Saturday, December 02, 2006

Advent 2

It’s good to see so many of you here.  All of you, in fact, seem to be here.  I did wonder, when they sprung daylight saving on us with a couple of days notice, how many of us would get the message about winding the clocks forward overnight.  I thought we might end up this morning with a 9.00 o’clock service and a 9.00 o’clock service.  Still might.

It’s Advent, of course.  We’ve got the message to stay alert, if not alarmed.  We know God’s going to spring a few surprises along the way.  We’re all awake, aren’t we, despite the missing hour of sleep?

There’s a story that comes from the Muslim tradition about a man who, despite a long and holy life filled with prayer and good deeds, eventually dies.  Everything goes according to plan – being a Muslim he probably wasn’t expecting to be greeted by St Peter but he does make it to heaven.  Or, at least, to the gates of heaven where he sees a notice.  ‘Stay awake’, the notice says, ‘Gates open once every hundred years.’  This isn’t really what he’d been expecting and nobody, not even the imam, had told him there was going to be a delay, but being reassured that he was at least on the waiting list he settled himself down to pray and reflect on his life with, now that he knew for sure he was getting into heaven, a certain nostalgic sense of satisfaction.  Unfortunately, as so often happens, his mind began to wander, and he began to daydream, then his head started to nod and so he was fast asleep and dreaming of being in heaven when – the gates slowly began to move, and through the widening gap wafted a gentle, scented breeze and the sound of exquisite music.  It was the music, of course, that woke him up just in time to see the gates slam shut and read the notice: ‘Stay awake.  Gates open once every hundred years.’

So, it’s good to see you all here.

We’re well and truly in Advent now, but we’re nowhere near ready for the angels or the shepherds.  Last week we were told to expect the unexpected, this week we begin to get some idea what might be up ahead.  We’re coming home, the end is in sight – already the imposing and slightly scary figure of John the Baptist is striding out of the desert announcing the main event.  Just in case we’re not convinced about John’s own credentials Luke gives us a quote from Isaiah and the lectionary writers join the dots for us by giving us a passage from Malachi, otherwise one of the obscurest of the prophets whose main interest seems to be in lambasting priests for being lazy and the laity for not putting enough in the collection plate.  God’s own messenger, says Malachi – is going to turn up right in the middle of your worship and wash all your mouths out with soap.  You’ve been turning up here to church and saying that you’re seeking God, well, when he actually turns up you’ve got a shock coming because you’re going to get melted down and purified like silver in a smelter.  Not a comfortable image, actually.  Well, we stay with John the Baptist for two weeks of Advent, and next week we find ourselves confronted with his uncompromising message of repentance.  We can’t avoid facing up to the discrepancy between what we are and what God wants us to be.  In order for us to arrive at the destination, we need to chop out some of the rotten wood, we need to do some radical pruning in order to bear the fruit of righteousness.  The process isn’t pain-free, but the end result of all the scrubbing and melting down is that our lives and our worship will be genuine.  There won’t be a contradiction between what we say we’re doing and what’s really going on in our lives.  That’s the implication that we’re getting a whiff of already, this week, and you might want to stay away next week because that’s where we’ll be heading, but there are some other implications that come first.

Because first there’s this extraordinary passage from St Paul’s letter the church in Philippi, and I can’t let it pass because Paul has this reputation of being such a sourpuss, of being such an intellectual and so uncompromising, and yet this letter to the church he so clearly has a great affection for paints just the opposite picture.  It seems – we read in the Acts of the Apostles – that Paul’s missionary work in Philippi was not especially successful – I read recently that there is no archaeological evidence that there was a Jewish community in Philippi and it seems Paul’s work there was amongst the lower classes, women and slaves.  Not a very successful church, if we judge these things by the ability to maintain a full-time priest and pay diocesan assessments.  Not what we’d call today a mega-church.  Remember also that Paul is writing to the Philippians from prison, where it seems he has a capital charge hanging over his head – he says he is in chains – but what does he write?  ‘I’m sorry to hear you’re not doing so well down there, please pray for me that I get a soft judge.’  No.  What about, ‘well here I am in prison but I just know that in spirit you’re sharing my afflictions.’  No.  Paul starts right off giving thanks – expressing joy because he recognises that it’s God’s doing that the Philippians have come to faith, expressing trust because God can be relied on not only to start the work of transformation in the lives of the Christians at Philippi – and in the life of the city around them – not only to start the work but to finish it as well.  Paul expresses joy, he expresses trust, he expresses affection and gratitude – what would he have to be so grateful for?  It seems that out of the little they had, they gave financial support to Paul himself as well as contributing to the collection he was taking up for the church in Jerusalem, but more than that, Paul is grateful for the fact that this little church has shared with him and grown with him in confidence and grace.  When I read this, I can’t help but find my own grumpiness confronted by Paul’s attitude of thankfulness.

Thank God, Paul writes, for Philippi, and as I look toward the last few weeks of my ministry here in Belmont, I take his point.  Thank God for Belmont, because as I look around here at our church I can’t fail to see the marks of where God has been at work, in you and in me, over the time we’ve spent together.  I see people who’ve grown in confidence and in joy, I see a community demonstrating the trust it has in the goodness and generosity of God by investing its limited resources in acts of generosity toward others, a community demonstrating the compassion of God by caring for one another in times of grief, a community demonstrating the beauty and the hospitality of God by creating an attractive and welcoming environment.  There are some tough times ahead for Belmont, the financial assistance we’ve received from diocese over the last three years has perhaps only delayed that somewhat - but I think it’s also allowed something else to grow here, a sense of the goodness of God and a delight in being the people of God.  A sense of expectation and of possibility.  Don’t lose that - the more you expect God to surprise and delight you, the more God will. 

And Paul says something else – ‘I’m confident that the one who started all this off in you – that’s God – will also bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ’.  That’s part of why we have this for an Advent reading, because it points us to the connection between our waiting for God to come into our world in Jesus Christ – and God’s waiting for us to bring God to birth in our own lives.  The act of Incarnation that we see in Jesus of Nazareth – and the act of incarnation which is God taking on flesh and blood in you and me.  We wait for God at the same time as God waits and grows in us.

Just one more thing that’s important for us to hear today – not only is Luke carefully showing us how John the Baptist with his wild announcement of God’s arrival is absolutely consistent with the prophets of the distant past – he’s also showing us that God acts, as God always has acted –from a position not of strength but of vulnerability.  John strides out of the desert not just for dramatic effect but because Luke wants us to draw the connection – to remember that the desert is where human beings encountered God once before - in the Exodus, not in strength but in weakness and radical dependence.  The desert is a place where survival depends on knowing your own fragility, on marvelling and even rejoicing in the sparseness and the extremes of temperature.  Be patient - stay awake.  Tune into the rhythms of God’s time, not ordinary time.  Expect miracles.  When we least expect them to – heaven’s gates will open.


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