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The Finger That Beckons

Isaiah 61.10 – 62.3, Luke 2.15 – 2

Introduction – Christmas choices
For reasons with which I will not bore you, Nancy and I invited ourselves at very short notice to Christmas lunch with my brother and his family in Wokingham. The welcome was warm, the company delightful and the spread, ample and delicious. There was no turkey but a fabulous side of beef and a lovely salmon wrapped in pastry – and all the trimmings. I opted for the beef – a difficult choice for I am fond of salmon.

Today with our readings we are offered two attractive and substantial dishes. I’m going to be greedy and opt for a bit of both and hope I do not give you indigestion.

A passionate prophet
The Old Testament passage from Isaiah offers us an amazing vision – of a city ransacked and ruined, gloriously restored and of an exhausted, dispirited and exiled people wonderfully returned. And on the lips of the prophet there is a longing and an anticipation for more. ’For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent – for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet till her righteousness shines out like the dawn – her salvation like a blazing torch.’

And I have met and heard of good people, pastors and priests who have for their own place, parish or town made that plea and pledge of the prophet their own. We could make it our own . . .

For Newtown’s sake we will not keep silent – till the battered and bruised find courage and hope, the lonely friendship, the used and abused – men and women, and there are many of them – deliverance and dignity, the dealers are seen no more lurking round the garages on Amity Road or behind the nursery in Palmer Park, and, some might want mischievously to add, plans for the mass rapid transit system beside the Thames – thwarted!

Mary, angels, a manger and the shepherds
If the passage from Isaiah was the salmon in pastry, the gospel from St Luke is the beef. The reading draws to a close with the haunting, poignant comment that Mary ‘treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.’ (Ch2.19) Avery similar comment is made again just a little later in the gospel after Joseph and Mary to their great relief found the young Jesus debating in the temple courts in Jerusalem.

Sadly, while one part of the Christian church has in the past elevated Mary to heights which would have made her both dizzy and embarrassed, another part has in reaction often ignored her entirely. (I believe a few weeks ago Ali Marshall preached most helpfully about her.) Mary is an extraordinary example of suffering love, great integrity and profound faith, and when I think on her, I have no hesitation in saying, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace.’

Angels – I’m rather keen on them. They play a most significant role in both the Old and New Testaments – warning, encouraging, guiding, protecting. Their appearance at times is utterly overwhelming but others quite low key and down to earth. And I have heard from reliable and steady of sources, even Anglican ones, of the appearance of angels in Iran, Pakistan – even Birmingham. My favourite Christmas card this year was of a sketch by Raphael,of an angel both arms raised above his head, one leg tucked under his bottom, the other stretch before him almost as if he was hurdling – magnificent. If the angels of Bethlehem appeared anything like that no wonder the shepherds took note!

And now as we slip from the Nativity to Epiphany, two observations about our traditional understanding of the trappings of the former:
1.  I do not believe from twenty years of living in the Middle East that if Joseph had turned up in Bethlehem and said, ‘I am Joseph, son of Heli, son of Mattat, the son of Levi of the line of David and originally from Bethlehem,’ ANY door would have been closed to him. In that region historical memories are long, the extended family very important and hospitality a sacred duty.
2.  The word rendered, ‘inn’, in our Nativity accounts much more commonly means, ‘a place’, ‘space’, even, ‘guest room’. (The traditional word for an inn is used in the story of the Good Samaritan.) At Easter, Nancy and I visited the ancient city of Matera in southern Italy, many of whose houses were built into caves on the hillside. We saw one that had been restored to how it might have been a hundred years ago. It was a cave, one part of which was clearly the living quarters with bed, food store and primitive kitchen, the other end, separated by a very low wall, housed animals. There was a manger carved into the rock. I think that could have been how it was in Bethlehem, where there were plenty of similar caves, some larger, allowing provision for storage or even an extra room. Beautiful though they may look on Christmas cards, it’s doubtful whether any young mum would put her child under the stars where even today the snow can lie, ‘deep and crisp and even’. I realise that these thoughts may cause havoc for the writers of Nativity plays, and now what of the shepherds ?

Their terror gave way to wonder, excitement and exuberant, bubbling praise. Can one not imagine them saying to one another on return to their flock, ‘Who would have thought that to us, you Abraham with your bandy legs and squint, and to me with a stutter and love of drink, an angel spoke and we looked at the face of God?’ The wonder of that is most beautifully put in a poem from Uganda.

Blessed are you O Christ child
that your cradle was so low that shepherds,
poorest and simplest of earthly people
could yet kneel beside you and
look level-eyed into the face of God.

Sometimes I fear the accumulated trappings of the Christmas story can obscure the central figure. Doing RE-inspired in Southcote just before Christmas, I got so caught up with my story of an unkind innkeeper that I never had time to get Jesus born!

A Christian for some fifty years and a priest for over forty, I still hunger to study, know and follow Jesus better. I share the credo of Theodore Doestoevsky, which I stumbled upon recently. Here it is: ‘To believe that nothing is more beautiful, profound, sympathetic, reasonable . . . and more perfect than Christ, and I tell myself with jealous love, not only that there is nothing but there cannot be anything.’

I end with words of a Christian hymn from India:

Behold how the angels sing;
Glory to God in the highest,
Peace on earth.
Love has taken a name and a form, and,
becoming meek for his helpless creatures
has come to earth.
The finger on which the sun is set as a diamond,
he puts to his mouth and plays with in the small cowshed.
O Christ, give to us this mind,
that as the finger turns and beckons
we too may respond.

He beckons us into a new year. Let us follow with courage and devotion.

Amen.

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Advent 2 – The dark night of John the Baptist

Advent 2 – Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8

John the Baptist

John the Baptist bursts blazing onto the scene as recorded in the first few verses of the gospel of Mark. ‘A shout goes up in the desert: Make way for the Lord! Clear a straight path for him!’ (v3). He’s like an old-time fire-and-brimstone revivalist, strong on sin and repentance, confident in his message, calling sinners forward for baptism and the start of a new life. Here’s a sample to get us in the mood: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?’ (Matt 3:7) He was effective, too: we read that the whole of Judaea, and everyone who lived in Jerusalem went out to him – it was revival, a mass movement on a grand scale. A clear message, certainty is so compelling, it has a hypnotic power. People – including us – will do anything for certainty, anything to keep the uncertainties and doubts away. Dressed in camel-hair clothes, feeding on locusts and honey he had an appearance and a way of life that matched well his uncompromising, strident message. But along with the call to repent and begin again was another message, the message of advent: someone else is coming who is much greater than I am. Look, I baptise with water: but he will baptise with the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist was the messenger, the forerunner, the herald of the coming Messiah, Jesus. Get ready!

 

There’s a key word buried in the gospel reading that’s strongly associated with John and in fact with many prophets and strong preachers. It’s this: repent. I wonder what that word does for you? Anything? Leave behind a life of sin? Do you find it a rather heavy word, loaded with guilt? Does that actually help you? I’m guessing no. I received a lightbulb moment this week when someone pointed out that the ‘pent’ part of the word means ‘think’. This will be obvious to anyone speaking a Romance language: in French, to think is penser, in Spanish pensar, in Italian pensare. In English we get our word ‘pensive’ meaning thoughtful, from this root. ‘Repent’ means to ‘re-think’, to think again. That sense of the word reflects well the word in Greek lying behind it, metanoia – which broadly means this: go beyond the mind you have. John called people to think again. Think again about how you are living your lives, yes: but think again about how history is panning out before your very eyes. One is coming who is going to up-end all your thoughts about God, about life: I am not worthy to squat down and undo his sandals, he is so great. I baptised you with water; but he will baptise you with the Spirit of God.

 

This is all great stuff, energising and full of hope. I suspect that John, like many of his compatriots, thought that the coming of Jesus the Messiah would herald in such an age of renewal that the old order would be overturned – the occupying Romans turned out, the kingdom restored, a return to the golden days of David the King with their enemies on the run. As is often the case, it didn’t turn out like that. Jesus was a teacher like none other. He did not seek power in any human way – by political or military means. He healed the sick, taught about making peace with the Romans, turning the other cheek, non-violence, reaching out to lepers and the dead. Meanwhile, John carried on with his message of black-and-white certainty, calling out the ruler, Herod, for taking his brother’s wife, Herodias. Was it any surprise that he got banged up in prison? Not at all. And in prison, deprived of his wilderness pulpit, in silence, confronted with his own thoughts he found that doubt, uncertainty was gnawing inside him. Had he got this right? Jesus wasn’t turning out to be the Messiah he had thought. And why was he, John, the prophet sent before him, in prison? Had he got it all wrong? Was God in this at all? And so he sent a messenger to Jesus to ask him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ (Matt 11:2,3). Jesus answered him by telling him, through the messenger, what he was doing and to compare it with what he knew from the scriptures about the coming Messiah. Jesus invited John to re-think, to change his mind, to repent, to go beyond his ideas of what Messiah should be. It was exactly what John had been telling people to do as he started his ministry, proclaiming a baptism of re-thinking.

 

I have struggled with understanding John as I came to prepare this sermon. As I read the gospel passage I only saw the strident, certain prophet. But as I reflected more on his life, I came to see a more human figure. One whose hopes – the certainty that he preached with – did not work out in the way he expected. Whose fearless preaching got him into trouble, where perhaps more circumspection would have avoided it. One who doubted, who had to ask the question that was plaguing him: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’

 

I was very fortunate that when I came to faith as a teenage schoolboy, I was influenced and taught by some remarkable people at the church I attended. I owe a great debt to them. But I remember one time talking about doubt with one of the clergy. He remarked, holding an open Bible, ‘I used to have doubts, but I don’t any more’. That stuck with me as an ideal I should aspire to, so that when doubts about my faith did surface during my years at university, I felt doubly bad. Since then I have learned to live with doubt, to acknowledge it and recognise it as an essential part of my faith journey. Fast forward to this year, while walking in Portugal Rosemary and I met two women, friends, one Scottish and one English. I fell in to talking with the Scot and we shared stories about our families and our faith. She confessed to finding it hard to keep believing in God’s goodness when she experienced a personal tragedy but felt she had to just ignore her doubts and keep believing, wasn’t that what we were supposed to do? I gently pushed that back, speaking about doubt as something we all have, that it’s not wrong. That ‘certainty’ can actually be a bad thing because when we’re certain, we can’t listen. We can’t listen to ourselves, or other people, or in fact to what God Himself is speaking to us. So much pain in our world comes from people who are ‘certain’. I’m putting inverted commas around ‘certain’ to indicate that there will always be a shadow side of doubt there, whose unacknowledged presence will make us shout all the louder. That when we are ‘certain’, there is no room for faith – it is just not necessary. Anne Lamott, the author writes that: ‘The opposite of faith is not doubt: it is certainty’. I gave that quote with the Scottish lady. It gave her permission to leave behind her false certainty, which wasn’t certainty anyway and realise that we can’t know everything. It lifted a burden from her.

 

Doubts, or questions, may take many shapes and forms. We may have doubts at a very basic level about our faith: is it really true? Does God actually exist? How can God be good when there is such pain in the world? How can God be good when someone I love just died? We may have doubts at a more personal level: doubts about ourselves, fears that we are not who we seem, doubts that anyone can love me, let alone God. And there’s a temptation, in the face of messages planted deep within us, to ignore the questions and the doubts, pretending they are not there. It’s like trying to bury something that’s alive. It may indeed have been like that for John the Baptist, even as he was calling people to repentance and pointing to Jesus as ‘the One who is to come’.

 

It’s possible to see that John the Baptist was on a kind of spiritual journey as he travelled from that blinding certainty at the outset of his ministry down to a different man a few years later, stripped of his role as preacher, stripped of everything, pretty much, facing an uncertain future and facing too the internal doubts and questions about his mission: have I got it right? Have I made a huge mistake? The Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr speaks of the two halves of the spiritual life. The first half when we build our containers, build the framework of our lives, often with rules, certainties, confidence. Then something happens to us, often in middle age but can be at any time, when tragedy, crisis or illness strikes and the container breaks, the certainties are gone (which is what happened to John when he found himself arrested and in prison). And then what you’re left with is what was in the container and you learn to live with that without the false reassurance of so-called certainty. We might call that process repentance –that is, re-thinking, going beyond the old mindset. What emerges then is faith.

 

You will notice that I haven’t actually answered any doubts. That’s not the point. There is actually no such thing about complete certainty about anything. We may find some doubts can be addressed and answered: some can’t. Again, the space between our doubts and our convictions (to use a different word) is where faith lives. Or maybe a better word is trust.

 

So as we journey through the season of Advent, let us reflect on John the Baptist as he points us to Christ, as we wait for His coming into the world. Let us see and hear John, the powerful and charismatic preacher, calling men and women to re-think their lives, signalling the coming of Christ and himself baptising him in the Jordan river. But let’s not just see him as a two-dimensional figure, locked into the image of the fierce and certain preacher. His certainties were, in time, broken open and he had to go through his own repentance, his re-thinking as the Messiah he imagined turned out to be the wrong one, as he had to re-form his mind. Perhaps this is a time to face our own doubts and fears, to re-think our faith. John’s expression of his own certainties and doubts is contained within the gospel story: the gospel, the good news has space to hold them.

Richard Croft

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The Start of Advent

Isaiah 2:1-5, Matthew 24:36-44

Imagine you’re waiting at a train station for someone arriving. You’re stood at the head of the platform looking down the concourse beside the recently arrived train with people streaming towards you. You crane your neck to peer above the on-coming crowd, scanning the faces to find the person you’re waiting for. The faces farthest away from you of course are smaller and less distinct, perhaps your eyesight is less good at distances. Once or twice you think you’ve seen your person – but no – it was just a similar hair colour, facial shape, or maybe someone else is wearing a jacket the person you’re waiting for normally wears and just for a moment you’re caught out. Finally you catch sight of them – but even then it take a little longer to see their expression clearly and to read their emotions: how has their journey been? Are they pleased to see you? It is only as they come towards you that clarity appears. It is in the coming towards that clarity appears.

slide02There’s a humorous version of this in a 2013 Specsavers advert: here’s the moment the girlfriend who has been waiting on the platform for her returning boyfriend realizes she’s kissing the wrong man…

slide03Today is the first Sunday of Advent – Advent marks the 4-week period in which we prepare for the arrival Jesus. At the risk of sounding like the John Cleese’s Roman Centurion Latin master from The Life of Brian, I should point out that although ‘advent’ is sometimes translated simply as ‘the coming’’ this isn’t quite right. Strictly speaking the last part, from the word ‘venire’, does indeed mean ‘to come’; but the ‘ad’ part on the front indicates direction – ‘ad’ means ‘to’ or ‘towards’. Advent means God’s coming towards us, and as with my opening image of waiting for someone to come towards us at the train station, this introduces the possibility that the closer God comes to us, the more clearly we perceive God.

slide04This week a young male student dropped into the University Chaplaincy. He wasn’t a Christian but had spent a lot of time reading about Christianity and he was interested. There were some things he seemed to like, but there were other things he found difficult. For example, he’d been reading from the Old Testament a passage in which God is described speaking and he pointed out how overbearing and simply arrogant this God sounded.

I think he expected me to defend this picture of God and he was rather taken aback when instead I agreed with him.

slide05The Bible, I tried to explain, is the record of the long story, lasting several thousand years, of God’s coming towards us. Broadly speaking it is a story in which humans gradually come to see God more clearly. Older parts see God, as merely a local deity for Israel, one among many national gods. These parts of Scripture see God in the form of a warrior, a controller of storms, a provider of food and fertility.

There’s a sense in which these images are partly true in as much as they hint at how God is so much more powerful, more creative than we are; and yet they are also partly wrong – they are unclear: too indistinct.

As I suggested to the interested student, it’s only really in the Gospels, in the person, life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, that Christians ultimately claim to see God best and most clearly. This is what Christians mean by ‘progressive revelation’: as God comes towards humankind we see God more clearly. And so some of our first assumptions drop away: is God a stern warrior figure like a local warlord or the king of Babylon? Well, no.

slide06When God comes right up close actually God looks like Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus God comes towards us: this we can speak of as God’s First Advent.

You’ll have picked up from our Old Testament and Gospel readings this morning however more than a hint of judgement. Somewhat oddly, you might think, the people who put together our readings have mapped onto our 4-week period of waiting for God’s coming at Christmas, readings about God’s Second Coming, God’s final advent in judgement: “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father… Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

slide07Whether we think about the second coming as what happens when we each die, or whether we think of it as what happens in the future, having to think about it at all during the soul-destroying process of Christmas shopping seems to me particularly unfair. Couldn’t we be a little more cheerful – it is Christmas, after all?

But one benefit of overlapping the stories of God’s first coming towards us in Jesus, and God’s second coming towards in judgement, is that we might begin to realise than that they are not unconnected. It is not the case that in God’s first advent we are shown one form of God (a Jesus-shaped God), but in the second Advent we experience a God who comes with a big stick… No.

This week I sat for an hour listening to someone who a month ago left their partner after a marriage of 20 years. All through the marriage their partner had been controlling, manipulative and bullying, and the children having got to a sufficiently mature age, the person decided to leave. Among many emotions, two dominant ones were relief and guilt.

slide08As we talked I noticed in the person’s description a pattern that reminded me of the story of the Exodus – of how the Hebrews once left a place of captivity, to their great relief, and then entered a period of uncertainty: their wilderness wanderings in the desert of Sinai which included much looking back. It took the Hebrews forty years before they entered their new Promised Land. So, reflecting on this, I expressed my joy for the person’s freedom, sadness at what had passed, hope for their future.

The person I was speaking with expressed surprise at such affirmation – that I, a representative of God, might not judge them. I replied that judgment did have a role, but it was the judgment of trying (gradually and carefully) to tell the truth: to themselves about what had gone wrong, to the partner in as much as they would listen, and above all to the children about what had happened. Judgement is not condemnation – it is compassionate truth-telling.

slide09God’s second advent, God’s coming to us in judgment, whenever that might happen, is surely best understood as the experience of truth being told to us compassionately: the truth about how we got it wrong; the truth about who we were when we trying to be someone else; and the truth about how God’s image was indeed in us all along…

Here in pictorial form is ‘the mirror of truth’ – the crack on the left-hand side is reflected in the image of a heart on the other side; which in turn reflects back to surround the crack: in judgement truth-telling is framed with compassion.

There is of course much more to say on judgment than I have time to do carefully here…

But how can be sure of any of this?

slide10Well, perhaps because between the first advent and the second final advent, there is a third experience of God coming towards us. When is this? It is in the daily experience of God coming towards us when we pray…

What is it like to experience this third daily advent? Well, how do you find it when God comes towards you?

My personal experience is very close to a description found in a poem by RS Thomas. He describes God’s coming towards him as like sitting by a pool of water in a forest and waiting for a deer emerge from the trees:

slide11(…God) has the universe

to be abroad in.

There is nothing I can do

but fill myself with my own

silence, hoping it will approach

like a wild creature to drink

there, or perhaps like Narcissus

to linger a moment over its transparent face.

When I am still – perhaps when you are still – in moments of prayer, or in those moments in-between business, we can sometimes find God coming towards us. Of course whether God comes or not is up to God; but when God does come (again speaking personally) I find it is not with flashes and bangs, nor with cataclysmic condemnation for my many sins: no it is more like seeing clearly God’s image in me: ah, yes, there I see Christ and know God’s blessing, but ah – here the image is marred, distorted – I need to seek change…

The eleventh-century French medieval mystic and monk Bernard of Clairvaux wrote about this experience of a third advent like this:

slide12 The third coming is like a road on which we travel from the first coming to the last. In the first, Christ was our redemption; in the last, he will appear as our life; in this middle coming, he is our rest and consolation.”

When God comes to us today God brings many things – but often I find it is rest and consolation.

slide13Here is another train station picture. Marc Trautmann’s Welcome Home. It’s an unashamedly sentimental one: at the end of a retreat I was once asked to pick a picture of God – this one spoke to me – after a time of being distant from God, God comes towards us and meets us: yes there is regret, a desire to do better; but there is also pure enveloping love, like the father coming towards the prodigal son, like the rush of the baby coming at Christmas: like the coming of truth. First, second and third advents all share something of this quality.

God has come towards us clearly in Jesus

God will come towards us at our deaths in clarity of truth

And God comes towards us now to show us clearly who we are and who we can be. Amen