Saturday, December 03, 2011

Good news on Advent 2

With thanks to Revd Anne le Bas, whose sermon said most of what I had hoped to convey, with a fluency and coherence I was failing to match. Part of this sermon is a direct quotation of her words.

Where's the good news this morning?
Mark says that he is beginning to tell it, but it's not that easy to recognise at first, as we listen to our two prophets.
At first glance they might not seem to have much in common.
First we have Isaiah with his message that, for me at least, comes always with the music of Messiah pouring a liquid perfection that offsets the impact of the words...
Comfort, comfort ye my people...”

Or then again, there's John.
A wild man striding towards us out of the desert...beginning Mark's gospel without any preliminary niceties...bringing us straight up against our need to do some serious work if we want to be ready for the coming of the Lord.

Isaiah sounds a much safer bet as we curl up by the fire in anticipation of the cosy pleasures of a 21st century Christmas.
But actually, they share the same message.
We need, I think, to remember that comfort means, literally, give strength....fortitude...for our readings, though good news, are comfortable only in the sense that we meet the word in one panel of the Bayeaux tapestry, where we encounter Harold “comforting his troops” by nudging them with the point of his spear.
Nothing to do with warm slippers and chestnuts roasting on an open fire...but all the same, these ARE tidings of comfort and joy – though not quick route to an easy life.

You see, though we try, year on year, to focus on keeping Christmas safe and unchanging, that's not what Advent invites us to.
Listen to those prophets
Prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

Every valley lifted up...every mountain made low...that sounds very much like an earthquake...something that changes the landscape so drastically that nothing can ever be the same again.
Prepare a highway for our God...
Nobody ever welcomes a new road, however much they may use it afterwards...
Whenever one is mooted, the press is full of stories of protestors anxious not to see valleys and hills levelled, and the natural contours altered beyond recognition. No matter that a greater good may be evident, - perhaps an historic market town will be freed from the impact of streams of heavy goods vehicles, threatening the foundations of houses that have stood for centuries.
We don't like change...
Neither change in our surroundings, nor, I suspect, change in ourselves.

That's unfortunate, because unless we change, we won't ever be truly ready.
That's the message of Isaiah AND of John
We need to change, to repent because the kingdom of heaven is arriving.
That's why we find ourselves surrounded by purple at this season
Because Advent is a season for repentance
Now is the time for us to recognise the ways in which our lives are off course and to turn again.....
It's the only way
You can’t set things right if you don’t admit first that they are wrong.

The trouble is that most of us really hate doing that. We don’t like to feel
guilty or ashamed – feelings that almost always go with owning up to sin and
failure. In fact we’ll often do almost anything to avoid those feelings...
Even in our weekly Eucharist, we don't, I suspect, take the time to really look at ourselves in that short rite of penitence at the start of the service.....though that process of recognising our failures and our sins is crucial to our entry into the new life that Christ offers. Of course,traditionally the Church of England hasn’t insisted on individual confession to a priest on a regular basis, as the Roman Catholic Church has – though that option is available and valued by many who take their Christian lives seriously.
In any case, a corporate act of penitence is there in most of our services, and there with good reason.
Firstly, the fact that we begin with confession reminds us that we need to come out of hiding when we come to worship. If our relationship with God isn’t based on honesty then it is not going to get very far. And secondly the regular practice of confession tells us that it is safe to come out of hiding, safe to be ourselves, safe to present ourselves to God,
warts and all, and that’s where all this gloomy talk of repentance becomes a
message of good news.

The first letter of John tells us that “If we say we have no sin, we deceive
ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins he who is
faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us of all
unrighteousness.”  Let’s hear those crucial words again. “He who is faithful
and just will forgive us.” That’s not a maybe or perhaps; it’s a definite.
He who is faithful and just will forgive us. “ Often we find it hard to
repent, hard even to acknowledge there is anything to repent of, because
deep down we think there is nothing that can be done about it anyway. We
think that it’s unforgiveable, irreparable. No wonder we want to hide it. We
are afraid it would overwhelm us if it came up into the light. We claim to
believe in God, but actually we don’t. We only believe in us, in our own
ability to set ourselves straight. If we can’t think of a way to deal with
our sin, we assume that God won’t be able to either, so it is best to keep
it all firmly under wraps and hope it stays that way.

Mark tells us, though, that this is not the case. There is good news. It isn’t that we are just fine and dandy as we are. It is that God is not defeated by our sin – not even by the sins of those who nail Jesus to the cross. The love and forgiveness that seems quite beyond us – to give or to receive - is not out of God’s reach at all.

We just need to recognise ourselves as the flawed and failing people that we have the courage to engage with the road-works, to prepare the way in our hearts and our lives and then.....well, then the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all people will see it together.

Good news indeed.

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