Archive for December, 2012
Advent 2 (C)
I like airports. I don’t particularly like flying but there is something very different about being in an airport and watching. Airport terminals are strange places. They have a mixed-up atmosphere that seems to come from the excitement of holidays, the weariness of the business trip, the anticipation of returning home, and the boredom of prolonged waiting at unearthly hours of the day or night. I like the fact that I don’t actually have to do anything, I’m just there. They have the clinical feel of a waiting room — except you have to buy your own magazines. Even the shops selling enticing things such as watches, souvenirs and huge bottles of whisky can’t distract you for long from the fact that there is nothing to do except shop. And then there are those endless loudspeaker announcements trying to find people who have got lost somewhere between check-in and take-off. In an airport, you are in a kind of geographical limbo — it’s as if you belong neither to the country you are leaving, nor the country you are going to. For however long you have to wait, you are neither here nor there, and there is little to do except listen eagerly for your gate to be called.
The Bible has its own geographical limbo: the wilderness. Much more than a place of dust and rocks, the wilderness has a special spiritual significance in the relationship between God and his people. It is in the wilderness that God calls Moses from the burning bush to lead his people out of Egypt, and it is in the wilderness that the Israelites wander for forty years while they learn what it means to be the people of God. After his baptism, Jesus is led into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, and filled with the power of the Spirit.
So when we read that the word of the Lord came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness, we know that something of real importance is about to happen. John has spent the best part of his life in this geographical and spiritual limbo; just a chapter earlier we read that he was in the wilderness from his childhood until the day he appeared publicly to Israel. Even allowing for the fact that we don’t know how old John was, we can make a good guess that that’s a long time to be hanging about in a desert. It was a measure of the importance of John’s future work that he required the kind of spiritual preparation that only the wilderness can give. And when the word does come to John, it sets off something that will change the world.
John’s call is the drum roll that announces that salvation is near, that something really new and really good is about to happen. It is a turning point in time, which is perhaps why Luke takes such care to locate this event in history, by giving us the names of the rulers of the day.
A friend of mine once began a sermon on this very text by saying that if you daydreamed during the first sentence, you missed the whole point. Not only does Luke list the details of some of the villains in our story this morning, but in so doing he sets the ministry of Jesus in its wider context. In other words he pays respect to the principalities and powers of the Roman imperium, just as he had done in the infancy narrative. It’s worth, therefore, going over that 1 verse:
1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
Just as it was Jesus in that little town of Bethlehem – and not Ceasar Augustus – who is acclaimed by Shepherds and Angels as the real Lord and King, so the really important news, in our story this morning, is about John the Baptist, not the notables in Lukes list. They in fact play negative roles in our story, although there abuse of power will be used by God who will work out how to bring salvation to the world. And so don’t daydream in this first sentence, by not doing so we, like the writer, share the same reality. We then know the history, the world in which this all takes place; we become part of it; and we can see, understand and believe.
John hears his call and sets off into public life to call people to repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and to baptise them as a mark of their decision to lead a new life. And so he becomes John the Baptist, preparing the way for the Lord. John is like Jesus, a Prophet. His continuity with the OT tradition is revealed in his message and behaviour and in his persecution and execution. He was creating an excitement, a fervour, that was setting the stage for the Christ. He is actually preparing Israel for God’s intervention. Of course, he is more than just a Prophet, he is himself fulfilling the prophecy and the word of God is coming to fruition in John. John the Baptist is rather like Mary. They both straddle the Old and the New Testaments and embody promise and fulfillment.
Advent is uniquely the time when the church focuses on Prophecy and fulfillment and John is at the centre of that. It is a difficult period for us when the Christmas message is now in almost full swing with the nativities, carol services and other parties and productions. The temptation for any preacher, therefore, is to preach about hope and to talk about glad tidings of great joy. The Advent preparation for Christmas is, however, about repentance. Nevertheless we look to this time to reflect on God’s judgement against sin and his response to the crisis sin has created.
We all know what it’s like to be in limbo: to feel that we are neither here nor there. Generally speaking, we are creatures who love to have a purpose, and we get restless and unhappy when we lack one. It may be that this “wilderness” is a stagnant time in our lives: a dead-end job or relationship. Some people talk of retirement as a time when they feel lost and useless after many years of work. Some parents talk of feeling strangely empty when their children leave home, and for some children the school years have a kind of aching boredom that can only be described as a wilderness.
Our experiences are all different, but the thing to note is this: that just like the airport, the wilderness is a place where things are about to happen, a place of preparation. It may be a long wait; it may seem painfully boring, it may seem pointless, but the wilderness is where the seeds of change are sown and nurtured. Those who are currently in the wilderness may not readily understand that. It may not be an easy time but it is a time to embrace. It is a time for waiting and listening carefully for the voice of God. And when it comes, who knows where God might lead us?
Advent is a call to wake up, listen and carefully respond to God’s initiative. In the style of Luke, the gospel writer, “In the 61st year of the reign of Elizabeth 11, when David Cameron is Prime Minister and Theresa May is Home Secretary and during the last days of the archiepiscopate of Rowan Williams, the word of God comes to us all in the wilderness of the 21st Century Christmas celebrations.
Christ The King
Can you sum up the Gospel in three words? Can you find a phrase that incorporates the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection? Can you describe the means by which the way of rebellion and pride is replaced by freedom and justice? Can you cover the commands of the Sermon of the Mount; the abiding presence of Jesus; the council of the Holy Spirit; the return of Christ? In three words, can you account for the reason why Christ is misunderstood, hated and feared at the same time that he is loved, obeyed and worshipped?
The earliest followers of Jesus Christ had just such a phrase. They knew that the key to the Christ-life was the proclamation that “Jesus is Lord”. Or, in other words, they knew that if Christ is King then all else follows.
The claim of kingship was not an abstract concept for Jesus or the people who followed him. It was the sign of their sharpest break from the world – the source of their persecution. When Gentiles living in the Roman Empire proclaimed that Jesus was Lord they were also proclaiming that Caesar was not. When Jews proclaimed the kingship of Christ they were upsetting the nationalist expectations of a warrior Messiah. Anyone using the phrase was marked out as different, subversive, even dangerous. It was a phrase that could have led to serious persecution and even death. Of all the things that could have been put above his head, it was the proclamation of Jesus’ kingship that Pilate had nailed to the cross.
Today the Church makes a bold assertion, because today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. Who is in charge of the world? Christ is, we proclaim. Who is in charge of the church? Well, as I fully appreciate, it is not me. It is not the Church Wardens or the PCC? I may have a leadership role, wardens and The PCC may have responsibilities but if anyone is in charge then it must be Christ, our King.
Is Christ the king? Look around you. Does it seem like it? The world appears to be in the grip of financial, political and natural forces completely beyond our control. Record levels of rainfall in, Pirates on the seas surroundling Somalia, Terrorists fighting British soldiers in Afghanistan, Gaza and Israel in rows resulting in recriminations. It is probably quite legitimate to ask, Can the world survive? Will it be nuclear war that destroys us? Or global warming? Or the collapse of all our financial systems? Or a flu pandemic? It is difficult to find evidence that Christ really is king of the world.
And yet we say it. Whatever the evidence, whatever we feel, today we say that Christ is king. We assert the truth which is deeper than appearances. We reaffirm the truth that at the heart of the universe is a force for peace and justice and love which is stronger than all human forces, which has been from eternity and will be to the end of time.
Centuries of Christian history have perhaps dulled us to the matter-of-fact nature of the phrase “Christ is King”. It is easy now for us to hear Jesus’ statement that his kingdom is not of this world as meaning that his Lordship is purely a “spiritual” one. Christ might be king in our Sunday worship but in our public, everyday life the claim has no real purchase. The phrase has become a subject of inner belief and not a rallying cry for outer obedience. Since Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, runs the logic, then the kingship of Christ has no relevance for the way we spend our money, regulate our business or organise our social groups. This certainly makes life easier for those of us living comfortable lives. But if Christ’s kingship has nothing to say to the powers that be, then it also has no hope to give to people crushed by injustice or to a world having the life squeezed out of it by our systems of habitual violence, haughtiness and greed.
As Christ’s people we live in a kingdom whose rules of life have not been drawn from the surrounding kingdoms but instead have been set by our king. In other words, we live in a kingdom that is in this world, but not of it. As Christ’s subjects, we strive to remain faithful to his example. Yet we also live in expectation that though we live as aliens in this world our rightful king will return to claim his throne. That is why since the earliest days of the Church, Christians have used another three words to accompany their great gospel proclamation that “Jesus is Lord”, and that is the prayer “Come, Lord Jesus”.
It is rather apt that today we remind ourselves of the kingship of Christ, the authority of our Lord. That is because we are clearly a church that needs to be reminded that Jesus is Lord. This week I am more than concerned that the church has failed, dismally, to remember just that. The failure of the vote for Women to the Episcopate has ignored the will of God for sure. Has ignored the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord, that Jesus is in charge of the church. It is abundantly clear to everyone that Gods will over this issue to ordain Women as Bishops now. This vote was not about whether we are to have women as Bishops but the mechanics behind how that might be achieved, to safeguard a small minority who object. That is why I can say quite emphatically that the will of God is for women to be ordained Bishops and that by not doing it now is ignoring that will. Jesus Christ is in charge of the church not the small minority of folk who sit on a very unrepresentative body and who exercise their own bias views, not listening to the views of the vast majority. People who claim to be concerned about authority and yet cannot, it would seem, accept the authority of their Bishops currently who are overwhelmingly in favour of female colleagues. People whose views are intrenched in the past and unable to face the future. Whatever their motivations there is a simple fact that the wider society, which we could call the Kingdom, do not understand the finer points of the debate and for that reason in the words of The Archbishop ” everyday we fail to resolve the issue is a day when our credibility in the public eyes likely to diminish”. This then is a matter of mission and the infighting is preventing the mission of the Church. I do not want to be a part of a church which has no credibility, no time for mission and which cannot see the will of God. Which cannot recognise that Jesus is Lord and that same Jesus is the Jesus in charge of the church. The needs of a small minority, whilst important, cannot be greater than Gods will for his Kingdom.
We are now faced with a difficult future. This is a serious issue. People’s loyalty for the church they have supported, some for all their lives, will be tested.
This matter has been the focus of a great deal of prayer and debate over recent years. It involves issues which affect people deeply and personally; it is testing personal relationships and indeed people’s loyalty to the church which they may have served and supported, as I have said, for all of their lives.
My prayer is that somehow by God’s grace we will be enabled to move forward. That we might hear Gods will for a church in which Jesus is Lord. May God grant us to be both faithful and fruitful in the work to which he calls us.