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’.
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!