Advent I

I cannot claim to be a huge fan of weekly competition shows on television, but I do occasionally enjoy looking at The Great Pottery Throwdown. In particular I love seeing pots being thrown on a wheel. It is wonderful to watch, and it requires great skill and attention to detail. Transforming a lump of clay into a bowl, or a pot, or a plate is a joyous thing to witness. It is an important skill, as we all need vessels for eating, drinking, and storage. 

Each Advent Sunday begins with a reading from the prophet Isaiah, for Isaiah is the prophet of the Messiah, and full of hope for the future. The prophet is looking forward to the redemption of Israel, the coming of the Messiah, a new future after exile. Against a picture of human sin, and rebellion against God, there is the implicit possibility of something better. In those times when God can seem absent, it may be that God, as a loving parent, is giving us space and time to reflect and repent. Isaiah is convinced of the power and the love of God, to remake us, and restore us, and to enrich us with his grace. 

At the heart of Isaiah’s message is the conviction that God can and will remould us. As he says:

But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. (Isa 64:8)

The image of God as a potter, shaping and reshaping clay to create something beautiful and useful, is a hopeful one. We are never written off, rather we are a work in progress. This metaphor is a good one for the spiritual life: the closer we get to God, and the more we let God be at work in our lives, the more He can fashion and refashion us. In Genesis (2:7) God forms humanity out of the dust of the ground, and throughout the Bible this imagery is used to remind us that God is a caring creator, and we are His creation. He loves us, and we can trust Him.

The season of Advent, which begins today, is a season of preparation, of getting ready. The Church gets ready to meet Christ: first in the annual celebration of His Birth at Christmas, and in His Second Coming as our Saviour and our Judge. During the four weeks of Advent the Church ponders the Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell. It is good to think about such things: our earthly lives are finite, but afterwards we have an eternal destiny. The Church believes that Christ was born, lived died and rose again to give us the hope of eternal life in Him. In the grand scheme of things, what really matters are our souls and our lives: who and what we are, what we do, and why we do things.

We, here, this morning, are Christians living in the time between Christ’s Resurrection and the end of the world. We are told to be ready, and to spend our time considering the four last things: Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell. They await us all, each and every one of us, so how will we prepare for them?

In this morning’s Gospel, our Lord tells us to stay awake, to be on our guard, to be prepared, because we do not know the time when our Lord will return in glory to judge both the living and the dead. Jesus wants us to be vigilant and to live out our faith so that we can be ready to greet Him whether He returns today or in thousands of years time. 

How we live our lives matters, it affects who and what we are, and the world around us. We have but one life to live hereon Earth, and we must try, with God’s grace, to do the best we can. We live in a world which does not care about such questions. Our actions affect us, our character, our lives, and the lives of people around us — our actions have consequences, which is why our lives and how we live them matter. What we do and say matters and Jesus calls all people to repentance — to turn around and change the whole of their lives and follow Him in their thoughts, their words, and their deeds — for the Kingdom of God is close at hand.

We are not being left alone in all this. God both tells us the nature and source of the problem, and provides us with a solution. He even helps us along our way: strengthening and encouraging us to turn our lives around, and follow Him. We are told to be vigilant and take care of the state of our lives and our souls, and of those around us.We must be awake, rather than indulging in the self-satisfied sleep of sin.

The Gospel this morning encourages us to vigilant.This is something that we have had to be during this time of pandemic. As well as our physical health, however, we need to take care of our spiritual health as well, it is the most important thing that we can do. 

Jesus says:

“But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. (Mk 13:32-33)

There is no way that we can know when Jesus will return, so all that we can do is to vigilant and be alert. We can live lives that demonstrate our readiness by living out our faith, here and now, every single day. In order to do this we are helped by God’s grace, His generous love towards us. Also we can rely upon God’s strength, and not our own weakness, to live lives of faith, hope, and love together, as a community called the Church. We can help and support each other, we can pray for each other, we can love and forgive each other and help to make the Kingdom a reality here and now.

St Paul writes words of encouragement to the Church in Corinth, telling them of God’s generosity:

so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, (1Cor 1:7-8) 

The Good News is that God has already given us what all that need. His grace is limitless and inexhaustible. So, as we begin our Advent journey towards Christmas may we be encouraged to stay awake and be vigilant. Let us be reliant upon God’s grace, and built up in love together. Let us be renewed by the God who loves, heals and sustains us, so that we may sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.

Christ the King

On November 23rd 1927 the last words uttered by Blessed Miguel Pro SJ before he was murdered were, ‘¡Viva Christo Rey!’ “Long live Christ the King!’. The Mexican regime of that time was cruel and went out of its way to persecute Christians, including Miguel Pro, a twentieth century Christian martyr who died confessing Christ’s sovereignty over all things. His words are powerful, and inspiring. When we acknowledge Christ as King we are saying that He is above all human power and authority, and we affirm that God is supreme. We, as Christians, declare that our primary allegiance is to God alone, and not to the things of this world. Secular power is threatened by this, because it wants to assume for itself something that rightly belongs to God alone. The Church resists this out of a desire to honour and worship God, and to see God’s Kingdom come and His will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. 

In our first reading this morning from the prophet Ezekiel we see God speaking as a shepherd caring for His flock. This image lies behind Jesus’ description of Himself as the Good Shepherd in John’s Gospel (Jn 10:11-18). Jesus uses imagery from Scripture to show us that it is fulfilled in Him, that God’s promises are coming true. Jesus the Good Shepherd is a hopeful and encouraging image, one which we need as much as ever. God is not absent or disinterested in us or how we live our lives, quite the opposite:

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak (Ezekiel 34:15-16)

This vision of care, healing, and reconciliation, is exactly what Jesus promises and demonstrates in the Gospels. This should not surprise us, as there is a continuity between the Old and New Testaments. What is promised in the Old is fulfilled in the New. The Word of God finds its fullest expression in the Word made Flesh, Jesus Christ. Christ takes the image for His Parable from the words of Ezekiel’s Prophecy:

“As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats.” (Ezekiel 34:15-16)

So this morning we come to the last of Jesus’ parables concerning the end times, that of the Sheep and the Goats.  

As those involved in keeping animals will know, sheep and goats need to be separated. Sheep are hardier than goats, so they can sleep outside, whereas goats need shelter. Normally it is easy to distinguish them from each other since sheep’s tails point down, and goats’ tails point up. 

Once they are separated, Jesus speaks to the sheep:

‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ (Mt 25:34-36)

Jesus singles out those who have put their Christian faith into action in their lives. They have not simply believed in Jesus, but they have let their belief inform their actions, and done good works. They have fed the hungry, given refreshment to the thirsty, welcomed strangers, and visited the sick and prisoners. This is what God wants us to do, if we want to go to Heaven. The advice is clear, as with the other parables which we have been reading over the past few weeks. God is telling us how Christians should live in the world, making their love visible and demonstrating it in acts of service. 

God expects a lot from us. The Christian life is demanding, and a high standard is set for us. Likewise the choice is a stark one: eternal life or eternal punishment. It is important for us to remember that this morning’s Gospel is a parable which is meant to warn us, and give us the opportunity to live the way God wants us to, here and now, so that we can be prepared for the life to come. Each and every one of us can choose to try and live Gospel lives or not. God does not force us, we are free to reject His love, or to accept it and live lives which demonstrate that love to the world around us. It is clear that actions have consequences, and how we live our lives matters. That’s why Jesus’ teaching is clear and uncompromising.

We are faced with the question of how to live out our faith so that we are living lives of generous love and human flourishing. Can we manage on our own? No, alone we will not succeed. We need to rely upon each other, for help and support, but most importantly we need to rely upon God, and His Grace, as without it we are doomed to fail. Today we celebrate Christ’s universal kingship, that He is sovereign in Heaven and on earth, and that He rules in the hearts and lives of men and women everywhere. We serve him out of love, rather than obeying Him out of fear, and seek to make that love a reality in the world through acts of loving service. But we do this first and foremost because of our relationship with Christ. In showing mercy to others we are showing mercy to Christ, who in turn will be merciful towards us.

‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Mt 25:40)

In the Beatitudes Jesus says, ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy’ (Mt 5:7). Now we see what this looks like in reality. The Kingdom of God is above all else a place of love, freely offered. The throne of God is in fact the Cross: here Christ is raised up and reigns in glory, the glory of self-giving generous love. Christ bears forever the marks of the nails and the spear because they are the marks of love. As a well-known hymn puts it, ‘Crown him the Lord of love! Behold his hands and side,— Rich wounds, yet visible above, In beauty glorified’. This is glory of the Kingdom, and we are called to share and participate in it, to make it a reality here and now. 

So let us try to live in such a way, that Christ may rule in our hearts and lives, and that we may all be built up in faith, hope, and love together, and share in the joy and generosity of the Kingdom, so that all may know and love God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

Diego Velázquez, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The 33rd Sunday of Year A (Prov 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31, 1 Thess 5:1-11, Mt 25:14-30)

In the ancient world, as in today’s world, the domestic life of women was difficult. Without modern labour-saving devices, household chores were even more laborious and time-consuming. A wife would be expected to run a household, and it was hard and difficult work. Such a demanding role means that paragons in the domestic sphere were to be praised and prized. And, in the Book of Proverbs, we see such an example of industry, of hard work. Throughout Ancient Wisdom Literature, wisdom and industry go hand in hand, they are beautiful and good, as they come from the source of all beauty and goodness, namely God. An excellent wife is more valuable than jewels, because while precious stones possess beauty and value, they are not capable of doing good. 

The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. (Proverbs 31:11)

As a result of the relationship between a loving husband and wife, their mutual prosperity is assured. This then leads to generosity:

She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy. (Proverbs 31:20)

The point of wealth is not for it to be acquired for its own sake, but so that it may be a blessing to others. God wants humanity to flourish by being loving and generous. This theme runs through all our readings this morning.

St Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians is written to a community that is afraid of two things: death and the return of Jesus in Judgement. These are understandable emotions. However, while death and judgement are inescapable, they do not need to be feared. They are compared with the labour pains of a pregnant woman, which are often sudden and sharp. But if we live lives characterised by love, and we have faith in Jesus Christ who died and rose again for us, we have the hope of salvation. This is good news, and leads St Paul to write:

For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ (1Thess 5:9)

Paul’s letter is written to encourage his fellow Christians, to allay their fears and to build up their faith, hope, and love, as a community:

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing (1Thess 5:11)

We all of us need encouragement, especially when times are difficult, and when we are as afraid or unsure, as we are at the moment. It is good to be reminded that, in trying to lift each others spirits, we are behaving as a Christian community should.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus continues to talk about the future using parables. Just as with the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, Jesus begins by showing that he is talking about a future reality: how things WILL BE, not how they are now. This future reality is Christ’s return. Christians believe that Jesus will come again to judge the world. The theme of today’s parable, the Parable of the Talents is judgement. These days, we are not comfortable with ideas of judgement. Many of us remember preachers using ideas of hell-fire and damnation to fill people with fear. But the heart of the Gospel is love not fear, and perfect love casts out fear. 

In the parable the master goes on a journey and entrusts his property to his servants. He puts his possessions into their care because he trusts them to look after it. The servants who are assigned five and two talents are both praised for being ‘good and faithful’. They have acted morally and demonstrated their faith, and they will be rewarded. The problem is with the servant who was given just one talent and hid it in the ground. He explains his actions, saying:

‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ (Mt 25:24-25)

This servant does not love his master, he fears him. He does not take care of what has been entrusted to him, because he simply sees it as a possession, a thing. The servant loves neither his master nor what was entrusted to him. By hiding the talent in the ground, he squanders the opportunity his master has given him, because he is jealous and resentful. As all gardeners know, seeds produce different results, just as in the Parable of the Sower, but they all need to be sown in the first place. What we learn here is that bitterness and resentment have no place in the Kingdom, they are not compatible with a Gospel of Love. The tragedy is that the fearful servant condemns himself to being outside the Kingdom, by failing to recognise both generosity, and the value of a relationship. 

The Parable of the Talents, just like the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, is a commentary on the life of the Kingdom. These are stories of servants who are prepared and continue to work, until their master returns. They are parables which teach us how to be a Church of loving generous service, not one of fear.

It may sound pedestrian, or even humdrum, but living the Christian life, living the life of the Kingdom, is, at a day to day level, boring, difficult and repetitive. It is about ‘keeping on keeping on’ — loving, forgiving, praying –- nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ, fed by Him, and with Him, freed from the fear which is the antithesis of the Kingdom, rejoicing in the gifts which God gives us, being thankful for them, and using them for God’s glory. None of us fully deserve the gift of God’s love and forgiveness in Jesus Christ: we have not earned it. It is not a reward, but rather the gift of a loving God. It is a gift which we are called to receive, and it transforms our lives. The God who will come to judge us, and all humanity, is a God of love and mercy, whose hands bear the mark of nails, wounded for love of us. Judgement and mercy go hand in hand, and if we love God and love our neighbour, we are living the life of the Kingdom, here and now, free from fear. 

So let us live out that life together, encouraging one another, so that we may all be built up in faith, hope, and love, and together share in the joy of the Kingdom, so that all may know and love God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

Rembrandt The Parable of the Talents

32nd Sunday of Year A: The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins

There is a tradition of writing about Wisdom which can be found in the Bible, and across the Ancient Near East. Wisdom Literature seeks to explore the perennial questions of who God is and how humanity should live. The term ‘wisdom’ means much more than knowledge. It refers to how knowledge is used with judgement, something which comes with maturity and experience, and leads to our flourishing. In our first reading this morning we see Wisdom personified as a beautiful woman . If we love Wisdom, then we will recognise her easily. It stands to reason. Wisdom is an attractive quality. 

To fix one’s thought on her is perfect understanding, and one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care, because she goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought. (Wisdom 6:15-16)

To be wise is to be freed from care or anxiety. Nothing in life or death can trouble us because we have fixed our thoughts on Wisdom. Such wisdom comes from God, it is divine, and not human. In fixing our minds on Wisdom, we have fixed them upon God, the source of all wisdom, or as a prayer in the Prayerbook puts it:

Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, which knowest our necessities before we ask, and our ignorance in asking: We beseech thee to have compassion on our infirmities; and those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask, vouchsafe to give us for the worthiness of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen 

Our second reading, from Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, deals directly with questions of death and resurrection. Clearly some people have died, and there are members of the church community who are worried by this, so Paul is trying to allay their fears. He encourages them:

‘that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep’. (1Thess 4:13-14)

This is our hope as Christians. Because Jesus died and rose again, and we share in His Resurrection, we know that our earthly life is not all that there is, that something greater awaits us. Paul has hope for the future, which is why our passage ends: 

‘Therefore encourage one another with these words’ (1 Thess 4:18)

Paul speaks of the future and Christ’s Second Coming to encourage the Church, to give it hope, and to remind us that God keeps His promises. We can have hope, because its source is God. Our ultimate aim is to be with God forever. Through what Christ has done we can have this hope. And on this Remembrance Sunday , we remember and give thanks for those who have gone before us and we encourage each other as a community.

In today’s Gospel Jesus continues His teaching about the Kingdom. Normally He says that, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven IS like…’ whereas in this passage He says, ‘the Kingdom of Heaven will be like…’ Jesus is teaching about the future, a future reality which will come to be, rather than something which is already the case. This future reality is His return. Christians believe that Jesus will come again to judge the world. 

The parable pictures this as the return of the bridegroom. The problem is that half of the virgins were not prepared and did not have spare oil to keep their lamps lit. The bridegroom has been  delayed and the virgins have become drowsy, and have fallen asleep. When the bridegroom eventually arrives half of them are not ready, and have to go to buy oil. They therefore miss meeting the Bridegroom and so are shut out of the marriage feast. This may sound harsh, but Jesus tells the parable to warn us to be prepared, to be vigilant. 

The point of the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, is that we will not know when Jesus will return, so we need to be ready to greet Him when He comes. This is not just to be ready in practical terms, but also in spiritual ones. How are we ready to meet Jesus? Are we living out our faith in our lives? Have we got things ‘in order’? Just as wisdom comes with age, so we can use our lives to prepare. Such preparations are wise, and a joint effort: we can prepare together. That is what the Church exists for: to help us to get ready to meet Jesus. 

There are two inescapable facts in our readings this morning: first that our earthly lives are finite, they will come to an end, and secondly that Jesus has promised that He will return. Death and Judgement may not be something that we like to think about, but they will happen, and we cannot, if we are serious, simply live our lives as though neither will take place. Many in the world around us live this way. Is it wise? Not at all, it is the opposite of wisdom.At this time ofRemembrance we, therefore, also reflect on our own mortality and the way in which we are living our lives and what we are doing for those in need.

To be prepared means to know what we are facing and to be ready for it. It is a mark of spiritual maturity that we can contemplate such things without fear. If we are prepared then we have lived out our faith, and we know that the God who will judge us is a God of love and mercy. God died for love of us, and to give us the hope of eternal life with Him. This is the Heavenly Marriage Feast which we, as Christians, look forward to.

If our lives are characterised by Faith, Hope, and Love, there is no need for fear. The world around us is scared of Death and Judgement, because it has no hope of eternal life. The promises of the world are empty, whereas what Jesus promises us is real, and is for everyone who turns to Him. This is Good News, in fact it is the best news possible! Our life on earth is meant to be a prelude to an eternity with God. This is what we believe and hope for as followers of Christ.

If what we believe in our hearts and how we live our lives are in perfect synchronisation with each other, then we need have no fear, as the promise of sharing in Christ’s Resurrection is there for us. We do not need to be anxious, and we can get on with the business of living our lives secure in our faith. This is what it means to be a wise virgin with a lit lamp and a flask of oil, ready to meet our Lord . This is the purpose of the parable: to warn us in advance so that we can be prepared and not be surprised, so that we can be wise. We can therefore be lamps of faith in a dark world, ready to shine love, and hope on those around us.

May our lamps of faith be filled with oil so that they may burn brightly to the honour of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.