And here beginneth the first blog entry in a few weeks. Not only have I spent the last two Sundays either repeating an old sermon 0r taking part in all-age worship, other matters have drained my time and energies – not least a painful situation that led to us urgently transferring our children to a new school.
But now, we begin a new sermon series for Advent, based on the Prologue to John’s Gospel. I’ve wanted to do this for a few years at Advent, and this is my chance. We kick off tomorrow morning with the first five verses from John 1:1-18.
He is the man for whom the word ‘curmudgeon’ was probably invented. Bitter that he has not become the international superstar he deserves to be, jealous of others and angry at the machinations of the music industry in which he works. He fluctuates between belief in God and a raw atheism.
Yet when he sings of things spiritual, and he combines his Celtic roots with the blues traditions he loves, his music transports me to another place. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mr Van Morrison.
And he’s here this morning. (If only.)
In one of my favourite songs of his, the chorus says,
Didn’t I come to bring you a sense of wonder?
Didn’t I come to lift your fiery vision bright?
Didn’t I come to bring you a sense of wonder in the flame?
A sense of wonder is what this Advent sermon series is all about. For me, there is nothing like reading the Prologue to John’s Gospel for giving me a sense of wonder about Jesus, whose birth we are preparing to celebrate again.
Why not share for a moment with your neighbour what gives you a sense of wonder about the coming of Jesus?
What gives me a sense of wonder about the coming of Jesus is to think about who this Jesus is, who came in flesh. This morning, the first five verses of the Prologue give us three words to meditate on that give me that sense of wonder about the One who came.
And the first word is … Word:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. (Verses 1-2)
The Word. Because Jesus isn’t called Jesus until he is born, fully human, fully divine. Before the Incarnation, Jesus is the Word. Even before his birth, he is God speaking to us. He is God’s self-expression. We talk about the Bible as the Word of God, but because the Bible itself says that Jesus is the Word, we should refer to the Bible as the Word of God written, whereas Jesus is the living Word of God. Jesus is the guarantee that God speaks. God is not silent. In the Second Person of the Trinity, God speaks.
This Word of God is part of the divine fellowship: he is with God, and he is God, and he was with God from the beginning. Here, before all things, is the fellowship of love that is the Trinity. During our sermon series on 1 John, I argued that the statement ‘God is love’ only makes sense if God can express love within creation. The Father loves the Son and the Spirit; the Son loves the Father and the Spirit; and the Spirit loves the Father and the Son. We get a hint of that here: the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Here is that fellowship of love that has existed since before creation. Here, the Word is part of that love which must extend beyond its own boundaries. When we read that the Word was with God, we get hints of the love that led to creation and the love that led to redemption.
Jesus, the Word, expresses this inner love of the Trinity that will lead to creation and redemption. In these coming weeks, as we sing carols such as ‘Love came down at Christmas’, we shall be singing of this truth. It is a truth that has been since before the foundation of the universe. What we celebrate at Advent and Christmas is something that goes back before the Big Bang. Look into the night sky at the stars, whose light we see so many aeons since they emitted the waves that finally reach the Earth, and realise that way before that light ever left those celestial bodies, God was love and God was speaking. In the Incarnation we are about to celebrate, we look with awe at the constellations and galaxies that fill our skies and our telescopes, and however much we marvel at them, we remember that before they were flung on their journeys through space, there was a Word. That Word, part of the eternal Godhead, sharing in love and speech, would one day share that love and speech with the world in human flesh. And so we are filled with a sense of wonder.
The second word is life:
Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. (Verses 3-4)
So – the inner relationship of love in the Trinity that is hinted at when we say that the Word was with God from the beginning explodes beyond its boundaries into creation. Love cannot be contained within itself: love has to love outside itself. So God creates, and the Word is God’s agent of creation. Here, in the act of creation, is the first bursting out of God’s love. From Big Bang to infant worlds, from early microbes to human beings made in the image of God, here is the hand of God. The Bible never tells us how the world was made, for it is not a scientific text book, but it points us to the Maker.
In fact, God’s creative love involves giving life from within himself – ‘In him was life, and that life was the light of men’. Just as human parents give of their own lives to create life, so the Word does the same. This loving act of creation is an act of self-giving love. The life of God given to the pinnacle of creation, human beings, made in God’s image, is imparted. Remember the emphasis in Genesis upon God breathing life into human beings? Here is another way of saying that.
Moreover, as the Word gives life, ‘that life was the light of men’. Wherever there is light, it originates from the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity. Wherever you find truth, beauty and goodness in life, you find it because the Word of God gave life which is light to all.
Am I saying that all religions lead to God? By no means. But I am affirming what Paul said to the people of Lystra in Acts. Paul told them,
We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy. (Acts 14:15b-17)
‘He has not left himself without testimony.’ ‘That life was the light of men.’ It’s what John Calvin called God’s common grace. In creation, God is good to all. And we affirm from the Prologue to John’s Gospel that it is through the Word, whom we came to know as Jesus, that God is good to all in creation.
How wonderful, then, to know that the One who was the agent of this loving creation, and whose gift of life provided for all goodness, would not only create but enter creation. As we enter Advent and prepare to mark the coming of the Christ child, we remember that the One who entered creation, born of a virgin, was God’s agent in making this creation, and his life already bestows beauty and truth throughout it. Look in the manger and see more than a baby boy. See the Life-giver. And then see if you are not filled with a sense of wonder.
We have heard the third and final word already, but it carries over from verse 4 to verse 5. The third word is light:
In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. (Verses 4-5)
I said earlier during the first point about the Word that the love in the Trinity had to go beyond the boundaries of the Godhead, and it did so in creation and redemption. In thinking about our second word, ‘life’, I showed that love in creation. Now in our third word, ‘light’, we see the love of the Trinity extending to redemption.
How? The light is not just the source of truth, beauty and goodness – ‘that life was the light of men’. It is more: there is not only light, there is darkness. Light is needed, because there is darkness. So the truth, beauty and goodness that come from the life-giving Word stand as a testimony in the face of sin. They are a testimony to the ways of God in opposition to the ways of a world that rejects that God.
But there is more. The light was to shine in the darkness in a more profound way. For the love of God sent into creation through the Word, which testified to love in contrast to hate and fear, could not stand still. The light would enter creation. It is what we celebrate as we approach Christmas by the route of Advent. So we marvel as, in the words of John Henry Newman, ‘A second Adam to the fight and to the rescue came.’ Darkness may abound, but light is coming. And on Christmas Day, we shall say: light has come! The baby of Bethlehem is born as a warrior of light, a sworn enemy of darkness.
And – again – there is more! This is no equal contest between light and darkness. Light and darkness, truth and falsehood, are not equal and opposite enemies. ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood it.’ This is not an intellectual statement. To understand something is not merely to comprehend it, it is for that understanding to mean power over the other. The word ‘understood’ here can also be translated ‘overcome’ or ‘come to terms’. John is telling us that the darkness of the world cannot get to grips with the light of the Word. Once there is even a chink of light, the hold of darkness is broken. Though we still live in an age where light and darkness both exist, the light of the Second Person of the Trinity conquers, and will conquer.
How that light conquers, though, is another matter. Not for nothing did Graham Kendrick imagine Mary looking at Jesus lying in the manger and seeing thorns in the straw. Light would overcome darkness not by violence but by suffering, the suffering of the Cross.
Darkness will not have the final word. Light will. It is already guaranteed, in the coming of the Word who took the name Jesus. His birth, life, death and resurrection make light shine in the midst of a darkness that cannot come to terms with him.
Yes, the Word who experiences love within the Trinity is then the One who makes that love spill out in creation through his Life. And that love will stop at nothing, for it is the Light seen in sacrificial suffering to overcome the darkness.
Now tell me you’re not filled with a sense of wonder.
 Van Morrison, ‘A Sense of Wonder’, © Exile Music, 1984.
Singing The Faith is the first new official British Methodist hymn book for nearly thirty years, superseding the (in my opinion) deadly dull Hymns and Psalms. My copy arrived in the post on Friday, and I’ve been skimming through it for some first impressions.
Hymns and Psalms just had to go, and many churches were voting with their wallets. It had the misfortune to come out just before the explosion in contemporary worship music (twelve months too early even for Kendrick‘s ‘The Servant King’,
I seem to recall). But you got the feeling that even if it hadn’t, that stuff would probably not have been included. It was published around the high water tide of liberal antipathy to evangelical and charismatic Christianity in Methodism. Furthermore, the musical arrangements were, as one friend put it kindly, ‘for musicians by musicians, to interest musicians’. I can’t judge the truth of that as a non-musician, but it may explain why they were largely deadly dull to me.
It had its bright spots – and I think particularly of the additional verse it includes in ‘When I Survey The Wondrous Cross‘ (retained here) that I’ve never seen elsewhere, the scholarship applied to restoring original texts and the Scripture Index in the music edition.
Methodist Conference and the panel that put together Singing The Faith faced the implications of several cultural revolutions that have deeply affected how Christians, Methodists included, approach faith and sung worship. Revolutions in communications (especially the Internet), transport (you can more easily get to a church whose style you prefer) and ecumenism (people are exposed to other traditions more easily and frequently) mean that fewer Methodists will be easily satisfied with ‘what we already know’. Some would argue (myself included) that technological changes and the fact that churches had already bought all sorts of supplementary books, such as Songs Of Fellowship, Mission Praise and The Source, meant that a new hymn book probably wasn’t the answer, and another approach was needed. The moment of publication is the beginning of fossilisation today. However, Methodism is almost umbilically attached to hymn books, and so a new book it was.
Given that fact, the new book, then, would need to embrace a diversity of musical and theological styles. Centralised or hierarchical control of doctrine may technically be still present in our system, but for many people it is long gone. There is therefore a huge question here of how Methodism maintains her doctrine in this central aspect of our piety, our singing. It may be that the forthcoming additional resource Singing The Faith Plus will act as some kind of clearing house to reflect on which of the newer material that is published from now on is consonant with Methodist doctrine, but we’ll see.
When it gets to the handling of theological diversity, there certainly is a spread in Singing The Faith. It embraces both the neo-Calvinist emphasis on the wrath of God at the Cross in Stuart Townend‘s ‘In Christ Alone’
and at the other end we have Marty Haugen‘s ‘Let Us Build A House (All Are Welcome)’
which some have criticised for allegedly extended the universal offer of salvation into universalism. So the issue of acceptable diversity is alive and well within the book!
It is also worth noting the considerable reduction in Charles Wesley hymns – very significant for Methodists, this. Hymns And Psalms was originally to be edited by an ecumenical committee, but when Methodist Conference insisted on at least two hundred Wesley hymns, the United Reformed Church pulled out. And for the URC to withdraw takes quite something! In the new book, at a quick count Wesley is down to seventy-nine contributions. Much as I love Wesleyan theology, I think this is the right move. Indeed, if many in our churches who have been most vocal about singing Wesley hymns had been as fervently aligned to his doctrine as to the music, Methodism might be more vibrant! Here is a prime example of the argument that allegiance to hymns, however central they are to Methodist spirituality, has not always maintained and fed our faith in the ways to which we might aspire.
Two more traditional-style contemporary Methodist hymn writers, Andrew Pratt and Marjorie Dobson, both participated in the STF committee, and both are represented in the final collection. Both have nine entries. With those numbers, I don’t think anyone can accuse the compilers of favouritism. I imagine the STF panel did what the HAP committee did, and required authors who were members of the group to vacate when their potential contributions were being discussed.
On, then, to think about those writers who have come more out of the explosion in contemporary worship styles. Matt Redman (also) features nine times, and the observation that interests me here is how it isn’t always his ‘hits’ that have been chosen. It looks to me like the committee has taken a real interest in what he writes about struggle and suffering. So as well as the popular ‘Blessèd Be Your Name’ we get ‘When We Were In The Darkest Night’ (‘God Of Our Yesterdays’)
and ‘We Have Nothing To Give’. No sign of ‘The Father’s Song’: one hopes that isn’t about avoiding male language for God, in the way that Fred Pratt Green‘s ‘For The Fruits Of His Creation’ has been altered to ‘For The Fruits Of All Creation’.
Having said that, the compilers are less confident that middle of the road Methodist congregations are ready for much by the late Delirious? Martin Smith and Stuart Garrard get in a couple each, but that’s it. This might be about some of the slightly unusual ways the band expressed itself lyrically, or it is about the more performance-oriented style, or possibly some other reason.
There is also evidence of taking into account the effect of contemporary worship trends on older hymns. It has become popular, particularly under so-called ‘Celtic’ influences, to sing the afore-mentioned ‘When I Survey The Wondrous Cross’ to the tune ‘O Waly Waly’ as well as ‘Rockingham’. This is recognised in Singing The Faith.
But beyond the contemporary worship movement, one area where I am particularly pleased to see innovation is in children’s worship songs. Mark and Helen Johnson of Out Of The Ark Music have been producing worship songs for primary schools for many years. Indeed, that is how I was introduced to them – by a primary head teacher. It’s a delight to see songs such as ‘Everywhere Around Me’
included, along with songs about the Incarnation and the Crucifixion (which actually doesn’t feature that often in their lyrics). Sadly, the wonderful ‘Harvest Samba’Vodpod videos no longer available.
isn’t in. Did it lose out because it has a middle eight, and that would confuse some older congregations? I wonder.
However, overall, as you will gather, for someone who stays on the fringes of the Methodist establishment, and who is usually quite uncomfortable about it, I greatly welcome Singing The Faith. I still think a new book wasn’t the right approach in a fast-moving creative and digital world, but given that the decision was made, I think what has been produced is far better than many of us might have hoped.
I’m preaching from the Lectionary this week at my second church, and am following the Gospel reading.
Who was the only Irishman in the Bible?
Sorry! I blame Graham Kendrick. I once heard him tell that joke at a concert.
Here, in John chapter three, Nicodemus makes his entry into the story of Jesus. We know that near the end of our reading we hear possibly the most famous verse in the entire Bible:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (Verse 16)
And so we assume this is a story about whether and how people to come to faith. Which I think is about right. I’m not about to spring any surprises on you in that respect today. So let’s plunge into this familiar text and see what we learn about the journey of faith. However long we have been Christians, I pray we appreciate the elements of true Christian faith more deeply as we reflect on this passage.
Firstly, we observe that Nicodemus ‘came to Jesus by night’ (verse 2). Now you may think that’s just a casual memory of their meeting, preserved for us by John from whoever learned that fact. But in John’s Gospel there is symbolism behind a lot of the literal details. For example, after the Feeding of the Five Thousand, Jesus tells people he is the Bread of Life.
And when it comes to ‘the night’, we can be sure John uses this both literally and symbolically. A classic example would be when Judas Iscariot leaves the Last Supper to betray Jesus: John then says, ‘And it was night.’ You realise he doesn’t just mean the time of day, it is spiritually dark when Judas goes off.
What I want to suggest is this: that when Nicodemus arrives ‘by night’, it is also spiritually dark. Not in the sense of betrayal; rather, this is a man who is ‘in the dark’ spiritually about Jesus. He comes in utter sincerity to enquire of Jesus. When he opens by saying, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God’ (verse 2), there is no reason to suppose he is anything other than a seeker after truth.
We see this from the way Jesus responds, He does not write him off or call him a hypocrite. Instead, he explains spiritual truth to him, about the need to be ‘born again’ or ‘born from above’. But when Nicodemus just doesn’t understand – he says, ‘How can these things be?’ (verse 9) – Jesus replies, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?’ (verse 10) Clearly, Jesus perceives him to be ‘in the dark’. Truly, he has come ‘by night’. Nicodemus, teacher of Israel’s faith, is in spiritual darkness.
Is he so unlike some of the people in our churches? I think of the church steward who prayed with me before a Good Friday morning service, in which he referred to the Cross of Christ as a disaster. I wouldn’t have minded if he were referring to a sorrow that our sins led to Christ dying for us, but he seemed to think the whole thing was a mistake. Surely that steward came ‘by night’.
But whichever other people I think of, the person I most think of as having come ‘by night’ is myself. Growing up in a Christian home – in fact, my sister worked out that she and I were fifth generation, same congregation – I picked up all the wrong signals about what Christian faith was. I heard people asked whether they were Christians, and their reply was, ‘I’m trying to be a Christian.’ It all depended on them, and their efforts. No wonder that I, the keen mathematician, I expressed my understanding of Christianity in terms of an equation: Christianity equals believing in God plus doing good things. I was completely confused when a teenage Baptist friend took me to a youth event at his church and someone greeted me, saying, ‘Am I shaking hands with a born-again Christian?’ I hadn’t heard that language, but assuming I was a Christian, I offered my hand. I could see my friend Andy looking on with doubt.
Finally, it was the confirmation service, specifically the promises and professions of faith, in the old Methodist Service Book that brought me up short. The first question asked whether I repented of my sins. The second asked me whether I put my trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. And the third question – only after the question of faith and trust – asked me whether I would obey Christ and serve him in the world.
So because of my own experience, I am never surprised to meet people in our churches who come ‘by night’, who think they know Jesus and faith, but don’t. Let’s all make sure this morning that we’re not in the dark.
All this mention of being ‘born again’ leads me into the second element to consider about Nicodemus. That second element is the prominence Jesus gives to the Holy Spirit. We talk generally about God, and we refer to Jesus, but Jesus himself draws attention to the work of the Spirit in bringing us to new birth:
Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. (Verse 5)
Here’s the point: while we are right to emphasise the importance of personal decisions to follow Christ and our free will to decide whether to do so or not, it still remains the fact that none of that would be possible unless the Holy Spirit had not already been working in our lives to reveal Jesus Christ and his Gospel to us.
That fact has a number of implications for us. One is that it takes the pressure off us in our witness for Christ. Sometimes we think that we have to get our witness just right for him, answering every question and doubt that our friends have. We don’t. Instead, we discharge our responsibility to be a witness to Christ in word and deed, but we rely on the Holy Spirit to reveal Jesus to our friends. We do what we can, as obediently as we can, but then we leave it and pray.
Another implication is that the prime rôle of the Holy Spirit punctures our pride. We cannot claim that by our cleverness or good deeds we worked out the importance of responding to Jesus Christ. Of course, the fact of needing the Cross should do this, but when we realise that we cannot come to Christ unaided, then we can only respond and live humbly. Our pride must go. It is another reminder that we are completely dependent upon the grace of God in order to know his love and walk in his ways. The superiority complex that some outside the Church detect in us is something we have to leave behind, because we could not find faith without the Holy Spirit.
One other implication: Jesus says something else about the centrality of the Holy Spirit’s work in the life of faith. In verse 8 he says,
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.
You expect him to continue something like this: ‘So it is with the Spirit.’ But he says something else instead:
So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (Italics mine)
The sovereign, unpredictable work of the Spirit is taken for granted. But it initiates us into a life of openness to where the wind of the Spirit blows us. Any notion of safety, predictability or comfort comes into question when the Holy Spirit leads your life. Yet that is what many of us settle for. But the Holy Spirit not only takes the initiative in making Christ known to us and keeping us humble, the Spirit then takes us on a wild journey of faith. The life of faith is one where Jesus says, ‘Follow me,’ and we don’t know where that will lead. I venture to suggest that churches which implement things like five-year visions and targets have very little sense of the blustery gale of the Spirit.
Some of the Celtic saints took this very literally. They set out in their coracles on the open sea, deciding they would trust that wherever the wind blew them, that was where God wanted them to go. We may not take things as literally as that, but the challenge is there: are we willing to let the wind of the Spirit blow us to new places in the life of faith, following Jesus?
But where is the Holy Spirit taking us in leading us out of darkness on the wild journey of faith? The answer comes in the third and final reflection. Our journey out of the night takes us on a strange journey to an unexpected place. It takes us to somewhere that Jesus, the Son of Man, will be lifted up (verse 14). Now ‘lifting up’ sounds like an exalted place, it perhaps sounds like a throne for a king. And in one sense it is.
But ‘lifted up’ is more of that symbolic language in John. There is more to it than meets the eye. Later in the Gospel, in chapter twelve, we discover that John uses it to indicate a place where Jesus was physically lifted from the ground. The Cross. This is the central location for the journey of faith.
For one thing, we see this in the fact that this is where God brings us to faith through Christ. It is when he is lifted up ‘that whoever believes in him may have eternal life’ (verse 15). We have already noticed how our need of the Spirit’s work makes us humbly dependent upon God’s grace: here is further evidence. We rely on the fact that God gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life (verse 16). Any message that downplays God’s reconciliation of us through the Cross of Christ is not the Christian message.
But the Spirit blows us to a strange place. A place of suffering and rejection. Yet here, in the plans of God, we find forgiveness, healing and acceptance. Here is where God pledges his commitment to us, and where we commit ourselves to him in response to his self-giving love in Christ.
But the eternal life promised there is not merely a ticket for heaven. In John’s Gospel, eternal life doesn’t wait. It starts now. When Jesus prays in chapter seventeen, he says, ‘Eternal life is knowing you’ (my italics). So if the Cross gives us eternal life, it shapes our ‘now’ as well as our future. The gift of eternal life is not only received through the death of Christ, the Cross also gives shape to the relationship of eternal life with God that we have since begun. That life of eternity is one marked by dying – we die to ourselves by rejecting self-indulgence to put Christ and others first, and we are willing to pay the price of following Jesus in a society where it is not and never will be popular.
This, then, in summary, is the life of faith. It is the call out of darkness to follow the wind of the Spirit who leads us to Christ and then on the wild journey of faith that is based on the Cross, where we find forgiveness and the shape of our new, eternal life.
But whatever happened to Nicodemus? He shows up twice more in John’s Gospel. In chapter seven, he defends Jesus against the criticisms his fellow Pharisees levelled. That was a brave thing to do. In chapter nineteen, he accompanies Joseph of Arimathea, the secret disciple who asks Pilate to give him the body of Jesus. Nicodemus helps with anointing the body for burial. Again, what would the other Pharisees have thought of him?
For me, these hints point towards the thought that while Nicodemus may have been in the dark when he met Jesus in chapter three, ultimately he was willing to live the life of faith.
Our question is whether we will.
The sabbatical began today with a visit to Holy Trinity, Springfield, which will be our worship home for the next three months. I jotted down a few items from the service that could make the transition to worship in smaller, more elderly congregations than Holy Trinity’s. Not least among these was a version of the Creed rewritten as a hymn and sung to the tune of ‘I will sing the wondrous story‘. Tim, the vicar, kindly emailed me the words.
Mind you, I do recall hearing Professor Frances Young say in a lecture once that the creeds were originally acts of worship, so perhaps putting them in a hymn is entirely appropriate for those who sing their worship.
It’s not the first time it’s been done: in recent years, Graham Kendrick has, as have Stuart Townend and Keith Getty. So has Wayne Drain. And those are just the ones I that come to mind immediately. So there’s something to store away for when I return in May.
This afternoon, it was another church trip. This afternoon, our friends at St Andrew’s held one of their ‘Activ8’ Sunday afternoons for primary school age children. This time, however, parents were allowed to stay. They had a Christingle, timed to coincide not with Christmas but with Candlemas, the festival that celebrates the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple. But coincide was all it did: everything was Christingle.
Besides, while we were in the church, we could see the snow starting to arrive in thick quantities. And while that is more characteristic of February than December, it made the afternoon feel more Christmassy for some, not least two excited children with whom I am acquainted.
We played a game with paper pieces of a Christingle, rather like playing Beetle or Hangman with a Christian twist. There was a picture of a Christingle on an A4 piece of paper turned landscape-wise, with the text of a grace to say at mealtimes. Once you had coloured it in, you could have it laminated, and hey presto, one place mat. That was another idea, along with the sung creed this morning, to ‘borrow’. Finally, before sharing tea together, we made our own Christingles, albeit using glow sticks rather than lit candles.
So twice in one day I have found something to take back after the sabbatical, and I wasn’t even looking intentionally. Sometimes I say I don’t have an original idea in my body. My best ideas have been duplicated from someone else.
How about you? Are you original? Do you borrow? Or both? And if you have borrowed something good, do you feel like sharing it further in the comments below?
Three times a year, I need to meet some people in London. I have a standing arrangement to travel with someone to that meeting. We catch a train together from Chelmsford station.
One of those meetings was due on Wednesday. I arrived at the station, and bought my ticket. My friend was not in the ticket hall ahead of me. That was unusual, but I was early. I climbed the stairs to Platform One. We nromally catch the 10:40, but I was so early that I got to the platform just before the 10:27 service. In the absence of my friend, I let it go.
But he wasn’t there for the 10:40, nor the 10:46. I kept looking down the stairwell from the platform. No sign of him.
With the 10:58 imminent, I rang Debbie to get my friend’s office number and called him there. While doing so, the 10:58 came and went. That was the last train that would get us to the regular appointment in London on time. Eventually, someone from reception found my friend, who told him that the meeting had been postponed for a fortnight. (I had not received an email telling me of this change.) Despite all my waiting, my friend was not coming. I returned to the ticket hall, explained the situation, received a refund and came home to reshape my day.
Waiting is one of the great Advent themes. We wait, wondering whether the Messiah will come. The Jewish people waited for centuries. They are still waiting.
We who believe the Messiah did come and that his name was Jesus are also still waiting. We await the appearing of the Messiah who promised to return. We have been waiting for two thousand years.
People mock us for it. In 1975, I loved the song ‘I’m not in love’ by 10cc.
I went to buy the album it was on: ‘The Original Soundtrack‘. Some of the content shocked me, not least a song called ‘The second sitting for the Last Supper’.
It contained words that deride the Christian hope:
Two thousand years and he ain’t come yet
We kept his seat warm and the table set
The second sitting for the last supper
Isaiah 64 speaks of waiting – waiting for the God who has not shown up. How do we live with the need to wait? Isaiah cries out to God in terms of the need to remember. What do waiting, Advent-hope people ask God to remember, as they struggle with the waiting?
Remember Your Works
Here’s the problem: the prophet longs for God to come down in mountain-quaking, fire-making, enemy-quaking mode (verses 1-2). After all, he’s done it before (verses 3-4), so why not now? All is quiet on the God front, and that isn’t good. You’ve parted the Red Sea, sent fire from heaven when Elijah asked for it, helped your people in battle and many other things: why do you seem to be so inactive now?
And don’t Christians feel similar at times? We think back to the wonders performed by Jesus and the apostles. We remember an angel rolling away a stone for women to see that God by his Spirit had raised Jesus from the dead. We recount church history, with its highlights of revivals like the Wesleyan one, where preachers could thunder on Sunday and politicians would then resign on Monday. We see church growth in other parts of the world, but decline in the West. And like the prophet, we think, God you have done these things in the past. You are even doing them elsewhere on the planet today. So why not here and now?
This, then, is part of the tension that comes when we are in a ‘waiting’ phase. It is something that turns us to urgent prayer. We know that God has a track record. We know what he is like, because we know what he has done in the past. And we plead with him to renew his mighty works today.
The late Pope John XXIII knew this approach to prayer. He gave this famous prayer to Catholics:
“Renew your wonders in this our day, as by a new Pentecost. Grant to Your Church that, being of one mind and steadfast in prayer with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and following the lead of blessed Peter, it may advance the reign of our Divine Saviour, the reign of truth and justice, the reign of love and peace. Amen”
Naturally, I wouldn’t go with the Mary language, nor to a lesser extent with the Peter language. But when he begins that prayer with the words, ‘Renew your wonders in this our day, as by a new Pentecost’, then I hear the kind of Advent waiting that turns into passionate intercession.
And I suggest that is one of the things to which God calls us this Advent: prayer from the heart. Prayer where we don’t just moan all the time about the state of the world – we’re too good at that as Christians – but deep, meaningful prayer, because what really matters is for God to work as he has done in the past. Not necessarily in the same way – it would be presumptuous of us to expect that – but with the same intensity.
A waiting time need not be idle time for Christians, especially not waiting-for-Jesus time. This Advent, let us remember God’s works and turn that remembrance to prayer as we wait.
Remember Your Ways
Next, the prophet recognises that those who remember God’s ways do what is right, but when there is a sense of God’s absence, it is easier to do wrong (verses 5-7). It’s almost as if we bring the childish attitude of trying to get away something if we think no-one’s looking to the spiritual life. If we think we are waiting around for an absent God, who knows what we might do? It’s as old as Eden, where the serpent speaks when God is not walking in the garden.
Turning waiting time into idleness is a way of fertilising the ground for sin. Maybe the classic biblical example of this is King David’s adultery with Bathsheba. The text of that story tells us that it happened at the time of year when kings normally went to war. While I’m not trying to justify war in noting that detail, the thing to be aware of is that David was at home instead, idling away his time, when he saw Bathsheba bathing naked. From there came adultery, the murder of his lover’s husband and the death of the baby that was conceived.
But what about the positive side, that those who remember the ways of God ‘gladly do what is right’ (verse 5)? The way to cope with the waiting time is to remember God’s ways. What is God like? What do we know of God’s character? What are God’s traits? If we had to give a character description of God, what would we say?
I hope we might come up with a list that recalls how the ways of God are the ways of love, holiness and sovereignty, of grace, mercy and justice. And if we want a clearer picture of these ways in action, we need only reflect on the life of Jesus, who said that if we had seen him we had seen the Father.
So if just thinking about the qualities of God is too abstract, think about the life of Jesus. Then imagine how we would behave if he were physically present. I know many people didn’t behave well in his physical presence on earth, but some of that was to do with not believing his claims to be the Son of God. We might fail like the disciples did, but the gist of the issue is this: what will we do with the waiting time?
If we use it for idleness, the end result is most likely sin. If instead we meditate on the character of God, our motivation may well be different. I am not recommending we become frantic with church duties, but I am saying that remembering the ways of God will give us focus and direction for holy living as we wait for the coming of God.
And that makes Advent rather like Lent – which, historically, it has been for the Church. The Advent waiting time is a preparation time that includes penitence for our sins. It is about purification for the coming of the King. Advent preparation is less about tinsel, trees, presents and daily chocolates than about holiness. It’s what we do when we use the waiting to remember the ways of God.
Do Not Remember Our Wickedness
So far, we’ve thought about two appeals for us to remember God, and their consequences. Remembering God’s works leads us to intercessions; remembering God’s ways motivates us to holiness.
But what if the boot were on the other foot? Do we want God to remember things about us? Isaiah 64 says, no! In fact, we want God to forget rather than remember. It would be so easy for God to remember our sin, and Isaiah is forthright about it. Yet he appeals to God on the grounds that we are his people and so God is the potter and we are the clay: God can mould us. Therefore, he pleads, may the God who can mould and remake us not remember our iniquity forever (verses 8-9).
So if Advent waiting calls forth prayer and holiness from us, it also leads us into God’s mercy. The Advent season leads us up to the extravagant sign of God’s mercy: the gift of his Son. In four weeks, we shall see mercy in a manger. Graham Kendrick imagines Mary looking down at her newborn son in his song ‘Thorns in the straw‘:
And did she see there
In the straw by his head a thorn
And did she smell myrrh
In the air on that starry night
And did she hear angels sing
Not so far away
Till at last the sun rose blood-red
In the morning sky
A thorn in the straw. Gold, frankincense and myrrh. Advent is leading up to these things. We are waiting for the mercy of God in Christ. For in Christ God will choose not to remember the iniquity of his people.
And we extend that into the present and future. In a day when we wonder about the future of the church, we affirm that we shall wait prayerfully for the God of mercy. When we wonder about the future of our society and of the world, we wait prayerfully for the God of mercy.
Indeed, the two earlier responses come into play here as we long for God’s mercy in Christ for ourselves, the Church and the world. One is that – as I have just said – we wait prayerfully. We bring ourselves, the Church and the world to God in prayer as we seek mercy. We confess our sins. We even identify with the sins of others, as Christ did on the Cross and as biblical saints did to a lesser degree in prayer. Daniel, for example, identified even with the sins of earlier generations as he interceded for the people of God. Waiting for the mercy of God means praying.
But it also means holy living. We can’t wait passively for God to come with mercy. We can’t just pray and put all the responsibility onto God, as if to say, ‘It’s your fault, not ours, if the church or the world goes down the tubes.’ We anticipate the mercy of God for the world by holy living, which is not severe living but a merciful lifestyle itself.
There are those Christians who pray and do not act. They become hyper-spiritual, substituting vivid imagination for the word of God. They become harsh towards the world.
And there are those Christians who act and do not pray. Cutting themselves off from the source of spiritual fuel, they dry up and become harsh towards the church.
Neither of these groups reflects the merciful God for whom we wait at this Advent season. Intercession and holy living are the ways in which we wait for the God of mercy.