Advent III Year B

As Christians our vocation is a simple one: joy. This is not, however, worldly joy, the fruit of consumerist excess, a joy of stuff: what we have, what we can buy, or own, or sell, but something far deeper and far richer, which comes from God. We are to be people of JOY, filled with it, and sharing it with others.

We rejoice that our yearly memorial of Our Lord’s nativity is drawing near – a birth which changes everything, which brings about the salvation of humanity. This is the most wonderful news that the world could ever hear, and hear it they must.

In this morning’s Gospel John the Baptist has been preaching a baptism of repentance, a turning away from sin towards the arms of a loving God. He has been stark and uncompromising in his message, as a prophet should be. The people to whom he has been preaching find themselves in an awkward situation, and yet they are drawn to the Good News. They can’t quite understand what’s going on: Is John the Messiah? If he isn’t, who then is he? He calls people to the baptism of repentance in the knowledge that Christ’s gift of His Spirit is coming. He is preparing for the Kingdom of God to be a reality in people’s hearts, and minds, and lives

The state, the church, and the world around us all seem to be in a mess. There is political instability, fears for the future, tyrants and demagogues in power. The peace which the Messiah came to bring it seems as elusive as ever, whereas the human capacity to create misery in the most dreadful ways makes us realise that we still have some considerable distance to travel. One possible answer is the need for repentance: to change our hearts and minds and to follow Christ.

Our readings this morning speak of the kingdom of God. It is a kingdom of love and freedom: good news to those who are oppressed, a healing love which binds up the broken-hearted, a kingdom of healing and of renewal, which proclaims liberty, which releases prisoners. It turns the world on its head, and offers something completely different: comfort to those who mourn, a mantle of praise, a garment of joy and salvation, which we have put on in our baptism.

In all our sadness and sin, we look forward to our yearly remembrance of our Lord’s incarnation. We prepare our hearts, our minds, and our lives, to go to Bethlehem, to see God come into the world naked, vulnerable, and homeless, utterly reliant on Mary and Joseph. We also prepare to meet him as he will come again, as our Saviour and our Judge. It is a daunting prospect, yet we know and trust that he saves us, that by his wounds on the cross we are healed, our sins are forgiven.

We are to rejoice, strange though it might seem, just like the people of Israel in captivity, in a God who loves us, who heals and restores us, who gives us real hope for the future. In the midst of our sorrow we are to place all our hope and trust in God who loves us, and who saves us.

We are to rejoice, as S. Paul reminds the Thessalonians, we are to be filled with a joy which leads to prayer, to a relationship with God. We give thanks to God for what Christ has achieved and will achieve. It encourages us to hold fast to what is good and abhor what is evil. In living out our faith we are drawn ever closer to the God who loves us and saves us. We draw close to Jesus in His word, and in the Sacrament of the Altar, where we are fed with His Body and Blood, so that we can be sanctified by God, and share in his divine life and joy.

We are to share this joy with others, to share the good news of Jesus Christ with all people, and not just in our words but our deeds. If we share what we have, if we are generous, if we work for justice and are clothed with humility, showing our joy in mutual love, God’s kingdom will be advanced. We, here, now, know that Jesus will come and will judge us by the standard of love which he set for us to follow. Let us trust God and share that trust in prayer, that his will may be done, and that he may fill us with his love.

The world around us is full of pain and anguish, and the only way for it to be healed is in Christ, who was bruised for our transgressions and wounded for our iniquities. He still bears those wounds as the wounds of love. As he flung out his arms on the cross, so he longs to embrace the world and fill it with his peace and love. He will not force us; he is no tyrant in the sky. It is the world which must turn to him in love and in trust, and turn away from sin. Our task is always only all things to be joyful in the Lord, and to live out our faith to help the world turn to him.

It isn’t an easy thing to do, and after 2000 years of trying we may seem as far away as when John proclaimed the coming of God’s kingdom. We could just give up, or we can try, and keep trying, no matter how many times we fail, secure in the knowledge that God loves us and forgives us. The One who calls us is faithful, and He will do this. Let us trust in Him, be fed and nourished by Him, with Him, filled with His Holy Spirit, so that all the world may come to believe and trust in Him, and give glory to 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.

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Advent II Mark 1:1-8

If you ask children and young people today what they want to be when they grow up most will now answer that they want to be famous, they want to be a celebrity, not famous for being something, just famous. Such isthe power of the modern idea of celebrity, people famous for being famous. Such is the world in which we live: shallow, skin-deep, concerned with self above all else, selfish, self-absorbed, and sinful.

In the beginning of Mark’s Gospel we see Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, someone who has clearly got something of a reputation: people are coming from all over Judaea to hear him preach. John does not use this as an opportunity for his own glorification, but rather points to the one who is to come after him, the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Unlike celebrities who point to themselves John the Baptist points to another – it’s all about Him, not me. This is humility in action – being firmly rooted and knowing your need for God.

Advent is a season of penitence and preparation, saying sorry and getting ready. Recognising that we fall short of what God expects of us, and yet also remembering that He is a God of love and mercy. This is shown clearly in the opening of this morning’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah. God speaks through the prophet saying, ‘Comfort my people’ a God who longs for healing and restoration, and who will bring it about in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, the Messiah. The prophets look for the coming of one who will ‘feed his flock like a shepherd’ who will ‘gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.’ (Isa 40:11). Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and John the Baptist is the one who will say to the people of Judah ‘Behold your God’ (Isa 40:9). In the church we prepare to do exactly the same thing, to say to the world, ‘Here is your God’.

At the heart of it all lies the proclamation of the Gospel, St Mark’s Gospel, which we begin this morning. At the start of a new liturgical year we can proclaim a new beginning, just like John the Baptist. It is a change to start off with a clean, fresh page. The Good News of Jesus Christ is a proclamation, like that in the prophet Isaiah which says, ‘Behold your God’. That is who and what Jesus IS. The Messiah, the Son of God, the one who fulfils, scripture, in this case Malachi (3:1) Moses (Exod 23:20) and Isaiah (40:3). John the Baptist, the last of the prophets, proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He calls the people of Israel to turn away from what separates them from God and each other, and to seek God’s forgiveness. It sounds simple enough, but facing up to the wrong that we say, think, and do, is no easy thing at all. Recognising that we have fallen short of what God expects of us is the first step to turning back. It’s hard to face up to the truth, but we have to if we want God to do something about it. We need to remember that God loves us and is merciful. This is the reason why He sends us His Son, to be born for us, to live for us, to die for us, to rise again for us, to send us His Holy Spirit, and to come again to judge us. Our God is not a tyrant in the sky, but a loving Father.

It probably does us all some good to think like this from time to time, not so that we feel wretched and depressed, but so that we recognise our need for God, that we turn to him again, that this time of Advent is part of our ongoing spiritual journey – turning away from sin and towards Christ. The Christian faith is the work of a lifetime, and of a community: it is something we all have to do together.

In the Gospel the people of Israel recognise the proclamation of John the Baptist; they come to him and confess their sins and are baptised. His message is a simple one, Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand. He calls people to turn back to a God of love, and he points forward to the one who is to come, he points to Jesus, who will baptise with the Holy Spirit.

The Church exists to carry on the same proclamation, the same message, to point to the same Saviour. At one level, the idea of judgement worries me deeply, as I suspect if I were all up to me and my efforts, and were I simply to be judged on my own life I would not get to heaven – I cannot earn my way there. I, like all of you, and indeed all of humanity, are simply miserable sinners in need of God’s grace, his love and his mercy. We need Christ to be born, we need Him to die for our sins, and to rise again to give us the hope of eternal life with Him.

Thankfully, we as Christians know that he will come to be our judge is our redeemer, who bore our sins upon the cross, he is loving and merciful. Just as the arms of the prodigal son’s father are wide open to embrace him, so too Christ’s arms are flung wide upon the cross to embrace the world, our judge will come bearing wounds in his hands, his feet, and his side, because they are the wounds of love. We can have hope and confidence in this.

John the Baptist’s message is uncomfortable and yet it is GOOD NEWS – our prayers are answered- that for which we hope, for which our soul deeply longs is truly ours. It may not be what people want to hear, but it is, however, what people NEED to hear. Thus people flock to him, they are aware of their sin, aware of their need of God, of His love, mercy, and forgiveness. His message is one of repentance, of turning away from sin, from the ways of the world, a world which seeks to change our celebration of our Lord’s nativity into an orgy of consumerist excess. His is the birth, his is the way by which we can find true peace, we can turn to Christ, we can be like Him.

How then do we respond? We respond by living lives of godliness and holiness, by striving to be found by him at peace, a peace which prepares for His coming. We are patient, we wait in expectant hope, living out our faith, and encouraging others so to do so that all the world may be saved and give glory to 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 to the ages of ages.

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Advent 1 Year B Mk 13:24-37

When I was a child I loved reading books. My favourite place in the world was a library, and I can still remember going there one day and my father gave me a bookmark on which the following words were written, ‘Be alert, the world  needs all the lerts it can get!’  The pun was a good one, I enjoyed it, and can remember it decades later. It makes a serious point, namely how do prepare to meet Jesus? Advent is a season of preparation, when we prepare to meet Jesus, both as a baby born in Bethlehem, and as our Saviour and Judge, who will come to call the world to account.

The world around us sees preparations for Christmas as most concerned with cards, decorations and shopping. The Church sees things somewhat differently. What matters are our souls and our lives: who and what we are, what we do, and why we do it.

We, here, this morning, as Christians are living between Christ’s Resurrection and the end of the world. We are 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 tells us not to be found asleep, in the sleep of sin. An attitude which says ‘I’m alright’, ‘I don’t need God’. It is this sleep which affects many people, both those who come to church, and the vast majority who do not. That’s not to say they don’t try and live good Christian lives. We all do, instinctively. And yet any mention of the last things tends to conjure up images of fire and damnation, hell and brimstone preachers, thumping pulpits and putting the fear of God into people. Such is the characterisation of the religious as extremists, something increasingly common. Yet, such people have a point – their message is true – but I suspect that they put it across in a way which strikes people as unpalatable, and so they switch off and go to sleep.

And yet, what they say matters, it is true and we could all do with being reminded of it. 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 on 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, apparently people’s lives are their own business, and we have no business calling people’s actions into question, but this will not do. 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 the Church exists to call people to repentance – to turn around and change the whole of their lives and follow Christ in their thoughts, their words, and their deeds – for the Kingdom of God is close at hand.

Lest we get too afraid, we can turn in confidence to the words of Isaiah in our first reading this morning. 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, there is the possibility that God as a loving parent is giving us space and time to reflect and repent. Isaiah is convinced both of the power and the love of God, to remake us, and restore us, to enrich us with his grace, and give us the gifts of his spirit, as Paul wrote to the church in Corinth.

We’re 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: he strengthens and encourages us, to turn our lives around, and follow him. That we be vigilant – and take care of the state of our lives and our souls, and those around us, that we are awake, rather than indulging in the self-satisfied sleep of sin.

For God asks of us – that we, this Advent, turn our own lives around, and prepare ourselves to meet our Lord, at the Eucharist, when he meets us at his altar in His Body and Blood, and in His Words proclaimed in Scripture. We also need to look forward to meeting our Lord in the yearly remembrance of His Nativity, and in his coming in glory as our Saviour and our Judge. If we can look beyond the commercialism of a sad, cynical world, we can see that God was prepared to go to any length to meet us, to be with us and heal us. Can we not prepare ourselves, our souls and our lives to meet Him?

Ours is, after all, a God of love and mercy, born as a helpless child in a stable, who gives Himself out of love for us, to suffer and die to restore our relationship with God the Father and each other, who gives us Himself under the outward forms of bread and wine so that we might have life in Him. He sends us His Holy Spirit to strengthen us, so that we can be alert, stay vigilant, and prepare to meet Him.

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Christ the King, Year A

In 1925 Pope Pius XI instituted the feast of Christ the Universal King to stress the all-embracing authority of Christ and to lead mankind to seek the Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ. In a time of great misery and inequality: the Church was reminded of what the coming of Christ as Saviour and Judge meant, as well as ending the liturgical year by looking forward to Advent: the season of preparation for our Lord’s coming, in His Incarnation, and as our Judge. A season of reflection, a season of hope, and new life.

In today’s Gospel we have the last parable in Matthew which also gives us an apocalyptic vision of Our Lord’s Second Coming. The first thing to notice is that, as befits the Kingdom of God, all people will be there. This is not a Christians-only event. In the Holy Land to this day you will see herds of goats and sheep grazing together and at the end of the day they are separated by a shepherd who can tell the difference between them. Jesus does, however, give his reasons for making his judgement: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.’ To give food and drink and to make people welcome is fundamental to hospitality and is a sign of Love. Clothing the naked and visiting the sick and imprisoned is likewise showing concern for people, and their needs, showing our love to the world.

We believe that God is love and that we are called to show love ourselves in our lives. Our faith, therefore, is not simply private interior devotion, something that we do on Sundays for our benefit, and keep in a box like a Sunday hat. No!It is something we can put into practice in our lives, every day, everywhere.

Now in the parable in this morning’s Gospel the virtuous seem rather surprised and ask our lord when they did this to him. Jesus answers, ‘I tell you most solemnly, insofar as you did this to the least of the brothers of mine you did it to me.’ As St Antony, the founder of monastic tradition once said, ‘Our life and death is with our neighbour – if we win our brother we win God; if we cause our neighbour to stumble then we have sinned against Christ.’ So who are the least of Christ’s brethren? Who are the little people? Or to put it another way, who is the most important person in church? Is it Fr Neil? Or is it me? Is it a magistrate? Or a businessman? No … who are the least amongst our communities and who are the least outside them? And what are we doing to help them?

Some of the people who would have heard Jesus teaching this parable might well have thought, as Jews, that Israel were the sheep, and the gentiles were the goats, and I wonder whether we don’t all of us feel a little complacent at times. By the same token, the standards Jesus sets in this parable seem almost unattainable so we can feel that we simply cannot live up to them. So we need to be careful that we don’t just despair, that we don’t just give up, and don’t let our discipleship become one of apathy.

Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, God himself, became man and lived among us. He showed humility in washing His disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, in eating and drinking with tax-collectors and prostitutes, the social outcasts of His day. He, unlike the society in which he lived, did not judge them. He loved them in order to proclaim in word and deed that the Kingdom of God was for ALL people – the people we might not like, the people we might look down our noses at, and with whom we might not wish to share our table. He gives himself to feed heal and restore them and us.

His love and humility are shown in that being condemned to death by those whom he came to save he does not cry out, he does not blame them, but instead asks, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’ The Christ who reigns on the tree, and who will come again to judge the world, bears the marks in his hands, feet, and side, because they are the marks of LOVE. They remind us of God’s love for us, and when we eat and drink His Body and Blood at the Eucharist we are healed, and share in His Divine Life, so that we might become the Body of Christ, His Church. Strengthened by this Sacrament of Love we are called to live out our faith in the world around us. While we may not have lived up to the example He sets us, we can nonetheless try to do what we can. In acknowledging the Universal Kingship of Christ we recognise an authority higher than human power, higher than any monarch or dictator, and we are called to conform the world to His just and gentle rule. We are called to transform the world one soul at a time, and through acts of mercy and a life of prayer to make a difference.

We may not like the idea of judgement: it is big and scary, and most of us, if we are honest feel that we deserve to be condemned. NOw rather than just thinking about judgement as a future event, let’s think about it as a process, something going on here and now. We all live under God’s judgement. Are there things which are hellish in our lives? The problems of cliamte change and how we treat God’s world don’t exactly look great. The way in which we do business with one another, the on-going financial crisis, poverty, hunger and the existence of food-banks show us that all is not well with our country. The wars which our leaders wage against each other seem very far away from the ideal where the lion lies down together with lamb, where swords are beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning-hooks. For all this we will be called to account, like the servants in last week’s parable of the talents.

So what are we to do? First, we are to pray to God that we might have the strength and courage to follow the example of His Son, Jesus Christ. Secondly, we are to remember that God’s love and mercy were poured out on the world at Calvary, and continue to be poured out on us who know His forgiveness. Thirdly, that we are fed and strengthened in the Eucharist so that we may be transformed to go out into the world and be active in God’s service.Finally we are to remember that whatever we do for the least of our brothers and sisters we do for Him. The people or the acts may seem insignificant to us, but not to God.

I would like to conclude this morning by asking you, what would our communities look like if we lived like this: giving food and drink to those in need; visiting those who are sick, or in prisons with or without bars – the prison of fear, loneliness, old age, depression, addiction, or abusive relationships? For such is the kingdom of God. Amen

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Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat!

The Parable of the Talents Mt 25:14-30

Oh No! This morning’s Gospel is a parable about money. Does it mean that Fr is going to keep on about the Parish Share and the state of the Diocesan Finances? Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, I’m not. I just thought that I’d clear that one up right away, just to put your minds at rest, so that we can get on with the task of drawing closer to the word of God, and to be nourished and strengthened by it.

Reading Holy Scripture, the Bible, can be a strange affair: sometimes it fills us with joy, sometimes it just leaves us confused. Speaking personally, I find the parable of the talents troubling, mostly because I tend to feel rather like the slave who was given one talent and who hid it in the ground. That may well be my own sense of unworthiness informing my reading of the passage. It reminds me of the need in all things to trust in God, and for his grace to be at work in me. The judgement thankfully is not my own, but rather God’s – a loving father who runs to meet his prodigal children. This is a God we can trust, who wants to see us flourish in His kingdom of love, mercy, and forgiveness.

No parable has been more misused than Jesus’ parable of the talents. Once a parable is abstracted from Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God, once it is divorced from its apocalyptic context – pointing to the future, such misreading is inevitable: speculation begins, for example, about how much a talent might be worth nowadays or whether the Master’s observation that the money could have been put in a bank might mean that Jesus approves of taking interest. Speculative uses of the parable have even been employed to justify economic practices that are antithetical to Jesus’ clear judgement that we cannot serve both God and mammon. After all, money is a means, and not an end – which is where we and the world often go wrong.

Jesus is not using this parable to recommend that we should all work hard, make all that we can, to give all that we can. Rather, the parable is a clear judgement against those who think they deserve what they have earned as well as those who do not know how precious is the gift they have been given. The gift is our life, and we will be judged on what we do with it.

In the parable the slaves have not earned their five, two, and one talents. They have been given those talents. In the parable of the Sower, Jesus indicated that those called to the kingdom would produce different yields. These differences should not be the basis for envy and jealousy, because our differences are gifts given in service to one another – so are the talents given to the slaves of a man going on a journey. It is not unfair that the slaves were given different amounts. Rather what is crucial is how they regarded what they had been given.

The servant who received one talent feared the giver. He did so because he assumed that the gifts that could only be lost or used up. In other words the servant with one talent assumed that they were part of a zero-sum game – if someone wins, someone else must lose. Those who assume that life is a zero-sum game think that if one person receives an honour someone else is made poorer. The slave who feared losing what he had, turned his gifts into a possession – it was a thing, and it was his thing. But by contrast, the first two slaves recognised that trying to secure the gifts that they had been given means that the gifts would be lost – so they use the gifts for the glory of God. The joy of the wedding banquet is the joy into which the Master invites the slaves who did not try to protect what they had been given is the joy that comes from learning to receive the gift without regret, without fear – simply humbly, joyfully and lovingly.

The parable of the talents, just like the parable of the five wise and five foolish bridesmaids, is a commentary on the life of the Kingdom, stories of slaves who continue to work, who continue to feed their fellow slaves, until their master returns – they are parables which teach us how to be a church of loving service. These parables teach us to wait patiently as those who have received the gift of being called a disciple of Jesus. We are not necessarily called to great things. Rather, Jesus’ disciples are called ‘to do simple things with great love’ to quote S. Theresa of Calcutta. The work that Jesus has given us to do is simple and it is learning to tell the truth and love our enemies. Such work is the joy that our Master invites us to share. It is in doing this work that we are separated – sheep from goats.

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 a bit of a slog. 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. We none of us deserve the gift of God’s love and forgiveness in Jesus Christ – we have not earned it, it is not a reward, but the gift of a loving God, which we are called to receive, and for it to transform our lives.

It is what each of us, and indeed all of us together are called to be, in this we can be built up in love, together, and invite others to enter into the joy of the Kingdom, so that they may come to believe in and serve God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, be ascribed this is most right and just all Might, Majesty, Glory, Dominion, and Power now and for ever…

The Parable of the Talents – Rembrant

A thought for the day from Fulton Sheen

The Way to Peace

What Christ did in his own human nature in Galilee, he is doing today … in every city and hamlet of the world where souls are vivified by his Spirit. He is still being born in other Bethlehems of the world, still coming into his own and his won receiving him not, still instructing the learned doctors of the law and answering their questions, still labouring at a carpenter’s bench, still “[going] about doing good” (cf. Acts 10:34-43), still preaching, governing, sanctifying, climbing other Calvaries, and entering into the glory of his Father.

In the Fullness of Time

Maranatha – Come Lord Jesus

 

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