What is the significance of the advent candles? The answer to this question varies according to the different Christian traditions. However, in the UK for churches following the revised common lectionary, the first candle is for all God’s people; the second candle is for the Old Testament prophets; the third candle is for John the Baptist and the fourth candle is for Mary, the mother of Jesus. Does all this matter? The simple answer is no, and yes! Certainly, there is no teaching in the Bible from Jesus or any of the Apostles about advent candles and yet the Church is wise in creating a liturgical year in which God’s people can find rhythm and coherent teaching to develop their faith. This is the fourth Sunday in Advent and therefore the focus this week is on Mary, the mother of Jesus. What is wonderful about Mary is her pure, simple faith and obedience. Perhaps for us, there is nothing more we need to remind ourselves about and learn this Christmas. When God reveals Himself to us through creation, other people, the Bible, the church, circumstances or other more supernatural ways, let us simply say ‘yes’ to his plans, not only this Christmas but for evermore.
Should Christians only perform certain jobs? In the Bible reading assigned to this week, the words of John the Baptist suggest otherwise. In this, the third week of advent we get an insight into what we should be doing when Jesus returns. The answer is simple: we should be about our daily business which God has called us to do. In John’s time, the question was: ‘What should we do?’ Perhaps surprisingly, John deals with two jobs which shored up a pagan Roman empire which suppressed God’s people. John says, in effect, if you are a tax collector, keep collecting taxes – but do it fairly. If you are a soldier, keep soldiering – but do it justly. So it is for us. We are not called to desert our jobs and live in isolation. John Wesley once famously said, ‘The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion’. When Jesus returns, let’s be about the business that God has called us to. Let’s bring glory to the Kingdom of God by doing our jobs to the best of our ability and with as much love, kindness, integrity and professionalism as we can muster.
How do we respond to church members who hold very strong views which cause conflict within the church? How do we respond to neighbours, or colleagues at work, who challenge our way of thinking and make implicit criticisms of the views we hold? I suspect that most of us would shy away from these people, avoid them altogether or even make complaints about them behind their back. This week marks the second Sunday of Advent where the Bible reading assigned focuses on the story of John the Baptist. John the Baptist caused conflict in the church. John the Baptist was the source of division and argument amongst the religious people and their leaders of his day. What about us? How would we treat a ‘John the Baptist like figure’ in our church every Sunday morning? How would we respond to his powerful preaching, his challenges to the lives we live, his call for a radically different approach to God? I suspect a lot of us would be upset; we may even make a complaint to our church leaders. But, of course, this is the whole point. Christianity never was, never is and never will be a ‘walk in the park’ for the rich and respectable. Rather, it is about confession, repentance and obeying God. This is what John the Baptist was saying in the wilderness and it is as true today as it was then.
The week beginning Sunday, 2nd December marks the first Sunday in Advent and the start of a new lectionary year as we transition to the Bible readings of ‘Year C’. The word advent comes from two Latin words ‘Ad’ meaning to, and ‘Vent’ which means coming. Advent is a coming towards. The message of advent is that Jesus came, Jesus still comes, and Jesus will come again. On the first Sunday of advent we focus on this last aspect, the fact that Jesus will come again. The Bible reading assigned to this year is from Luke’s Gospel chapter 21, where we have this warning from Jesus: “Watch out! Don’t let me find you living in careless ease and drunkenness, and filled with the worries of this life.” I am sure that this Christmas we will all be filled with the worries over the economy, the future of our country and, within that, our own futures and the futures of our own families. Jesus’ command is to not let this dominate our lives. There is something more important for all of us. The picture that Jesus paints of these times of His return are times of great uncertainty and great fear. However, for the Christian, there is the hope of escaping all these horrors and standing before the Son of Man. This advent season let us cling to this hope and keep watching out without being distracted from what is going on around us.
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’.