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Beyond the Rules

Sermon Deut.30.15-end, Matt 5.21-37

If, like my mother, you were divorced and then remarried you may have been shifting in your seat at Jesus words about committing adultery with your new partner. If you found yourself aroused by a sexy photo of a favourite actor or actress you may be feeling alarmed at Jesus violent words about pulling out your offending eye. If you lost your temper with a family member this week you might be alarmed at the threat of hell fire, and so on.

In our church calendar we are starting to gear up towards Lent and the readings set for today reflect that. In Mathew’s gospel we are part way through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Matthew pictures Jesus sitting on a mountain, like Moses, and teaching his followers. In our OT reading Moses is instructing the Israelites. His aim is to get them to ‘choose life’, to live according to those commandments given to them in the desert – the 10 commandments; God’s rules for life giving relatedness to himself, to others and to the earth. Jesus is pictured as another Moses. He wants his followers to choose life. They are to lead the way for others, just as God had intended Israel to do. Just before this he’s been telling them that they are like salt and light for others. They have a high calling. Now he gets down to the nitty gritty.

For myself as I sat with this passage of scripture I was disturbed on two counts. First because the talk of cutting off your hand or pulling out your eye sounds like the worst aspects of Sharia law. Secondly, this week especially, because this kind of language can encourage the kind of abuse that was reported in the media of a Christian leader who saw it as his task to beat the wickedness out of young boys. I want us as followers of Christ to grapple with what looks like harsh teaching. So today, I won’t be doing the equivalent of tucking you up in bed with your teddies (if I ever do that!).

You are probably all aware that there is good religion and bad religion. The line between the two is often very fine. It’s easy to distort aspects of any faith, twisting them ever so slightly so that they then skew the whole. And we all do this to some extent because we home in on those aspects of our faith that best please us or fit in with our politics or temperament. We can’t be totally objective when we come to scripture; we see it through the eyes of the person we are. Having said that, we are encouraged to develop alertness, to have eyes that see and ears that hear, to use bible language.

Jesus teaching here is partly about developing this alertness. The violent language is a way of getting across the importance of what he is saying. Exaggeration of this kind was characteristic of the teaching style of rabbis in Jesus time. When elsewhere Jesus speaks of hanging a millstone round the neck of someone who leads astray children or the vulnerable we don’t take it literally, we understand that he’s making a point. Here, too, he’s not advocating literal amputation of offending limbs but underlining the importance of what he’s saying. This is not Sharia law.

So what is he saying? It’s here that distortions come in. The probably small distortions you and I make and the much bigger ones that abusers make. Part of the problem is that we think small. We just want to get by. But sitting on the mountain side with Jesus is to be drawn into a bigger picture. It’s rather as though he’s saying that being human is a heavenly calling, far grander than anything we had imagined, and now is the time to enter into that calling fully. The disciples had their rules for life – the 10 commandments –and doubtless many of them, like the rich young man, could say that they had kept them from their youth, so what more is there? Jesus is saying that they have to inhabit the rules fully. Only that way can they see the glory of God’s intentions for humanity. His example of divorce illustrates that. Divorce was easy in those times. It was something only a man could do, and for the most trivial of reasons. A wife was one of a man’s possessions. The implication of what Jesus says here is that marriage confers a higher status on the woman and requires a correspondingly higher standard of behaviour from the man.

The act of murder doesn’t come from nowhere, it starts with murderous intentions inside us, anger very often. This is where alertness comes in. Follow the trail; stop it at source and be ruthless about stopping it. If being unfaithful to our partner starts with lustful thoughts about another, then be ruthless about stopping these thoughts at source. Let’s notice that this is something we do ourselves – it’s not something that Jesus is asking others to do to us. Unfortunately a distortion the church can make and has made is to act as a moral policeman for others. Remember Jesus saying that we deal with the plank lodged in our own eye before trying to remove the speck from someone else’s.

That still, however, leaves another distortion. Jesus is asking us to be ruthless with harmful thought patterns. Where does being kind to ourselves fit in with that? From the very early days of Christianity there were those who inflicted physical discomfort or pain on themselves as a way of letting their bodies know that they were subject to a higher authority than their physical needs. St Aidan, one of the Celtic saints, was said to have stood waist high in the waters of the north sea in winter for hours as part of his monastic discipline. Aidan is one of my heroes in the faith, but I wouldn’t be copying this particular habit. St Benedict, the founder of the dominant model for monastic life in the west, counselled against excesses of this kind, emphasising instead the importance of balance in the practice of our faith.

Jesus himself did not inflict pain on others or on himself. It’s clear, though, that he faced internal battles (temptations in the desert, Gethsemane) and that his followers would too. It’s also the case that he was tortured to death on a cross and that in our baptism we are invited to die with Christ before rising to new life with him. We may expect suffering as we follow Christ but he doesn’t invite us to go looking for it.

So, there are several distortions that can emerge from our interpretation of scripture, all leading to bad religion; one is that we take an unhealthy interest in the shortcomings of others and set out to correct them. Another is that we may unduly punish ourselves for our own shortcomings. Or we seek the most difficult and painful path for ourselves, seeing that as the way of sharing Christ’s suffering on the cross. Some signs of bad religion are excesses, secrecy and blocking our relatedness to others.

Like all distortions they keep us from recognising who we are in God’s eyes – beloved, heavenly(!) human beings. They keep us living in a shed when our true home is in the light and space and warmth we see as we sit next to Christ on the mountain side.

Of course there will always be times when we have angry feelings, or lustful feelings or the desire to harm others, or any number of other destructive thoughts. What Jesus is encouraging us to do is to be alert to this. So we say, ‘Ah yes, I can recognise you and I’m not following you.’ Rather like one of those computer games where you have to thwart the enemy intruder at every point. This may involve some concrete action, like sorting out a disagreement we have with someone before matters can get out of hand (v23-24). Or not visiting certain sites on our computer.

At this point we may throw up our hands and say, ‘I can’t be on 24 hour alert to all those impulses driving my behaviour. Jesus sets the bar too high.’ You’re right. The call is an upward call and we soon realise we can’t manage it alone. Even Stephen Covey’s ‘The 7 habits of highly effective people’ won’t get us there. Good religion is when we look at that landscape in front of us with Jesus next to us and see more and more that it is grace and mercy. It cannot be earned, manipulated or consumed like a product. It can only be received as a gift.

 

Christine Bainbridge, Feb 2017

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The Gift of Light

The gift of light: Matthew 2:1-12

I wonder if you are using any of your Christmas gifts today? Anyone own up to wearing a Christmas or other item given at Christmas?

This is one of my treasured gifts I was given at Christmas – Sue calls it my dog harness! It’s simply a useful way to distribute the weight of the saxophone across the shoulders and prevent it damaging my neck.

It might seem strange we are talking about gifts today when Christmas might seem a long, long time ago.

Last Friday, church celebrated the feast of the Epiphany and the story of visitors bringing gifts to Jesus. This marks the beginning of the season of light in the church year. Each of the gospel stories over the next few weeks, such as Jesus’ baptism and the wedding at Cana, have this common theme of light. They are all moments of epiphany, shedding light on the true nature and purpose of Jesus. Today we are looking at how this gift of light reveals the remarkable generosity of God at work: a gift for all to share.

The details about the visitors bearing gifts to Jesus is very sketchy. Many of the Christmas cards you may have received last month might have looked like this one, with three kings on camels following the star to the stable. But we don’t really know if they were kings, wise men or Magi, or how many there were. And it’s unclear whether they visited a baby in a stable or, what seems more likely, an older 18 month old Jesus in a town dwelling.  What we are told is that these are visitors travelling from the East. The Greek word used here for ‘East’ is anatolai meaning ‘the rising’ or from the place of the rising sun. So we have the people of the rising light, being guided by the light of the star, to visit the king of light. It seems to be emphasising a point here! These people of the rising sun are the first of the Gentiles, or non-Jews, to worship Jesus and demonstrate that the gift of light is for everyone. And this is a theme that Matthew takes throughout the gospel, up to the very last section, where the disciples are sent out from Galilee to make disciples of all nations. The gift of light is for everyone, not for an exclusive membership. It’s a generous gift of life for all.

In my family, one of our most treasured possessions is a gift that was originally given to my grandfather. It’s a bloodstone signet ring, weathered by the years, but was a gift that literally saved his life. My grandfather was serving in the navy during the first world war’s largest naval battle, the Battle of Jutland. At one point, his boat was hit by the German fleet and he was flung into the icy cold water where many thousands of sailors sadly drowned. One of the boats threw out a rope to my grandfather, but it was too slippery for him to hold onto, until the signet ring was able to grip and give traction with the coils of rope. Ever since, our family has treasure it as the gift that saved his life.

In our gospel reading we read of the gifts that the visitors bring Jesus: gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh fit for a king. But the focus of the story is on the extraordinary gift that God has given to us all in the person of Jesus.

Later in the gospel, Jesus said of himself: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” It’s a gift that shows the extraordinary generosity of God to us, freely given without any conditions and without any restrictions.

And it is this gift of light and life that stands in stark contrast to so much else we face in the world.

Here is a photo that’s been given the title ‘the three modern wise men’ and you may recognise them. They are Obi Wan Kenobi, Gandalf and Dumbledore, the wise old heroes from Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. What they have in common is how they act as symbols of light against the rising darkness; the threat from the evil Empire, Sauron and Voldemort. You might have seen the recent Star Wars film, where a small band of rebels fight against the rising darkness of Darth Vader and the Death Star. Or you may remember the famous scene in Lord of the Rings where Gandalf with his staff of light confronts the Balrog with those immortal words: You shall not pass!

The generosity of Jesus’ gift of light and life was challenged from the very beginning. If you read on in the gospel past this story of the visitors from the East, you’ll hear about the bitterness and horror of infanticide, of a powerful leader prepared to kill innocent children in a desperate attempt to hold onto power. It could be a scene from Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, where the force of light seems to be encountering almost impossible odds to survive against the coming darkness. On one side are the power and might of ruling authorities spreading the darkness of mistrust and evil, on the other side are a small band of shepherds, visitors and a young baby.

How do we respond to this challenge of the rising darkness?

You may have received a number of Christmas newsletters from friends and family. These can sometimes be lovely to read and at other times can be a bit overwhelming, listing all the great things that have happened to them during the year.

Sue and I were struck by one in particular. It was written with touching honesty about the challenges our friends faced during 2016. What shone through the letter was how they’d responded to the challenge to bring light in their own community, through working with homeless and those in need. They concluded their newsletter with a well-known quotation from Edmund Burke that says: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.’

How is God calling us to challenge the triumph of evil in 2017?

Whether you feel the darkness we need to confront is the wilful destruction of our planet, our modern political situation, the way we treat refugees and the homeless or the challenges we face each day at work, home or in our community, we are being called to respond with God’s generosity of spirit to the needs of our world.

It’s this spirit of generosity that was highlighted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, in his New Year message. He illustrates it through the story of a refugee called Sabir, that he met in Coventry.

‘I met Sabir Zazai many years ago and I was delighted to have an opportunity to visit the centre for refugees he now runs. He came as a refugee from Afghanistan in 1999, and his sheer courage and ability are extraordinary.

There are people like Sabir all over the country, and they are a blessing to our way of life. They are embracing all that is good. And that doesn’t just enrich their lives, it enriches and deepens ours too. If we’re welcoming to those in need, if we’re generous in giving, if we take hold of our new future with determination and courage, then we will flourish. Living well together despite our differences, offering hospitality to the stranger and those in exile, with unshakable hope for the future – these are the gifts, the commands and the promises of Jesus Christ.’

The light of Christ opens us to God’s generosity of spirit and kindness and the example of how we are to treat one another.

Christina Rossetti, speaks of this generosity of spirit in her famous carol ‘In the bleak midwinter’. The final verse says:

What can I give him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;

yet what I can I give him: give my heart.

 

To end with these beautiful words from an old Scottish blessing about this gift of light and generosity of spirit:

‘May the blessing of light be on you – light without and light within.

May the blessed sunlight shine on you like a great peat fire,

so that stranger and friend may come and warm himself at it.

And may light shine out of the two eyes of you,

like a candle set in the window of a house,

bidding the wanderer come in out of the storm.

And may the blessing of the rain be on you,

may it beat upon your Spirit and wash it fair and clean,

and leave there a shining pool where the blue of Heaven shines,

and sometimes a star.’ Amen

 

Hamish Bruce

8/1/17

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Under The Mercy – Advent 4

Many years, ago, when I was a young boy, I got into some unfortunate company and one Saturday, we lifted a few items without paying for them from a shop. Inevitably, we got caught red-handed. The shop manager said he would call on our parents, and he sent us home. It’s perhaps possible to imagine how I felt. The tears, the shame, the confession to my mother and father. The manager from the shop actually drove to our house and met my parents. I feared the worst – in the way only a child can – but I was shown mercy. I was let off. There was no punishment. Deeply shamed and contrite, I never did it again. I was hugely grateful to the merciful shop manager, and to my parents, for their understanding.

Today I want to reflect on mercy. I have been thinking, in the last two sermons I have given, on the way our faith is embodied in ‘the life we live’. That our faith takes on flesh, in the way we actually conduct our lives. This is not rocket science, but it came home powerfully to me at Taizé this year. What other Christianity is there apart from the one that people see? Brother Roger, the founder of Taizé, wrote this in his Rule of life to the brothers in the community: ‘Be filled with the spirit of the Beatitudes: joy, simplicity and mercy’. In October I considered simplicity, drawing on the story of the rich young ruler, told to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor (Luke 18:18-30) and thought about different ways that might play out in our lives in our relationship with possessions and with relationships. And that being unencumbered frees us up, makes the load of our life lighter. If simplicity might be the framework of our lives as Christians, then mercy is the expression of it.

I am grateful to Brother Émile of Taizé, a French-Canadian brother who spoke about this, and I shamelessly rework his material. It’s called, ‘recycling!’

Brother Roger of Taizé used these three words, joy, simplicity and mercy to keep himself on the straight path. He said this, ‘If we have lost mercy, we have lost everything’. Nothing is important, if we have lost the spirit of mercy’. We sometimes think of mercy as something condescending, like ‘pity’. But it carries more the sense of something that is freely given, not constrained, it is generous, and loving. Think of the question that Peter asked of Jesus: ‘If someone sins against me, how often should I forgive him? Seven times? Jesus answered him, not seven times but seventy-seven times’. In other words, forgiveness or mercy should be inexhaustible (Matt 18:21,22).

In French, and Latin, the word for mercy is the same: miséricorde or misericordia. There are two parts to the word, miserere, means compassion and cordia comes from the word ‘cor’, meaning heart. Mercy, therefore, carries the idea of having compassion on someone with all one’s heart. It expresses the idea: ‘From the very inmost depth (or core) of one’s being.’ But it’s a very practical thing, as well as being a feeling. If there is one story of Jesus’ in the gospels that captures the idea of mercy, it is the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). First, the Samaritan was moved with compassion when he saw the man, robbed, naked and half-dead by the side of the road. Then he did something very practical. He bandaged his wounds, poured on oil, put him in his donkey, took him to an inn, paid for his care, and promised to come back. It cost him something, in time and money but he couldn’t do everything: he took him somewhere where someone else does something. So we shouldn’t think just what we do directly, but also what we enable others to do.

I am struck by the way that acts of mercy can be surprising, can cut through negative expectations and give us hope. I saw an interview on TV a few weeks ago of a Syrian doctor who, having escaped Aleppo, was going back because there were so few people to give care for all the wounded. There was a courageous story recently of an ordinary man who came to the rescue of a young Muslim woman, wearing a hijab, who was being taunted on the Underground. Such acts surprise us, against a background of unmercy, and such is the quality of mercy. Some of us saw the film ‘I, Daniel Blake’ a week or so ago. I confess I didn’t really want to go but got dragged along somehow – it’s a film everyone should see. The striking thing was that the acts of mercy – and there were many – were almost all from the poor – those who had next to nothing – to other poor people – who also had next to nothing. It was impossible not to have tears in your eyes. The main character, Daniel, a 60-something Geordie, jobless after a heart attack, met a young single mother, stood up for her at the Job Centre and then quite innocently and naturally, helped her fix things in her flat – the door, the bath, and so on. It was an act of simple generosity, of mercy, so lovely that it took your breath away. Horribly, I was tempted to think there was going to be something pervy here, but there wasn’t. It was just mercy, but I don’t even think that Daniel thought it was that. It was perfectly natural and normal for him to just reach out and help another human being in any way he could. In fact, it was the life he lived. But mercy it was, and it gave hope to Katy, the young woman, and to her two children. On a more mundane level, by chance, Rosemary and I were at the supermarket last week and met Liz there. At the checkout, Liz said to me, ‘Oh I forgot to get something for ReadiFood. Can you go and get a few tins of something?’ I trotted off and got a couple of tins of beans, some pasta and tomato sauce, and put them in the ReadiFood bin. I knew about ReadiFood, of course, but had never thought to actually do anything. Those merciful words of Liz made me go and do something that I won’t forget – perhaps because I actually did it with my body – not just thought about it! It has been really encouraging to witness the interest in the ‘Hope into Action’ Project, around the housing of some women who are homeless. That’s mercy.

But mercy can be stifled. It can get stifled by cynicism, by rushing and not seeing the need, by always thinking it’s someone else’s job, by thinking there’s nothing we can do in the face of relentless negative news stories of unmercy. Even if there is nothing we can do, quite often just being with someone, holding their hand, being silent, weeping with them is a mercy. Not every problem can be fixed.

But in thinking about mercy as something we feel and do, we need to think about why we would do that. And ultimately, it is because we have experienced it ourselves and we know that we too need mercy to live. Mercy is contagious. When we receive love, generosity and mercy, we will want to pass it on, to ‘Pay it forward’ – and by the way, if you haven’t seen the film ‘Pay it forward’ with Kevin Spacey, go see it – it’s about mercy. What we understand about God, is that He is merciful. The word ‘mercy’ and related words occurs nearly 500 times in the Bible. The Psalms are full of expressions of God’s mercy: ‘The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love’ (Ps145:8).

Charles Williams was a poet an author of the last century, and a friend of CS Lewis, author of the Narnia books, and JRR Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings. They used to meet at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, and there is a plaque commemorating their meetings in the bar. He is buried at Holywell cemetery in Oxford, and his headstone has these words on it, chosen by his wife: ‘Charles Williams – Poet – Under the Mercy’. That phrase, ‘Under the mercy’ was a favourite of Charles’ because he was conscious of living, as we all do, under the mercy.

At last, I connect this sermon with today’s gospel. If you can remember, it is the story of the birth of Jesus. It is, in fact, a story of God’s mercy. God’s love for us was such that he took flesh in the child of Nazareth, given the name Emmanuel, ‘God with us’ in the passage in Matthew. We live our lives as Christians, and we celebrate that here today, because of that act of mercy, when God intervened in human history. Because of that, we are under the mercy.

Today, as we form the circles to receive communion, we will sing two Taizé songs that speak of mercy. The first we have sung before (it’s in French) – Heureux qui s’abandonne à toi, ô Dieu, dans la confiance du coeur.

Tu nous gardes dans la joie, la simplicité, la miséricorde. (Happy are those who abandon themselves to you with a trusting heart. You keep them in joy, simplicity and mercy) – which is a prayer of Brother Roger. You may not know the second, so here it is (It’s in Latin): Misericordias Domini, in aeternum cantabo (I will sing forever of the mercy of God). May they be prayers for us as we embody mercy in our lives, which we live under the mercy.

Have mercy on us and redeem us, O Lord, for our merits are your mercies and in your judgement, is our salvation; through Jesus Chris our Lord. Amen.

 

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