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Friday, December 6, 2013

Advent: Looking forward, being ready

Advent Year A. Isaiah 2: 1-5, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44

Today is Advent Sunday and we can legitimately begin to start thinking that Christmas is only four weeks away. As if we didn’t know  having already seen this year’s batch of Christmas adverts since the beginning of November. Which is your favourite?
As usual the shops have been full of cards, gifts and posters urging us to buy for Christmas for some time now. The adverts brainwashing us into believing that we need all these “must haves”! Yet there is a special atmosphere at this time of year when the Salvation Army band is playing in the shopping centre, the Christmas decorations are up and Santa's in his grotto, the Gruffalo is wandering around Sanders and the ice rink is open at the Mall!
At Advent - we begin to look forward to the celebration of Jesus' birth at Christmas – the gifts, the cards the parties the decorations and all the other things that are so much part of our Christmas. But despite all this activity I think we tend to deny ourselves much of the season of Christmas because we start too early.
When I was teaching in Primary School, because we broke up often a week before Christmas, we felt we had to do the carol services, the parties and so on early. But actually it is useful to remember that the first day of Christmas is actually Christmas day. That is the day on which the season of Christmas begins. The Sunday after Christmas is known as “the first Sunday of Christmas” and the Sunday after that is the second Sunday of Christmas. Then comes Epiphany. So the season in which we should be holding our celebrations and carol services is between Christmas day and the Epiphany. I think we miss out because we tend to cut Advent short or even miss it altogether.
The four Sundays of Advent is a time of anticipation and looking forward. There is a sense of expectation and excitement as we go through Advent, especially around children. When we say that we are “looking forward” to something, we don't just mean that we know something is going to happen in the near future, usually are referring to something that will be a happy event. We look forward to a holiday, or a celebration we don’t normally say that we’re looking forward to going to the dentist or to a funeral. When we look forward we enjoy the anticipation. 
But we have to recognise that anticipation can also be negative and that for some people the anticipation of Christmas is not about looking forward with joy but with some anxiety and perhaps some sadness. Because for many Christmas is a time that brings back painful memories or it can be a time of loneliness. Part of our Advent preparations should perhaps be remembering this and doing what we can to look out for the needs of  people for whom this might be the case. Don’t assume that Christmas will be a happy time with family for everyone. We can all ask what our neighbour is doing on Christmas day. 
For those of us who are looking forward to the events of Christmas, what do we look forward to? As children we look forward to Father Christmas coming and we look forward to receiving presents, (well ok I still do!).  For children the christmas lights and the special displays make Christmas seem like a magical time. We might look forward to sharing time with family, to a break from work, to parties and an excuse to indulge ourselves. These are the customs that we have adopted as part of our celebration. But we are missing something important if we allow these things to become an end in themselves and forget about the real Advent message. 
In the Old Testament reading the prophet Isaiah is speaking to the people of Judah and Jerusalem when he says that in days to come the mountain of the Lord's house will be set over all other mountains. All nations will stream towards it for this will herald the time when God will act as an arbiter for the nations, their weapons will be transformed into farming tools and God's people will walk in the light of the Lord.
Isaiah makes this hopeful prediction that eventually all people will come to respect God, to live according to his law and word and that in doing so society will become a better, more peaceful and more just place and the world a better place to live. The promise of Advent is the promise of a new kingdom where God’s rule will take precedence, the time when Jesus Christ will come to reign in his kingdom. 
This time will also be a time for judgement, the “time of trial” as it is called in the Worship Book version of the Lord’s prayer. At this time people will be judged for the life they have led. Eternal life in this new kingdom is promised for those who have been faithful. 
But there is also the future within “the time of this mortal life” (Collect) to which Isaiah speaks – the time in which we should be making full use of the gifts and skills which God has given us to spread the gospel message, to teach others about Christ and his teaching and through this to make the world we live in a better place to be.
So as we begin Advent we look forward not just to celebrating the birth of a baby but to something much greater - the birth of the one who comes to us purely by God's grace and through whom we have the only means by which we can be put right with God. As John Wesley says in his sermon on Salvation by faith:
“How can human beings make amends for anything which they have done wrong? Clearly they cannot, since anything good that they do has come from God and they cannot take the credit for it... The whole human race stands before God without a word to say...So if it should be the case that we find favour with God, it is because of God's free grace “giving us one blessing after another” (Jn 1:16).
What we look forward to during  Advent is this gift of the greatest of God’s blessings to his undeserving people – this enormous demonstration of his love and grace. No wonder it has been called “the greatest story ever told”. Surely, that is something worth looking forward to!
But Advent reminds us that we must be making ready in another way as well. For Jesus has promised that he will come again at precisely the time we have been speaking of - the time of the coming of God’s kingdom in its true form.
The Apostle Paul urges us to wake up – to be alert for the time of Jesus’ coming could be much closer than we think. “It is far on in the night”, Paul says “day is near, so put on the armour of light. Let us behave with decency as befits the day: no drunken orgies, no debauchery, no quarrels or jealousies. Let Christ Jesus himself be the armour that you wear: give your unspiritual nature no opportunity to satisfy its desires”. 
We can take on board Paul’s words as we make our preparations. For example as we buy presents – perhaps we should consider carefully what our motives are.  A present should convey a message about love and care. A thoughtless present given out of a sense of duty can be hurtful. A good present is not the one with the highest price tag or the most exclusive label, but the one which says “I care”.
How do we prepare ourselves emotionally? I mentioned earlier that Christmas can be a difficult time emotionally for some people. I remember visiting an elderly lady who lives alone, and who will be alone on Christmas day. She never married and has no family to visit her.  What could we do to give such people something to look forward to on Christmas day? She reminded me of an elderly Great Aunt that I used to visit at Christmas with my family – she lived in a small bungalow on a sheltered housing estate and in those days still had a coal fire which fascinated me. She was in her 90’s when I was in my teens in the late 70’s. My parents always invited her to come and spend Christmas with us, but she always refused – she preferred her own company and found it stressful to be surrounded by too many people for too long.  It didn’t mean that she didn’t appreciate a knock on the door from a neighbour and a Christmas greeting on the day though.
Paul tells us to put aside quarrels and jealousies, no debaucheries or drunken orgies! Christmas can be a time when jealousies and quarrels rear their heads especially when we are caught in close confines with visiting relatives for several days. So perhaps part of our emotional preparation should be to consider how we will cope with having to be a bit more tolerant than we are used to or maybe to settle any outstanding differences before they have a chance to spoil the party.
And finally, we should prepare ourselves spiritually to meet the coming Christ. There are the special things that we do as part of our worship during Advent - lighting candles, special liturgies for example. What do these mean to us? How do they help us to focus on the special meaning of the season and prepare us for our encounter with Jesus? Sometimes there are special Advent groups or bible studies which might provide an opportunity for reflecting on the Advent season within a small group. 
So as we enter this period of Advent, let us look forward and make ready in all the ways we can. Let us fully prepare ourselves to meet with Jesus as we celebrate his coming into the world and let us do it in such a way that the world will see just how much Christmas means to us as Christians, because of what Jesus means to us - that we really have something to celebrate that is so far from  the empty celebrations of others that they will want to come and find out more, perhaps to join us in our celebrations, and in doing so open the door to a meeting with Jesus Christ for themselves. 

Monday, January 7, 2013


This sermon was inspired by the song “Freedom” by Paloma Faith from her album "Fall to Grace"

I began listening to Paloma Faith’s music after I discovered that she sang the song which featured in the recent John Lewis Advert. Recently, on a long car drive down from the Lake District, I was listening to her album “Fall to Grace”   and I began wondering about the title and what the phrase “Fall to grace” might mean.  Would it be true to say that the phrase “to fall from grace” is more familiar? So “fall to grace” left me wondering: firstly what is this grace that you can fall into?  And secondly what does it mean to fall into it?
First though what about falling from grace? Well when we talk about falling from grace we generally mean to refer to someone who has lost favour or been discredited in some way  - newspapers are full of stories everyday about people who have fallen from grace – they love them, the more controversial the better! The phrase also appears in one of Paloma’s songs called “Agony”  and the lyrics begin: “use me take me home and use me”  so I probably don’t need to go into any more details for you to be able to work out for yourselves what falling from grace might be referring to in that context!  

The phrase “Fall to grace” occurs in the song “Freedom” which we heard just now: “Freedom, I fall to grace and into your arms, Cause we got freedom, You've stolen the dark, And turned it to stars”. What I found interesting here was the link made between “grace” and “freedom”.  The song suggests that “Falling to grace” is being led to freedom and that freedom is like the “light of the stars shining in the darkness”. Does that ring any bells for you? 

For me it did because it reminds be of the opening chapter of John’s gospel where Jesus is described as the light shinning in the darkness, the light that the darkness has never overcome. And the gospel goes on to tell how Jesus is also the one that leads us to freedom – freedom from guilt and sin because “to those who put their trust in him, he gave the right to become children of God”. In fact it struck me that if you read the lyrics to the whole song, you only have to replace two words with the name “Jesus”– and it could easily be sung as a hymn or a psalm. 

However, if grace is something which is associated with freedom then it would suggest that the opposite must also be true. That is if grace is not present then by implication neither is freedom - it implies that without grace we are bound or imprisoned in some way – weighed down by carrying a heavy burden. And this of course is the case if we do not have Jesus in our lives and if we are not in a state of grace with God through having Jesus in our lives then we carry the burden of sin on our shoulders – the burden of life in the world.
So the question I ask is: “do you have Jesus in your lives?” in other words “Do you believe that Jesus has saved you and given you freedom?” The answer for most should be a resounding “yes” because that is the reason why we are here – to praise and worship Jesus Christ because by the grace of God he gave up his life on the cross for us. But even more because day by day we live with the blessings that God has given us through grace.
If we look up the word “grace” in the dictionary we find it defined as being about favour or goodwill, a kindness, mercy, pardon or clemency. Essentially grace is being given that which you do not deserve or have done nothing to earn.  In terms of our relationship with God grace is the freely given, unmerited favour and love of God; the influence or spirit of God working in and through us; while being in a “state of grace” means being in a favourable relationship with him – being in a good place with God. “Falling from grace” means falling out of favour with God. Essentially God wants us to behave in the way he has taught – to love others and thereby fulfil the law. But he doesn’t want us to think that any of the things we do can ever be a reason to earn our salvation:
Ephesians 2:4-9 NRSVA  But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us  (5)  even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ--by grace you have been saved--   (8)  For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God--  (9)  not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

We cannot earn a place in heaven through our own actions; God offers us a way to get there through grace because has always known that we would never be "good enough" despite our best efforts. If our works contributed to our salvation, then we would have something to boast about but God designed his plan of salvation in such a way that we cannot take any credit for saving ourselves (Ephesians 2:8-9). We can never claim to deserve anything; we can never claim that God owes us anything. In other words salvation comes through faith in accepting God’s grace – not through anything we do – not through our “works”.

This is one of the unique things about Christianity: While some say that people can be good enough if they try hard enough, Christianity says that we simply cannot be good enough; we need grace and God supplies his grace in many forms. In our Methodist Arminian tradition we have “prevenient grace” whereby God makes the initial offer of salvation but we are free to respond or reject him. If we respond by accepting Jesus as our means to salvation  then we accepting God’s offer of “Justifying grace” through which we may be “born again” to new life in Christ.

So are you “born again”? Have you been saved by accepting the justifying grace which has given you new life in and through Jesus Christ? This question sometimes gets a bad name by being overused by certain fundamentalist evangelicals but Jesus said “no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again” (Jn 3:3). Whether this happened for you in a Damascus road type incident like Paul – a sudden realisation in a flash of what God has done for you in Jesus; or whether it was more of an Emmaus road experience – where you came to a gradual understanding as you walked alongside of others who explained it to you over time – just as Jesus walked alongside the disciples after his resurrection; being saved is about consciously accepting that offer of justifying grace from God. 

But what happens after we have “been saved” is that it? Is there nothing more that we need to do –we believe so we are saved once and for all? Well no. John Wesley tells us that it is possible to fall from Grace, that after we have accepted God’s “Justifying grace” we move to come under God’s “Sustaining grace” which can move us towards Christian perfection. We are not secure in our salvation because Christ’s work is not yet complete, we still exist in the world while having a foot in the kingdom – we exist in the “now and not yet” of the time between the coming of Christ and the fulfilment of his kingdom. We are still capable of making wrong choices that having “fallen to grace” we can still “fall from grace”.

In other words it is not enough to claim God's salvation and then do nothing about it or worse, return to sinning deliberately, or not to produce any evidence (fruit) of following Christ. Wesley taught that Christian believers are to participate in what he called the “means of grace”   works of piety and works of mercy, and through them continue to grow in Christian life assisted by God’s sustaining grace through the Holy Spirit.
Works of mercy include personal acts of kindness and justice and evangelism – producing fruit for Christ by telling others about what he has done for you. Works of piety include personal prayer, public worship, receiving Holy Communion, fasting and pilgrimage. Importantly it also includes reading the Bible – because we need to learn from Jesus what it means to follow Jesus and what grace means. We need to learn to imitate Jesus through our own lives. (Sermon-16-The-Means-of-Grace) 

 This is because Jesus was all about grace. He was all about enabling us to have that relationship with God where we can be and remain in a State of Grace and a big part of his teaching and his life was about demonstrating what it means to receive grace from God and in return pass that grace on to others through our own lives and actions. His entire life was an example of grace, his parables illustrated grace. As human beings it is inevitable that we will sometimes make the wrong choices in life and this makes grace essential. God wants us to recognise our need for grace and to treat others with grace also. Jesus was demonstrating this when he ate with tax collectors and sinners – he was showing that God wants fellowship with all of us, he has taken our sins upon himself and forgiven us in order that that can happen.

Jesus told the parable of the two debtors, one who owed a large amount and the other who owed a smaller amount. The master forgave the servant who owed much but that servant failed to forgive the one who owed less. The master was angry and said “shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just I had on you?” Matthew 18:33. The point is that we should each see ourselves as the first servant who was forgiven an enormous debt. We have fallen short of what God requires but he shows us mercy and he wants us to show mercy as well. We have been given grace although we don’t deserve it, we should give grace to others even when they are also undeserving. Like the wasteful (or prodigal) son who returned home and was accepted without having to do anything to deserve it (Luke 15:20). 

So the good news of Jesus is all about grace (Acts 14:3, 20:24, 32) and his grace continues to be extended to all of us through the supreme act of grace: his sacrificial death on the cross. This is how Jesus gave himself up for us. As Peter said, “we believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus we are saved” (Acts 15:11). Paul tells us that we are justified by grace “through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24) and that God’s grace is linked with the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross (Romans 3:25). 

But God’s grace is not only about forgiveness. Luke in Acts tells us that God’s grace was on the disciples as they preached the gospel (Acts 4:33) and Paul tells us that spiritual gifts are also a work of grace “We have different gifts”, he says “according to the grace given us” (Romans 12:6) and the writer of 1 Peter says that “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10).

So how should we respond to all this grace which we have received from God? Obviously we are expected to respond by passing that grace on to others. We are to be merciful, even as God is full of mercy (Luke 6:36). We are to forgive others who repent, just as we have been forgiven – regardless of whether they are deserving or not, not seven times but seventy seven times (Matthew 18:22), without judging or condemning.  We are to serve others, just as we have been served. We are to be gracious towards others giving them favour and kindness;  in other words we are to love others as ourselves – even our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, and Colossians reminds us that grace should be evident in our words as well as in our actions (Colossians 4:6).

The grace that we have received should make a difference in our lives and in our priorities. It should make a difference in our relationships with the people we meet and interact with every day. It should make a difference to our response when we pick up a news paper or watch the news or read the tweets about the emotive issues of the day – whether it is about immigration (as someone said recently, there are a lot of foreigners in heaven!); about mistakes made by TV executives and editors; about those who themselves have fallen from grace through actions of abuse or criminality; about how we care for the sick, the weak, the vulnerable – in all cases we are to respond with grace, because of the grace we ourselves have received from God.

We live at a time when grace seems to be in short supply. We live at a time when apportioning blame is the first reaction when things go wrong, and the demands for retribution are quickly and loudly heard, a time when the finger is quick to pointed and sometimes pointed in the wrong direction. But blame and retribution are not the way to heal the hurts in our society. Lasting peace and real healing can only be achieved through grace. As Christians we are called to be the salt and light in society and as such we need to strive to set the supreme examples of grace and love. At this time of Advent we look forward to the coming of Jesus as a tiny baby – that great act of grace as God comes among us to share in what in means to be human. “From his full store we have all received grace upon grace; for …. grace came through Jesus Christ”.(Jn 1: 16). So let us use this time, to consider how we respond to God’s offer of grace, let us use the season of Advent to examine ourselves and our lives and commit to at least one act of grace every day. Amen.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Going Home

Year C Advent 3
Zephaniah 3:14-20, Luke 3:7-18

On the third Sunday of Advent we have from scripture a message of hope – but also a warning of judgement. The prophet Zephaniah delivers a series of prophecies of judgement against Israel / Judah and other nations considered to be lacking in faith. But it also presents promises of hope for the future that a faithful remnant of Israel would remain to be saved.
Zephaniah looks forward to a time when judgement is in the past and the Lord has come to be among His people. The Lord will come to take his place on the throne in Jerusalem, oppressive authorities will be removed and the faithful remnant will at last be united with their true ruler and leader. God is exultant and shouts for joy, he gathers in the lame and the outcast who represent the despised and marginalized in society, reminding us that God wants salvation for all of us and that salvation is a reason to rejoice. The prophecy is that God will overcome the enemies of his people and now chooses to be with them.
We might find the somewhat military style language which speaks of “warriors” and “victories” a little difficult to interpret today, but it is best read as symbolic poetry which represents the ongoing struggle for a time when all people will be united in a world where God’s rule will bring justice and peace for everyone who wish to be citizens of his Kingdom.
Zephaniah talks about the people being gathered to be brought home (vs 20). This probably originally related to the time after the exile: you may remember many of the Israelites had been captured by the Babylonians and carried off to live in exile in a foreign land; but now, some time later, many are returning to their former home or the home of their forebears, to Jerusalem.
For those who returned, the homecoming would not have been easy and would have provided significant challenges, both for those who had remained in Jerusalem and those who were returning.  This would be partly because the exiles would have been changed by their experiences. While in exile they would have naturally begun to assimilate with the culture of the people they were living amongst, and over time would have adopted elements their culture and even their language. Because of this they were hated by those who had not been carried off into exile but had remained in or near Jerusalem. These are the people who became known as Samaritans and they accused the returning Jews of having foregone their true religion.
It’s a reminder that it is simply not possible to walk back into a situation that you have left some time previously and pick up exactly where you left off. Life moves on, people and situations change, and people are changed by their situations. For example I remember reading a newspaper article some time ago about the difficulties faced by students who, in the current economic climate, are unable to find work after completing their university courses. For them the only option is often to move back home with Mum and Dad but it is not easy to move back to the childhood home and fit back in to the lifestyle of their parents after three or four years of independence.
I can relate to their experience because in 1990 I left my job and home to go to teacher training college in Oxford. For four years I lived independently and became used to my own way of doing things. For two of those years I shared house with other students and in the process I learned things about myself, about living with other others and about my ability to meet challenges, I gained confidence in myself and my abilities – and so when I left college and returned to Bristol I was not the same shy teenager that had left there 4 years previously. I think it would have been very difficult to have moved back in with my parents then.
The recent weather caused many people to have to leave their homes because of flooding. Many have been forced into temporary accommodation or to share with relatives or friends while their homes are dried out and repaired. They will no doubt look forward to the day that they can return to their homes, but when they do they will not walk back into the same situation that they left behind. The houses will be changed by extensive building and decorating work. Possessions and familiar objects will have been lost and will need to be replaced. Most of all they will live with the memory of having their homes flooded - a memory which is likely to surface every time it rains in the future. For them, coming home will mean accepting and living with change. We don’t like change but whether it is forced upon us or we accept it voluntarily we cannot grow and develop as human beings without it.
The Advent Hope invites us home. As the Israelites were led back home from exile, so we are invited home symbolically to the New Jerusalem which represents God’s Kingdom. We are invited home to be with God our creator, to the place he has prepared for us, but it is a home radically different to what we have been used to, not the world that we know and are familiar with but a place with the God who renews us in his love, this will be a return to a new and dynamic way of being.
This is God’s invitation to salvation. This is His offer of saving grace, an offer which we are free to accept or reject. But it is an invitation that is not without challenge. The invitation begins with arrival of a child born in a stable, a child who will grow up and invite all of humanity to come home to the Father with him. It is an invitation that will journey to the pain and suffering of the cross but ultimately lead to the resurrection. And Jesus invites is to be resurrected with him, to return home with him to the place he has prepared for us in his kingdom.
To enter into the kingdom means coming home to a right relationship with our creator and John the Baptist prepares the way as he comes bringing an uncompromising and challenging message for the crowd which he addresses as a “Brood of vipers”. These are those who have assumed that they have an automatic place in God’s kingdom because of who they are and who they are descended from but they are quickly disabused of that notion.
John points out that those who are truly God’s people are those whose faith and devotion to God’s way may be seen through the fruit they bare, fruit which must be tangible and real and which must make a difference to the lives of the poor and vulnerable. Their repentance must mean more than words but a complete change of lifestyle. John’s baptism was one of repentance – it was not meant for those who were already devout and righteous, but was aimed at those who most needed repentance, those who paid lip serve to their religion but did not allow it to affect their day to day relationships with those among whom they lived and worked. There can be no return to the previous way of being where God’s will was ignored, coming home to the kingdom means accepting a changed way of being.
John challenges those who have more than they need to share with those who have less; he challenges tax collectors and soldiers to carry out their work with kindness, compassion and justice and to turn away from bullying and extortion. But these groups are representative, for this is a message for all of us: – repentance and change must mark every part of life so that the fruits of that life can be seen in works of peace, justice and compassion.
The good news is that salvation is available to everyone through coming home to God in Christ. All can be saved. John prepares the way for the salvation which will come through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus by baptising with water as a symbolic act of repentance - a symbolic washing away of sins and of the old way of being to be replaced with the new. But Baptism is not in itself enough. Baptism is only the beginning of the act of repentance – once the promise has been made, genuine repentance must lead to a radically changed way of life as John describes.
I think it is an easy trap to fall into – to become associated with those who John classes as a “brood of vipers” -  Those who claim to be Christian but for whom the Christian faith seems to make little difference to the way in which they live out their lives.
For example, last week at the Local Preacher’s meeting, Preachers were ask to sign safeguarding forms – renewing the declarations that they made 5 years ago about not having been convicted or charged with abuse against children or vulnerable adults. There should be no need for such forms to be signed by Christians – those who have “signed up” to love God and love others as themselves. Yet experience has unfortunately shown that Christians, even preachers and Priests are not immune from being tempted to carry out hurtful and criminal acts which do great damage to others. So we cannot assume that there are no “vipers” in the church.
Thus we cannot be complacent. In the last week some of the data from last year’s census has shown a fall in the number of people claiming to be Christian. There are still around 33 million Christians in the UK but that is now 59% of the population down from 13% from 72% at the last census. This may well reflect the encouragement by the Humanist Society for people to put “No religion” rather than “Christian” as their default if they were not actually practising the faith.
This is probably a good thing. I have recently been reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s “History of Christianity” which you may remember was made into a TV series a few years ago. Reading it you begin to wonder how Christianity as a faith ever managed to survive. Much of the history of Christianity seems to be more a history of power struggles and allegiances to political rulers. If the King or emperor was Christian then so were all his subjects by default regardless of whether they believed, knew or understood anything about the Christian faith. It is likely that many who in previous censuses ticked the “Christian” box did so for similar reasons of allegiance to the idea of a “Christian country” or for the sake of tradition or to please older family members.
But being a Christian is not about allegiance to a particular leader or ruler or about family tradition or even about belonging to a particular church. It is about making a choice to accept God’s offer of salvation through Jesus Christ, and then choosing to live your life as a disciple of Christ. Choosing to accept his offer of saving grace, and then live his life of love for God and for each other. Responding by forgiving others as we have been forgiven, not seven times but seventy seven time, without judging or condemning; serving others as we have been served, loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us.
It is also a reminder that the Kingdom is not yet here in its entirety; that we live in the “now but not yet” of the kingdom, which begins with the coming of Jesus but will not be fully fulfilled until his coming again in glory. In the meantime we strive to live according to the ideals of the kingdom but we know that we must be always on our guard because, while we see signposts to the kingdom, we can easily be led astray by the ways and desires of a world which ignores and even despises God.
Discipleship is not easy because it involves change and difference. Repentance involves change – radical change which moves us away from the ways of the world and points us to the kingdom. Discipleship is not a painless process because the process of change is not always welcome.
This Christmas, the message of hope is that Christ came to bring salvation for everyone. Whoever we are we have the choice to hear the message, make the change, come home to Jesus, or to face judgement. This is good news because we know that God wants all to be saved and has provided the means by which it can be accomplished for all people. All we have to do is make sure that the news is heard by as many people as possible this Christmas time.

God Promises Us a Tomorrow

This is sermon from 2009

Year C Advent 1: Jeremiah 33: 14-16, Psalm 25: 1-10, Thessalonians 3: 9-13, Luke 21: 25-36 

All things whether they be great and powerful people, empires, buildings or institutions will inevitably decline in their own time. This is the theme of a poem by Percy Shelley, published in 1818 and called “Ozymandias”, Ozymandias being the Greek version of the name of the Egyptian king Rameses II (1304-1237 BC).
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said -- "two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert ... near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lips, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away." --
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

The poem refers to a ruined statue – a gigantic pair of legs the remains of a huge statue of the king built to his apparent greatness. At the height of his power he perhaps thought that could be no other king as great as he. The inscription from a statue of him is paraphrased as “look on my works and despair”. But the poem goes on to describe how this pair of legs is the sole surviving remnant surrounded by the desert dust which is all that remains of his once great kingdom. How foolish and futile Ozymandias’s words now sound.
This is an illustration of how history can make fools of us. How, in our arrogance; our words can be ruined by history. In 2003 President Geroge W Bush stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier under a banner reading “Mission Accomplished” and proclaimed victory in Iraq. How misplaced that seems now.  Not so long ago the global financial system seemed to be doing better than it ever had done – at least for those with money to save and invest. How often did Gordon Brown boast that he had abolished “boom and bust”? I remember a saying from a book I had as a child – “Pride goes before a fall”. Now we see how fragile can be a set of institutions and a system that was once seemingly invincible.
Institutions and powers which seem invincible can turn to dust so easily – remember the fall of communism – 20 years ago this year the Berlin Wall came down and the once seemingly impenetrable Iron curtain crumbled.
Jeremiah had often been required by God to speak harshly to Judah and had earned the reputation of being a prophet of doom. When Judah appeared to be prospering, winning wars, doing well, it seemed that God was with them, that their kingdom was invincible. But Jeremiah knew the truth: that all things can end. The people were turning away from God, failing to live according to his law and will. A succession of Kings, who were supposed to be God’s representatives to bring justice and peace and protection from enemies, had failed to do so. Hence Jeremiah’s harsh words of prophecy.
At the time of Chapter 33, which we read today, Jeremiah had been imprisoned by the king, Zedekiah, for prophesying his downfall at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. So he is in captivity even as the Babylonians lay siege to Jerusalem and eventually capture it. So at this time things seem very bleak for the Judeans, their society is in ruins and they have been exiled from the land they love, to a foreign land under Babylonian rule. There seems no hope of a new and better tomorrow for the people of Judah and Israel. 
Yet from amongst the gloom and despair of one of the worst experiences of their history, Jeremiah speaks to them with words of hope and consolation. “The days are coming when I will bestow on Israel and Judah all the blessings I have promised them”. He promises them salvation just at the very moment they are on the brink of ruin.  But he tells them that they must wait patiently, for then God will save them. The message of hope is that The Messiah, the righteous branch of the house of David, will be raised up to fulfil the promises that God has made. However bleak things seem now, there will be a new and brighter tomorrow.
Jesus also speaks to a people facing a time of difficulty, danger, fear and struggle. He uses apocalyptic imagery from the Old Testament to make and illustrate his message in poetic fashion. Today’s gospel is a complex passage in which Luke has drawn images from a range of sources including Old Testament references such as the book of Daniel,  to powerfully illustrate a three part message.
First is a prophecy of the coming of the Son of Man. Portents will appear in the heavenly bodies, nations will not know which way to turn from the roar and surge of the sea. The sea represents the ocean – the waters of chaos over which God’s spirit hovered at creation, when order was brought from chaos. So the prophecy means that order will break down and chaos will reign. The heavenly bodies represent the powers of heaven. Jesus uses these images to paint a picture of the end time – the time when divisions between heaven and earth come to an end and all creation is united under the one God. This will be the time when the Son of Man will come in a cloud to intercede and all creation will testify to the day of God’s of judgement.
The second part of the message is that just as the fig tree produces buds which tell that Summer is near, so these signs will reveal that the end is near. And the final part of the message is that we must be alert at all times because we don’t know when this will take place. We must always be ready because it might happen today or tomorrow. As 1st Thessalonians reminds us “1Th 5:2 for you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night”.
The end of all things must have been a frightening prospect for those who heard Jesus for the first time. We might remember that at the time Luke was writing his intended audience were Christians facing persecution. In AD 64 a fire broke out in Rome which burnt for a week and destroyed a good part of the city. The blame was placed on the Emperor Nero of whom it is said that he fiddled while Rome burned. Unsurprisingly he looked for a scapegoat and chose the Christians because; as the historian Tacitus tells us they were already “detested for their outrageous practices”. So the Christians came to be viewed no longer as a Jewish sect and therefore enjoying the legal protection that Jews enjoyed, but as a new and illegal religion. Non-conformity to the official Roman religion, which involved worship of the Emperor, was treason and punishable by death. And so began a period of persecution which carried over into the reign of Domitian who was most likely emperor at the time of Luke’s writing.
So, like Jeremiah giving words of hope to the people of Israel and Judah, Luke writes words of hope to the Christians under persecution in Rome. Times are bad but the world will not always be as it is today and present anxieties should not be the cause of losing heart and giving up. Jesus says “Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will never pass away”.
Today we live at another time in history when, for many, it is difficult to see a new tomorrow ahead. Just when things seemed to be going well the credit crunch hit, the bubble burst and the hopes of those with money came crashing down, with the resultant effect on everyone else. It’s worth noting though that the poor were never able to benefit from the boom time in the same way and are hit disproportionately hard by the fall out.
One of the problems which politicians seem to be wrestling with as we head towards a General Election is how to get people to believe in a better future. In political terms they are trying to find a way to convince people that voting for one party or another is the way to a better, more secure future. The problem they are up against is that we have heard it all before. There was optimism after the Second World War that things would be better – after the depression of the 1930’s a more prosperous, more equal society could be founded.  These were the sentiments behind the provision of the welfare state and the National Health Service. But in subsequent years sometimes things seemed to be getting better but each time the bubble seemed to burst, bringing people back down to earth and the realities of an unfair, unjust and unequal society. At such times as this when we are still in the midst of a world recession – what is there to look forward to for tomorrow? Why believe in tomorrow after all the let downs of today?
“Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will never pass away”. The good news of Jesus is as much a message of hope for today as it ever was.  The promise of the Messiah still stands because the kingdom of God, although with us in part has not yet been fulfilled. This will not happen until all people have heard and responded to the word of God as Matthew 24:14 tells us:
“And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come”
Advent reminds us that we live in God’s “Now and not yet” time where we are we are able to see glimpses of the kingdom but where we are only too aware of the pain and sorrow in the world and of the need for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
God has promised that the time will come when Christ’s reign of righteousness will begin. We have that promise for us now, but the time is not yet. The promise given by Jeremiah echoes through the scriptures – the time is coming, God’s salvation is at hand, and the kingdom is near. Jesus warns of the chaos which will ensue at the signs of its coming yet we are called to wait upon God, to continue to work for his kingdom, and to trust in his promises. We must never be complacent but must be vigilant in living according to the teaching of Jesus, in witnessing to the good news and in bringing others to know Jesus and accept him in their lives. Jesus says that those who fall from faith will not have strength to endure the “not yet” times. We are called to participate in bringing about the change that the kingdom of God entails and so we hold fast to the truth and walk in God’s ways now, as we wait for the coming day of salvation.