came, Elijah would return. Elijah represented the prophets in Judaism as Moses represented the Law. Was John the Baptist greater than any of these? What does Jesus say? Jesus says that John was more than a prophet – more than anyone that came before. Yet, equally interestingly, Jesus says that the least in the Kingdom of God will be greater than John the Baptist. What does this mean? Perhaps Jesus is alluding to the fact that unlike us, John never knew the breadth of God’s love revealed in the cross. John died before Jesus’ passion and resurrection. John knew about judgement, destruction and the need for repentance but he didn’t know the other side of God’s gracious love and forgiveness revealed in the cross. What about us? How fortunate are we? We know about the meaning of the cross. We have a fuller picture of what God is like. In Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension we have the complete jig-saw of what God is like. John had this in part, but not fully. How spiritually fortunate are we?