Sermon: Advent Carol Service – 30th November 2014

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 6pm

A couple of years ago, I shared my research with you into the origins of services of lessons and carols. It was rather disillusioning to find out that they had been instituted to replace the walk around the parish, singing carols outside parishioners’ homes but moreso, to keep the men out of the pub on Christmas Eve. Since 1878, these services have developed significantly in form and in value for those who prepare them and participate in them. They allow us to tell again the seasonal stories of our tradition about the impending first and second comings of Jesus and to do it in an expanded, reflective and polished way, with the best available in word and music. This results in a rich experience to set the scene for our approach to Christmas. I hope tonight that we might expand that richness just a little further by the mention of two works of art.

The words of our introit tonight are those traditionally used to introduce the Advent Carol Service. They come from an early medieval Advent Sunday Responsory, so as we use them, we take our place among the generations of believers who have looked forward at this time of year, both to the birth of Christ at Christmas and to the second coming of Christ, set to usher in the fulfilment of God’s coming Kingdom.

Hear again those words that were sung:

“I look from afar: And lo, I see the power of God coming, and a cloud covering the whole earth. Go ye out to meet him and say: Tell us, art thou he that should come to reign over thy people Israel? High and low, rich and poor, one with another, go ye out to meet him and say: Hear, O thou shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a sheep. Tell us, art thou he that should come? Stir up thy strength, O Lord, and come to reign over they people Israel.”

This focus is complemented by the words of the welcome to the Advent Carol Service at Christ’s College, Cambridge, which say “Advent is a season of restrained and prayerful preparation for the joy and jubilation of Christmas. It is also a time when we consider ‘the end of all things’. But above all, it is a time to contemplate ‘Immanuel’, (‘God with us’). In our readings, carols and prayers, we rehearse in a distilled way the story of the human journey, from creation to our redemption. In some small way, we encapsulate that most profound of all mysteries: that God became a human being…

We all come to recognize afresh the hope that Christ brings, hope for the individual, hope for communities and hope for the whole of creation. This hope is not a vague longing but a deep recognition of all that God has done in and through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ. This promise helps us to see the possibilities of the future and to live here and now in the light of all that will be, things that are perceived with the eyes of faith alone. It has been said that all too often, contemporary Christianity is marked by the immediate and shaped by the world rather than by the eternal dimension which offers true hope to the world. In Christ, the present and the future are connected and completed.   This is the key to understanding the essential ambiguity of Advent, when we correctly think forward to celebrating the past event of the coming of the baby at Bethlehem and welcoming the second coming of the returning Christ, we know not when.

Rowan Williams, in an Advent Carol service three years ago said we need to look at the world in the “angelic way”, a term used by Thomas Aquinas, where we see everything in terms of our relationship with God. He says we need to look at the world at least with the imagination of the angel Gabriel, who the then archbishop described in a very free translation, as coming to Mary and saying: “You may be a teenager in a village nobody has heard of, on the edge of the Roman Empire in an occupied country, without any education, without a vote, without even a change of clothes, and you are going to be where God happens.”   He urges us to peel away the temptation to see things in terms of ourselves and to align ourselves more with the angelic way of seeing things, just like the angel Gabriel. Look at the world he says, and see it “pregnant with God”, full of possibilities. Advent signals tensions and paradoxes; at the end of the four week journey, we meet the most extraordinary paradox of all, the power, the love, the energy that made and sustains the universe – speechless, helpless, cold, homeless, a baby. Our selfish hopes and fantasies about controlling our world need to go, for us to come to terms with this God, who is beyond compare, this God whose energy and power are paradoxically in the weakness of being made flesh among us. It is this Advent realization that enables us to look with Gabriel-like eyes at our neighbours and the things of the world as pregnant with God.

Let us think for a moment about looking with Gabriel-like eyes. On the front of your service sheet tonight, you will find a tiny black and white reproduction of Giotto’s famous Annunciation, depicting the angel coming to Mary. There are many traditions associated with this representation, eg the position of the angel vis a vis Mary and the traditional colour she is wearing. Mary is generally depicted as demure and humble with downcast eyes in her response to the angel’s message. Sometimes the angel appears a modest messenger, but some artists depict him as an exotic, heavenly being compared with Mary’s essential ordinariness. In this representation, we have an elegant, stylized angel of beauty, slender wings, unspoiled folds in his robe, approaching a humble Mary with his message. This is a very traditional portrayal and draws a respectful, devotional response from us.

Then by way of contrast, I would like us to look at the picture of a sculpture at the end of the service sheet. I am sorry that space did not allow us to show the whole of the scene. You might like to pause on your way out and have a look at a slightly larger version of both these works of art. This is an unusual sculpture of the annunciation from the Cathedral of Reims in north eastern France, also from the 13th century. The two life sized figures stand on the front of the cathedral. Earlier on, statues were generally part of supporting pillars of a building. By the 13th century, they were emerging to be free standing as Gabriel and Mary are here. At this time in art history, sculpted figures often had a stylized facial expression to indicate beauty and blessedness. It has come to be known as the “Gothic smile”. It is often a bland and rather anemic smile. Records show that the now one armed statue used to hold a trumpet to joyously announce the imminent arrival of Christ. The theme is salvation and hope rather than the final judgment so often depicted on Gothic cathedrals. But look closely at little picture of the face of this Gabriel. The look is not stylized, but is astonishingly real and flesh-like, for a sculpture in stone. It is not a blandly beautiful face, but it comes close to having a huge smirk, a knowing smile that says “Young woman, I know something terrific from God that you don’t yet know, and I can hardly contain myself; I am bursting with it!” I ask myself whether Gabriel, at that moment in history, was able to convey that joyful anticipation, the sense of a great and mighty wonder to the young Mary. Whether or not she was able to grasp that then, we are! Tonight we have the means in word, in music, in painting and sculpture, to catch again the wonder of the season of advent as we begin to move towards Christmas.

In this lie authentic hope and joy, as we look forward to the celebration of the coming of Jesus into the world at Christmas, and then again, at the end time. In the ambiguity of the season and the anxiety it is easy to have about the future, we take confidence also from what may be for us the most important verse in tonight’s readings, from Isaiah: “I call you by your name. I surname you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other.” We are declared by God to be family, to be kin, if God indeed surnames us.  Is this perhaps the other side of the coin of God’s taking our flesh upon God’s self?

We are called then to go forward into advent, with its looking back and its looking forward, in a strong position, an amazing position, as God’s own. We can be confident to obey the urging of the introit, “Go ye out to meet him.”.  Sharing the sculpted Gabriel’s knowing smile, we remember at this season that God is with us.

 

Ruth Shatford

Sermon: The First Sunday in Advent (B) – 30th November 2014

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am and 8am and Our Lady Help of Christians Catholic Church

Readings:  Isaiah 64:1-9;  Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19;  1 Corinthians 1:1-9;  Mark 13:24-37

The first Sunday of Advent is the beginning of the Church’s new year.

Advent is the season of waiting: of promise and patience, of presence and absence, of fullness and emptiness. The seed has been planted but the growth is invisible and fragile. In the midst of the growth process, threats abound. Will the seed burst forth into the sunlight? Will thorns choke its life and stunt its growth? Will it receive adequate nourishment to grow into a great tree, giving shelter and fruit for all around? Will we and our church communities survive, and better yet flourish, amid the chaos of today’s religious pluralism and postmodernism?

Advent is a month long “Holy Saturday”. The great news of Christ’s birth is on the horizon and we want to sing, “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come” however, we must first spend four weeks with “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” before we greet the child in Bethlehem! In Holy Saturday, we don’t know the outcome for the crucified Jesus or ourselves. In Advent, we have the same impatience with ourselves, history and God and we live “For the Time Being”, as W.H. Auden asserts. Two thousand years later, we may still recite, “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again”, and wonder what this coming of Christ means when we struggle with congregational life the growing pluralism and the apparent reduction in the influence of Christianity, and the uncertainty of where the world will be tomorrow or when our children and grandchildren grow up. Advent is filled with hope, but not certainty. I f God is present everywhere at all times, God is frustratingly subtle, barely recognizable in our world unless we look for God’s movements evident and obvious in the many Godly actions of people and Godly institutions.

In the first reading Isaiah captures the Advent spirit with words of impatience, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence”.  Isaiah talks of the apparent inconsistency between the stories from Israel’s past of God’s mighty works of liberation and the current situation of divine absence and national turmoil in terms of God’s anger at the people. God’s anger appears, at least to Isaiah, to have a relationship to current circumstances in which the nation finds itself: “You were angry and we sinned…. we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand”. The people have turned away from God, but God’s hiding is a result of their sinfulness.

It feels to Isaiah like our pain must be God’s doing: God must be punishing us, withdrawing God’s presence, because we have gone astray. God is angry with us and God’s anger takes the form of apparent abandonment. Isaiah and his community are going through a severe case of “separation anxiety”. Isaiah assumes that God’s distance, which allows for freedom and creativity, is the same as God’s abandonment and anger. Perhaps, as later Jewish mysticism suggests, God must withdraw for creation to burst forth in creativity and freedom. In spite of us wishing to blame God for our misfortunes God does not micromanage our lives, despite God’s moment-by-moment presence in our lives. We are free agents; God has given us freewill. We are not God’s puppets. There is risk in God’s withdrawal. We may fear that God is gone forever and may misuse our freedom, but the emergence of new possibilities demands that God give us space for growth.

Perhaps, the divine absence is the reflection of our responses to God’s overtures to the world and us. God comes to us to give us a vision of possibilities and lure onto new horizons. We can easily assume God is absent when our actions have, in fact, limited God’s presence in our lives and communities. Still, we hope for greater inspiration and energy and this hope opens the door for new revelations of God’s love.

The Psalm presents this same contrast of presence and absence, and desperate hope for divine revelation in power and love. We need restoration and God must be part of the process of renewal. We need healing and only God can give us the energy to find wholeness. Our cry of help may open the door to a greater influx of divine possibility and energy in our lives and our communities. The Psalmist assumes that our cries make a difference to God. God hears our pleas and prayers and they open the door to God’s presence in healing ways. They do not change the character of the liberating and healing God but make God’s presence more obvious and life giving. God needs us to answer the knock, to open the door, and to seek and to ask. The dynamic and interdependent call and response relationship between God and humanity bring new visions to the world.

Paul’s words to a struggling community are intended instil hope in a time of waiting “so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ”. Perhaps, written in light of Paul’s image of the body of Christ, Paul is reminding the church at Corinth that when they operate as an integrated and interdependent body, unified and vision-inspired, they have everything they need. God is generous with revelation and is working through the many gifts of community to bring forth something of beauty that will give light to the world.

Paul’s words give hope and, more than that, energy and ability to individuals and communities. God wants all of us to flourish. God has given us the gifts we need to be faithful and to share good news. God is growing in our lives, despite the external circumstances and the delayed return of Jesus.

Mark’s Gospel portion describes both terror and fulfilment. Nature will be transformed prior to the coming of God’s Chosen One. Many of us can identify with such apocalyptic thinking, although we view it in naturalistic rather supernatural terms. Our planet is in trouble: many of us see signs of destruction, of dying species and collapsing glacier and fear a random collision with a meteor that will alter our planet forever and put an end to the human enterprise.

Mark sees the suffering as the birth pains of new creation. We need to observe the signs of the times and act accordingly. No one knows the hour or day. Trying to pick dates and numerological calculations of the Second Coming are misguided and foolish. What is needed is wakefulness and self-awareness.

Those who study the origins and development of the universe Cosmologists say that every place in the universe is the centre. Theologians say that God’s ever presence everywhere means that God is wholly here in this present place and moment. Accordingly, if no one knows the moment of Christ’s coming, then every moment is a call to transformation. Every moment, whether at dinner table, working on your laptop, answering e-mail or praying at church, is a moment of encountering divine possibility. No need to look into the future, for God is fully present in the here and now. Possibilities for transformation are ever-present for those who seek to be awake to the divine. Any moment can be transforming and transfiguring: God’s self-revelation abound!

Fulfilment may always be a receding horizon. The heavens may not be torn open, but the daylight may slowly emerge. In the midst of waiting for a revelation that is beyond our understanding and exceeds our imagination, we have much to do. We are called to stay awake and choose to be people of a future which we can’t fully fathom, a future of holy relationships, healed persons and transformed ecology and economy. We can be citizens of the emerging realm of God right now. We don’t need angelic visitors or natural disasters to know what time it is for it is always God’s time and the advent of life-transforming possibility.

Open to unrestrained possibility, we can sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” with the lively spirit of “Joy to the World” for God is here![1]

 

[1] This sermon based upon material written by the Reverend Bruce Epperly and found at http://processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yearb/2011-11-27/first-sunday-advent

 

Sermon: The Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost (A) – 9th November 2014

St Aidan’s Anglican Church Epping 8.30am

Readings: Joshua 24; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:9-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Don’t miss out! We know how the advertisements work. Don’t miss out on this amazing bargain! Book now: don’t miss out on the great event! Arrive very early: don’t miss out on being inside the Town Hall at Gough’s service.

Of course we often do miss out on things. Sometimes we forget, or we’re running late, or something prevents us. Sometimes we miss out simply because we took things lightly, or we didn’t get around to doing anything, or we didn’t think it was all that important anyway. The theme of missing out is an important theme of today’s Gospel, and our reading from 1 Thessalonians.

Over the next three weeks, we shall be reading Jesus’ message in Matthew 25, as he tells three stories to illustrate truths about the Kingdom of God. And in today’s story his message is: “Be ready for the coming of the kingdom. Don’t miss out!”

He tells a story about a wedding, and about ten girls who went out to meet the bridegroom as he brought his bride home. In Israel in those days the exact timing of the wedding festivities was not a big deal: a few minutes, a few hours, perhaps even a few days didn’t matter all that much.

But this was the night the bridegroom was expected. It was the custom for the girls of the village to meet him in the street as he brought his wife back from her family’s home. The girls would have torches to give light and provide a festive atmosphere, and they’d hope to be asked to join in the festivities when they arrived back at the groom’s home. The torches were probably long sticks with a rag on the end which had been dipped in oil, so that the torch would burn brightly. There were ten girls in the group, but only five of them had taken account of the reality that the timing was uncertain. These five girls had brought a small flask of oil with them in case more oil was needed.

The evening went on later and later. Why was the groom so late? Wasn’t that what brides do? Actually they probably assumed that there was an extended argument going on about the size of the dowry expected by the bride’s family!

The girls got more and more tired, and began to fall asleep. That was fair enough: they would wake up with the noise as the groom got near. There was no point in being too exhausted to enjoy the party.

Finally the girls hear the shouts: “He’s on his way!” The girls get up and check their torches: more oil is definitely needed. Five of them get out their spare oil, and their flames shine brightly. But what about the other five?

“Have you got any more oil?” they ask. “Sorry, we’ve just got enough for our own. You’d better hurry if you going to get some!” Off they rush: the supermarket is closed, the convenience store is out of oil. And by the time they get back, the bridegroom has not only passed by: he has got home, and the girls who were waiting there with their torches have been invited in to the festivities. It’s too late for the other five: they’ve missed out because they weren’t ready. They had not been wise in their preparations.

And Jesus says that’s what it will be like for those who wish to enter the kingdom of God. Here were five girls who thought they would be at a wedding celebration: they thought they were ready, but they were wrong -and they missed out. It is a serious warning from Jesus. And it links up with our reading from 1 Thessalonians.

The members of the church in Thessalonica were worried about people missing out too. Paul had taught them about Jesus, about forgiveness and salvation, about judgement and eternal life. They knew that Jesus was coming again, and that it would be soon; and they looked forward to the promised fulfilment of the Kingdom of God.

But of course, “soon” is not an exact word. When we read in scripture that Jesus is coming soon, we have a completely different perspective from the Thessalonians. They expected it within weeks, months, certainly not many years.

Today we who believe in the second coming of Jesus don’t really expect it to happen in our earthly lifetime: perhaps we are inclined to take it in some sort of figurative way. It is easy to take the whole idea very lightly indeed! We might say it’s just around the corner, but it is not clear how big the corner is!

But the Thessalonians had a different problem. Some of their number had died, and Jesus hadn’t come yet. What would happen to these friends and family members who had already died? Would they miss out on the kingdom? Would these believers be left behind? Would they be at some disadvantage?

Paul reassures his readers that when Jesus returns in glory, both those who have died and those who are still on earth will be involved. No believer will be left out on that day. And he ends our passage with these positive words: “We will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” Paul’s message is that Jesus’ coming is for all people!

Of course, we still don’t know the date of Jesus’ return. Indeed, as Paul puts it in next Sunday’s reading from 1 Thessalonians 5, he will come like a thief in the night, without appointment or warning.

The point of both these readings is this: we need to live as those who are always ready. We don’t know when we shall die: so often death comes unexpectedly. And we don’t know when Jesus shall return. So we must live as those who are always ready. We can’t take things for granted as those five unprepared girls did.

Jesus brings us warning, while Paul brings encouragement. We need both. For instance, people can be tempted to say to themselves: “I am baptized, I have been confirmed.” But the realities to which baptism and confirmation point need to be lived out in our lives.

People may have had profound spiritual experiences: but if they are just experiences, they are just history – not reality. People may have grown up in a Christian household and had a strong Christian upbringing. But can we simply rely on these things when Jesus comes? We are called to be children of God, not grandchildren of God.

It is Jesus who by his grace enables us to be ready for that day. As the old hymn puts it: “On Christ the solid rock I stand: all other ground is sinking sand.” It is not our church attendance or our good character or our kind deeds that makes us ready, though they are important: it is Christ who enables us to stand. And it is as we trust in him, as we depend on his gracious love, that we open up to the blessings of the Gospel. By faith in Christ – not our own worthiness – we can be confident that we have a place in his kingdom.

Of course, genuine faith is always lived out. Faith is not a theoretical matter: it is never “believe, and do whatever you like”! If it is genuine, we will seek to live the life of faith. There are indications that some of the Thessalonians thought that faith meant sitting back and doing nothing. That inactivity gave them the opportunity to become spongers on the generosity of others, and to become busybodies and gossips.

But Paul makes clear that faith is to be expressed in purposeful living, in godly lives and in loving generosity to others. Yes, we must depend on Christ for our forgiveness and salvation: but we are not to take advantage of the generosity of others, using them to make life easier for ourselves.

Christ’s call to readiness is not a call to panic or frenzied activity. It is a challenge to keep trusting and following him. It is a reminder that life has a direction, life has a purpose. No, we don’t know that date of Christ’ return in glory. We don’t know the date of our death. But both are realities for which we are always to be prepared. Let’s keep going in our Christian lives and our Christian living. Let’s determine to be in it for the long haul – although in the light of eternity, it’s not all that long! Salvation is a gift, not an achievement: but we mustn’t take it for granted. Let’s keep trusting, keep following, keep loving. Amen.

 

 

Paul Weaver

 

Sermon: The Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost (A) – 9th November 2014

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am and 8am

Readings:  Joshua 24; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:9-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Any wedding is a special occasion. When you’re invited to a wedding you make all the appropriate preparations. First, you check you diary to make sure you’re free on that day to attend. Then you make sure you have something appropriate to wear. And then there is the purchase of a gift. And then you check your maps to work out how you will get to the venue. And if you’re really organised you’ll have your sat. nav. set up to show you the way. This is how we usually behave when we attend a wedding.

But it doesn’t always work. Jenny and I were very involved in the organisation of our daughter’s wedding. We had the church organised. We had the venue prepared for the reception. The invitations were sent out. The catering was organised. We thought we had it all covered.

On the day, the guests arrived, the minister arrived, the musicians were in place, the groom showed up in good time. We were there with our daughter. But there was just one problem. There was no photographer. He had become lost. Eventually, someone rang him. He had gone to the wrong church. So the wedding started about 15 minutes late. And then the celebrations began.

When Jesus came preaching, his message was about the coming of the Kingdom of God. And he likened the Kingdom of God to banquet or a wedding celebration. So it is not surprising that at the beginning of John’s gospel we find Jesus attending a wedding where the wine ran out. Jesus turned many gallons of water into the best wine.

This miracle was a way of acting out his message. If you want a picture of the kingdom of God this is what it looks like. Jesus taught about the coming celebrations where God issues his invitation to all people to come to his party.

So here the message we learn from Matthew 25 it that we must be prepared for that great day. Here Jesus speaks of a wedding and the 10 bridesmaids. We must remember this was in an age where there were no clocks or watches. If you were lucky you might hear a bell which announced each hour.

These 10 girls had to wait for the bridegroom to arrive but they could never be sure exactly when he would come. 5 girls brought extra oil for their lamps and 5 girls didn’t. When their oil ran out they went off for some more. In the meantime, the bridegroom arrived, and the wedding began. But those foolish girls missed their opportunity and were shut out of the celebrations.

So from this the message of Jesus is simply “be prepared, be ready.” But throughout Jesus short life we see again and again people who weren’t ready. The Pharisees, the Levites, the teachers of the Law all knew about the coming of the Messiah. But they wouldn’t accept him when he came. In spite of their great learning, when the opportunity came they simply weren’t ready.

The irony was that those who were furthest from the Temple, those who felt furthest from God, the poor, the sick, the unclean, the outcasts and the tax collectors were those who flooded to Jesus. They saw the miracles, they heard the teaching and they believed Jesus truly was the Son of God.

So Jesus told parables about two groups of people –those who were rejected and those who were welcomed into the Kingdom, because this was being played out everyday in Jesus life.

In the same way in this parable we have two groups, one group was not prepared and the other group were ready for the bridegroom and entered into the celebrations. Jesus’s message is simple –be prepared.

It is the very thing we do normally with so many things in life. When you were at school you prepared for the yearly exams, specially if you wanted to pass. When you go for a job interview you go prepared. You demonstrate you know something about the company. You show you understand the requirements for the position you want to obtain.

When you propose marriage you come prepared with a bunch of flowers and a good speech. When you face retirement you make sure you have your finances in order. Being prepared is something that comes naturally to us. It is not hard for us to show wisdom in these areas.

But Jesus wants us to be wise regarding the things of God as well. Life will always have its uncertainties. Things will happen that we never planned for. Bad things can happen and we may wonder what God is doing in those situations. And we need to remember the goodness of God. We need to be familiar with the character of God.

It is a shame we don’t spend more time studying the book of Job. There we know Job went through the most appalling suffering. Few people in history have suffered as Job did. Throughout the book Job argues with his friends about his condition and why was God letting him suffer in this way.

The friends were convinced Job must have committed some terrible sin though they didn’t know what that might be. Job was sure he had led a good life and surely did not deserve this suffering.

But the brilliance of the book is that it never answers the question of suffering. This is where we can relate to this book because we will probably never understand why we must endure the things we suffer. But for Job, he finds another solution. The more he meditates upon the character of God the more he experiences the peace and the comfort of God.

Job makes that bold statement, “I know that my redeemer lives.” Job 19:25“ Redeemer” might sound like a churchy word but when Job uses it, redeemer has the force of the word “champion”. In other words, while my champion lives I know I have very little to fear.

So it is not surprising that the major section at the end of the book of Job is an extended meditation upon the character of God. This is what Job really needs to sustain him through his sufferings. Bad things will always happen to good people and we know we will never get an answer to the “why” question. We will end up frustrated if we try. But the real comfort if found in meditation on God himself.

In those six years I spent working at Braeside Hospital I saw so many people facing death. They were of all ages and all conditions in life. Death can come at any time so how can we prepare for that? I was always impressed by those Catholic patients at Braeside who brought their missal with them. Each day they read their prayers and went through the readings for the day. Each day they prepared themselves spiritually for whatever that day might bring. It was such a clear example of them following Jesus instructions for being prepared. They were just like those 5 bridesmaids, they were vigilant in their praying and reading.

So those are some of the things we need to prepared for, the tragedies and the disappointments of life itself, and then the biggest challenge of them all as we face our own mortality.

Now you would think that would be enough but there is yet one more thing we need to consider and that is the return of Christ himself. Whether it occurs in our lifetime or not it is something that we will all be caught up into. And there will come the day of Christ’s rule over all the earth – a great and glorious time when at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and earth and under the earth and every tongue confess Jesus Christ as Lord.

Are we ready for that great day? Jesus warning to us is – be prepared.

 

Ross Weaver

Sermon: All Saints Day (A) – 2nd November 2014

St Aidan’s Anglican Church Epping 8.30am

Readings: Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

Many years ago I went to an art exhibition which included a very unusual picture of Jesus. In traditional religious art, Jesus has generally been presented as serious, saintly, unworldly, often with a halo to stress that he is not like us. But in this picture Jesus had a huge smile on his face, and his disciples were smiling and laughing and grinning too. They seemed all to be having great fun. Jesus is jumping about, almost like someone in a Toyota or a Jetstar advertisement. This is not a distant or mournful or weeping Jesus, but a wildly happy Jesus: a Jesus whom we sometimes forget about in our desire to take him seriously. After all, Jesus could tell a funny story; he got on with all kinds of unexpected people; and he enjoyed good company. Perhaps this side of Jesus, the happy side, is one we all tend to forget about!

And when we think about the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount, our traditional versions can lead us to miss out on something very significant. We call them the Beatitudes, and they describe a group of people who are blessed. But this word traditionally translated as “blessed” has nothing to do with the ordinary word “to bless”.

The word is just the normal word meaning “happy”. And indeed some of the more recent translations of the Bible have actually used the word “happy”: happy are the poor in spirit, happy are those who mourn, and so on. The word describes someone for whom life is good, for whom things are going well. Perhaps it is more about the way things are for you, rather than whether you are wearing a silly smile or jumping and waving your arms about. You might say: it’s good if you are poor in spirit, it’s good if you are mourning, and so on.

What is odd is that so many of Jesus’ word pictures in this passage don’t seem to describe someone who is happy. And perhaps that’s why the traditional translation as “blessed” developed.

But who really are those blessed by God? I believe that Jesus’ words here – and indeed throughout the Sermon on the Mount – describe the life of the Saints. And how do you become a saint? A fairly relevant question as we celebrate All Saints’ Day!

We know that the traditional churches have set procedures for a person to become a saint. We know of many saints of the past, often but not identified specifically as St. Peter, St.Paul, St.Aidan, and so on. And in our opening liturgy we acknowledged a number of official and unofficial saints!

We now officially have St.Mary McKillop as an Australian saint. Her life and work had to be carefully investigated before she could become a saint. She had to be shown to be a worker of miracles. She was beatified during these procedures: she became the Blessed Mary McKillop – an interesting connection with these words of Jesus! And finally the Pope and the Catholic Church acknowledged her as a Saint.

Now I think it is a worthwhile thing to acknowledge those who have served Christ and his people faithfully and lovingly and sacrificially. We can learn from them, and be encouraged and challenged and inspired by their examples. I am a bit wary about the emphasis on proving that they worked miracles. But this process of identifying saints can distract us from what the New Testament actually teaches us about saints!

A saint is a person who is holy, who is different, who belongs to God in a special way. But that actually describes everyone who is a Christian believer, one who trusts in Jesus, one who lives as a follower of Jesus! Paul wrote his letters to the saints in Rome, Ephesus, Philippi, and so on. The letters were not just to the outstanding Christians, not just to those who could work miracles: they were to all the members of the churches, those strong in faith and those who struggled and even those who got it wrong far too often. They all were saints!

A Christian is a saint. That’s why in the two churches I’ve ministered in which were called “All Saints”, I would often point out around this time of year to members of the congregation that we are all saints! So as we trust and follow Jesus, even if we don’t see ourselves as outstanding Christians, we too are all saints.

And if the Sermon on the Mount describes the life of the saints, it’s describing the life that Jesus calls us to live: not in order to become saints, but because we are saints, and Jesus in his love has already welcomed us into his family.

In the beatitudes, Jesus describes some significant aspects of living as a Christian, but he is also giving encouragement: he is saying that even when it feels hard, things are actually good, they are better than we might see them. In that sense we are blessed, things are actually OK.

So the Christian is “poor in spirit”: we need God’s love, we can’t put him in our debt. Instead as we acknowledge our spiritual poverty we depend on God’s love in Christ, who brings us forgiveness and hope.

Christians are those who mourn: mourn not just when a loved one dies, but when we are reminded of the evil and injustice, the pain and suffering in this world – and when we remember that we play our own part in it. We pray that those who suffer might be helped, and that we and others might live lives of justice and love.

We are called to be meek, humble in our attitude to God and also to other people; not putting ourselves above others so that we look down on them or dismiss them as unworthy of our concern.

We hunger and thirst for righteousness, looking and longing for that day when God will finally put things right and establish his perfect kingdom. And we look for ways to play our part in putting right some of the things that are wrong in this world.

We are called to be merciful, recognizing God’s kindness and mercy to us, and therefore ready to show kindness and forgiveness to others.

We are called to be pure in heart, sincere in our faith and undivided in our commitment to Jesus our Lord.

We are called to be peacemakers, living at peace with others, forgiving them when that is needed, and seeking to bring people together rather than pushing them apart.

And being willing if necessary to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake: being faithful to Jesus and the values of his kingdom, even when it makes us stand out, and when it may bring criticism or misunderstanding – even when it may be awkward or costly, or even dangerous.

Being meek and merciful and pure in heart is not easy, nor is acknowledging our spiritual need. Striving to forward the cause of righteousness and peace can bring us into difficult situations. But Jesus assures us that even when faithful living is difficult, even when it is painful and even sorrowful, there is a bigger picture: things may be tough at one level, but behind it all, God is still at work, forwarding his wonderful purposes, and preparing the way for his kingdom, where all will be put right, and righteousness and justice and glory will be the reality for us all.

And if we think: I’m not always humble, sometimes I take the pains of the world and of others far too lightly, I find it hard to forgive some people, and so on; if we feel we too often fall short, we can always come back to the first of those beatitudes. We are spiritually poor in ourselves: we need God’s help; we need the forgiveness of Jesus, the strength and wisdom of the Spirit. So Jesus is describing the Christian outlook on life, and acknowledging the pain and struggle, but also pointing us to the hope.

I seem to often remind us that we fall short, that we haven’t made it yet, that we are still on the journey. In a sense the beatitudes remind us of that: we’ve still got a way to go, but things are actually better than we might be tempted to think, because God loves us and accepts us, even as he challenges us to keep going.

When I was a boy and first became aware of the Beatitudes, I misread the word. I thought it was “beautitudes”, and I think that perhaps I wasn’t too far wrong. There is beauty in this description of the Christian outlook and the Christian life: and the hope to which they point us is gloriously beautiful.

Let’s keep going as we seek to live this beautiful life. Let’s keep living as true if imperfect followers of Jesus, as saints seeking to become more like the great saints and the glorious Saviour, until we see him in his glorious kingdom. Amen.

 

Paul Weaver