First Sunday of Advent
Scripture: Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-8; Philippians 1:1-11; Mark 13:24-37
The season of Advent is a time to look forward, in anticipation of receiving Christ, but also to carry forward an appreciation of what has gone before – the foundations upon which we build our future in faith. The letter to the Philippians begins in appreciation: “I thank my God in every remembrance of you for all of your partnership in the Gospel from the first day until now.” As the Anglican chaplaincy in Menorca celebrates the 25th anniversary of the induction of its first full-time chaplain, it is a time to give thanks for the community of faith, that has evolved over the years, that has invested time, talent and treasure to build up and to sustain the chaplaincy – and that has worked in partnership with successive chaplains to do so. It is also a time to give thanks for the partnership between Roman Catholics and Anglicans that is founded upon recognition that we are part of a much larger community of faith than anything that can be bounded by denominational (or any other) divisions. Looking forward in the spirit of Advent, we are challenged to see where Christ can come into our lives – and where we can help him to be present, where we have opportunities to be Christ’s hands and feet, his heart in the world – as individuals, and as a community. In the Gospel reading, Christ tells a story about a man who goes on a trip and leaves his servants in charge, each one with a job to do – and with no idea of when the head of the household will return. They are simply to be ready and do their jobs. Our jobs, as Christ indicates elsewhere, are to speak out against injustice, and to help the sick, the lonely, the forgotten – and to do so in partnership, collectively, as well as individually.
Second Sunday of Advent
Scripture: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:8-11; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
There are times when missing details in the scripture provoke speculative questions. Why, for example, did John the Baptist go into the wilderness? If he went to get away from people, how did they manage to find him there? What attracted them to him? In some ways, his message of turning around and seeking something new was counter-cultural. Human beings tend to look back more than forwards. Jewish tradition upholds this in the way that remembering is something ritually imbedded in their faith. But it’s a short walk from remembering to nostalgia – which can be a wistful longing for something lost, a longing for security, and a driver of pain. Pain was something experienced by the people of Israel in exile, addressed by the prophet of Isaiah 40. All that was dear and familiar to them seemed to have been lost. Yet the prophet’s words contain hope: “Comfort my people,” says God. There will be a new day. Don’t despair. And here, remembering becomes an ingredient for hope, in the memory that God has acted before. Yet, sadly, humans do not always respond well to such hopefulness. Mountains made low? Not appreciated when they represent the summits of self-satisfaction. Valleys lifted up? Not welcome when they are where we hide our shadowy side. Levelling? Not comfortable if we lose some prestige. Yet this echo of Isaiah is what John the Baptist preached to those sufficiently desperate to listen to him. The turning around – repentance – is not about being naughty or nice (John wasn’t exactly nice himself at times!), but rather about what keeps us from being open to God. It is about humility, acceptance of forgiveness, recognition that both nice and naughty parts of our nature can be touched and transformed by God’s grace. As the Psalm says: “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.” Perhaps it takes a weird man in the wilderness, speaking in rough tones about the one, Jesus, who has come to us and will come again, to gain our attention. That may be why people went to listen to John.
Third Sunday of Advent
Scripture: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
“Who are you?” How do we answer that question? It needs to be answered: how we relate to others is defined by how we see ourselves. How often is that question answered by defining ourselves in term of what we are not, rather than what we are? But this is seldom constructive, especially because what we say in such circumstances often betrays a search for blame. It is not hard to find what is wrong in the world, and the search for blame often leads us to point a finger at others – and the ultimate “other” is God. Sydney Carter cleverly touched upon this in his hymn, Friday Morning: “It’s God they ought to crucify …” How interesting that Paul, writing to the Christians in Thessalonika, should feel obliged to offer a prayer that they be kept sound and blameless. Blame is not new, nor is self-dislike. The people of Israel understood this. 2000 years ago they were in a state of needing someone to do something about their predicament, which led them to John the Baptist, as part of a deeper search. John reacted to their expectations by telling them who he was not – positive in his case, since it pointed to one who was greater. Israel’s expectations were coloured to a large extent by their history, especially such times as those described by the prophet Isaiah, writing to a people in exile. This part of Isaiah is actually quite positive, promising the hope of Israel being a blessing to all nations – something not easily grasped in exile, when darkness, death and desolation are especially part of the human experience. However, in Advent we are reminded that God did something about this. What God did was to come and be a part of the human experience. This did not occur in an expected way; instead of taking Israel away from invaders and giving it back to the people, Jesus gave his life away, as a way of demonstrating solidarity with humanity, standing with us. So we are invited to stand with him. This ought to help to define our identity, and encourage us to strive to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing and give thanks in all circumstances,” as Paul encouraged the Thessalonians; people of confident hope in God. Not a bad pattern to follow; quite a good identity to adopt.
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Scripture: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Canticle: Magnificat; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38
Life can present us with awkward moments. Late pregnancy can be one of those: my own mother learned this, as did Elizabeth with John the Baptist. In fact, the readings all have awkwardness: Nathan had to return to David to explain that God had required him to change his opinion about building a temple: risky as well awkward for Nathan. Mary’s situation is beyond awkward – to the point of being dangerous for her. Actually, the Bible has rather a lot of awkward, “How-can-this-be?” moments. Even David himself represents one of these: the youngest, smallest son of Jesse became a hero, a general and ruler. What happens next in the awkward moments is instructive. Nathan and David had a difficult conversation that led to other awkward – but productive – moments between them. Elizabeth gave birth to John the Baptist, but not before Zechariah had experienced the consequences of voicing a question of doubt. This is a reminder that, while doubt is a natural human trait, and a way to learn and develop faith, directly questioning God may have consequences. And Mary? Well we all know what happens next with Mary – it is what we celebrate at Christmas – but also Easter. She, too, asked the question: “How can this be?” But apparently God realised that this was quite a reasonable thing for an unwed teenager who knew how these things work. And the answer that she received, apart from, “Nothing will be impossible with God,” probably still left her wondering. She must have learned in many remarkable ways that all sort of things are possible with God. This is something that we all have to learn. Moments of unlikely wonder will come in all our lives. Sometimes we may receive something remarkable. At others, we may learn that goodness is murkier. We may find that our personal or cultural background limits our notion of truth. We may find that God’s boundaries are broader, or different. We may find that a loss leaves us with something beautiful; we may experience being diminished, yet offered to learn something valuable about ourselves in the process. All of this may present us with awkward moments, wondering, “How can this be?” Those are times to remember Nathan, Elizabeth and Mary, and that with God, all manner of things are possible.