Fifteenth Sunday of Year B [Amos 7:7-15, Eph 1:3-14, Mk 6:14-29]

When the Church talks about calling, it often refers to the call of Isaiah, and Isaiah’s response, ‘Here am I! Send me.’ (Isa 6:8) and while it is good to respond to God’s call in our lives, I suspect that far more people, myself included, feel a lot more like the prophet Amos in this morning’s first reading: ‘I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. But the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” Now therefore hear the word of the Lord.’ (Amos 7:14-16 ESV). Ours then is a not a God who calls the qualified, but who qualifies those called. We may well feel unworthy, or unable to carry out what God wants, and that is fine. God works through us, not because we are capable, but because we rely on Him. Amos tells the uncomfortable truth to the priest and to the king of Israel, and reminds them that their actions have consequences. The plumb line is true, it is a mark of the uprightness that God expects of Israel, the standard of the Law, the Torah. They have fallen short, and will be judged. This is what prophets do, they call people back to God, to walk in His ways. 

It is what John the Baptist has done to Herod Antipas in this morning’s Gospel: he has married his brother’s wife, Herodias, while his brother is still alive. Leviticus 18:16 prohibits this, so Herod has broken God’s moral law, he has sinned. John has preached a message of repentance, to turn away from sinful behaviour, and to turn back to God. It doesn’t make for easy listening, especially when we know that we have all fallen short of what God expects from us. While Herod wants to listen to John, he is WEAK, he doesn’t want to lose face and acquiesces to Salome’s demand. 

Rather like John the Baptist, each of us, through our baptism, is called to bear witness to our faith in our lives. This is what martyrdom is, bearing witness, regardless of the cost. We are called by God to be an example and to live out our faith in our lives. In our baptism we put on Christ, we are conformed to him, as priest, when we pray, as king, when we serve, and prophet, when we proclaim His Kingdom. Our prayer, service, and proclamation are the ways in which we live out our faith as something real in our lives, something which Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians reminds us that we do for the glory of God, whatever the cost. Few of us nowadays here in the UK are likely to bear witness to our faith at the cost of our life. Around the world plenty of Christians are, because they value Christ more than anything in this world, even life itself. Nothing is more important or valuable than Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, who comes to us in His Word, the bible, and under the outward forms of bread and wine in the Eucharist, to feed us, and to transform us more and more into His likeness. 

When Jesus’ preaching comes to the ear of Herod he thinks that John has been raised from the dead. This anticipates and points forward to the Resurrection when Jesus will rise from the dead. Jesus and John are proclaiming the same message: Repent of your sins, and turn back to and believe in God. They both do marvellous things because they are both filled with the Holy Spirit. What they are, and what they do, is exactly what the church, you and me are called to, the same message, the same proclamation, the same miracles. If we trust in the God who loves us, then God can and will do wonderful things with and through us.

Herod doesn’t want to kill John, his conscience is pricked, he knows that he has done wrong. He is in a position where he does not want to risk losing face, in a culture where honour and shame are still motivating factors this is understandable, even if it doesn’t make it right. So Herod gives in to Salome’s wishes, and John pays the price of telling truth to power. Are we willing to do the same?

We do so as heralds of the Kingdom of God which is still becoming a reality in the world around us, it is a work in progress until Christ comes again and renews all things in Himself. In the meantime we can rest secure that we are a part of God’s plan for the world, a plan of LOVE, which sees Jesus die upon the Cross for our sins, and rise again to give us the hope of heaven. The redemption of the world in and through Jesus Christ is a reality, one which will become visible and present upon the altar this morning, where we obey His command to ‘Do this in memory of Him’ Christs’s sacrifice upon the cross is made present to us, so that we can share in His Risen Life, and the glory of Heaven here and now. We have a foretaste of heavenly glory to strengthen us on our journey of faith. We have hope for the future because of what God has done for us, and we have a pledge of it here this morning, in Christ’s Body and Blood. 

So how are we going to respond to the amazing generosity of God? Are we content to say, ‘Thank you very much!’ and carry on regardless as though none of this matters? Are we content for religion to be a matter of private devotion, rather than the core of our being, who we really are, the centre of our lives? Are we so conformed to the world that we act as though God is not important? If God can do such amazing things for us, can we not do more for God? It’s hard, we can all do better, and try harder; our lives are pressured, but that is why we are a Christian community. We do things together: we support each other, both in prayer and action, we cannot do it on our own, we can only do it TOGETHER, by the grace of God, working in and through us. It is His church, of which we are members, called to love and serve Him. God provides all that we could ever want or need with regard to faith, hope, and love. If we trust Him and rely upon Him alone then we can bear witness so that the world will come to believe in 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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The Nativity of St John the Baptist

Prophets have a difficult job to do: they tell people uncomfortable truths. People don’t like hearing such things: it makes them feel uncomfortable. Being told that you need to repent from your sinful ways and return to the Lord your God isn’t exactly going to make you popular. People prefer to feel comfortable, nice and warm and fuzzy, God loves you, everything is fine, no need to worry! It isn’t surprising that prophets are often ignored, mistreated and killed. They tell people not what they want to hear, but what they NEED to hear. 

This morning’s reading from the prophet Isaiah looks forward to a Messianic future — it points to Jesus, who He is and what He does, and that is exactly what John the Baptist, His cousin will do. He will be the Voice crying in the wilderness, who will prepare the way of the Lord who by his preaching of the Kingdom, and calling people to repent and be baptised ushers in the public ministry of Jesus, who will tend his flock like a shepherd, because He is the Good Shepherd. 

John is not interested in glory, or riches, or drawing attention to himself. All he wants to do is to point to Jesus, the Messiah. He speaks to a Jewish world which has a corrupt religious establishment, which is so bound up with following the Letter of the Law of Moses, that it has forgotten about the Spirit, that needs to come back to God, and repent of its sinful and foolish ways, which has made following the teaching of rabbis an idol in itself. He will bear witness to the truth, even at the risk of his own life: he will be killed to satisfy the whim of corrupt and sinful rulers. He has a vocation, to call people back to God, to point out where people are going wrong, and show them the right path.  Not only is he a prophet, but also the fulfilment of prophecy: In Malachi 4:4:5-6 we find the following, ‘“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”

John comes from a priestly family, his father Zechariah is a temple priest, his mother Elizabeth, the Blessed Virgin Mary’s cousin, also comes from a priestly family. They’ve tried to have children for years, and finally their prayers have been answered. When Elizabeth meets Mary, the child in her womb leaps for joy. Even before John is born he announces  that God is with us, he is a prophet from his conception. His father cannot believe that they’re going to have a baby, and when the Archangel Gabriel tells him, he fails to trust God, and is struck dumb as a result. But in this morning’s Gospel Elizabeth announces that her son’s name is John, meaning ‘God is gracious’ not Zechariah, after his father. “‘What then will this child be?’ For the hand of the Lord was with him” (Lk 1:66 ESV). He will be the last of the prophets, the forerunner, the one who points to Christ, who baptises Him, and who through his proclamation of Baptism and Repentance helps to bring about the movement which Jesus started, which we now call the Church. He recognises that Jesus is the Lamb of God, pointing to His Death, for our sins. 

He is the only saint — with the exception of the Virgin Mary — whose birth the liturgy celebrates and it does so because it is closely connected with the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God. In fact, from the time when he was in his mother’s womb John was the precursor of Jesus: the Angel announced to Mary his miraculous conception as a sign that “nothing is impossible to God” (Lk 1:37), six months before the great miracle that brings us salvation, God’s union with man brought about by the Holy Spirit.

(Pope Benedict XVI Angelus 24.vi.12 http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/angelus/2012/documents/hf_ben-xvi_ang_20120624.html)

John recognises Jesus, that in Him, through the power of the Holy Spirit, God has become human, like us. It is this wonderful mystery which lies at the heart of our faith as Christians. 

John the Baptist was the forerunner, the ‘voice’ sent to proclaim the Incarnate Word. Thus, commemorating his birth actually means celebrating Christ, the fulfilment of the promises of all the prophets, among whom the greatest was the Baptist, called to ‘prepare the way’ for the Messiah (cf. Mt 11: 9-10)

(Pope Benedict XVI  Angelus 24.vi.07 http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/angelus/2007/documents/hf_ben-xvi_ang_20070624.html)

We honour John because he points to Jesus, because he proclaims Him, Jesus the Messiah, the fulfilment of all prophecy, the Word made flesh, and the Lamb of God, who dies that we might live. He points the way for us to follow as Christians, so that we can be close to Jesus in Word and Sacrament, and so that we might proclaim Him in our lives. We need to have the same level of commitment as John, and the same depth of love for God. 

That is how we live out our faith in our lives, and that is how we can become saints:

Perhaps the chief mark of sanctity is an utter simplicity in the face of the divine will, and of divine promises. Such was the attitude of Christ himself.

We think of seriousness as something which needs to be forced, or put on. Whereas to genuine faith, seriousness is just naked simplicity; it is non-hypocrisy, non-evasiveness, non-sophistication, in the face of the normal environment of the believing soul, which is the ever-present will of God. To be serious, you have only to open your eyes; a man driving on a mountain road does not relax attention to the hairpin bends, and a Christian finding his way in the will of God does not lose sight of the way-marks.

Sanctity is never out of date; and sanctity is nothing but entire simplicity towards God.  

 Austin Farrer, The Brink of Mystery, London 1976: 153-4

So let us be inspired by the example of St John the Baptist, and love and follow God with simplicity, and encourage others so to do, so that all the world may 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 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 Year C

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Remorse is always a prisoner of the past; it does not shrug its shoulders and forget it. The past is present; the fault is ever before the eyes, but there is no way to undo it….
Repentance is also self-reproach, like the other states, but it is never sterile; it lays hold of the past by undoing it through penance. Both Judas and Peter denied Our Lord, but Judas repented unto himself, which was regret and remorse, and took his own life; Peter repented unto the the Lord, which produced a new man

Fulton Sheen , On Being Human, Garden City, 1982: 73
 
The prophets are not always prophets of doom, they also proclaim the message of hope to Israel, in the midst of exile, when times look dark, they are to wrap the cloak of integrity around themselves, and put the crown of the glory of God upon their heads. It is the message of trust, trust in God alone as the source of our hope, the only rock on which to build a life of faith.
As the people of God we are to trust in and to live lives which prepare for the second coming of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, as our Saviour and our judge. To be a Christian, then, is to live a life where our love for each other, and for God, increases day by day as St Paul puts it. We are to grow in virtue by being virtuous – it’s simple, practical and fairly un-glamourous. It takes prayer, a lot of prayer, undertaken by all of us.
In this morning’s gospel we see the last of the prophets, John the Baptist, the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, as he prepares the way for the Lord. He proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins: calling the people of Israel to turn away from the ways of selfishness and sin, to turn back to God. He is a prophet who fulfils prophesy, what Isaiah looks for is fulfilled in John the Baptist In our baptism we promise to turn away from sin, the world, and the devil; we turn away from what the world thinks and does, because our baptism makes us pure and blameless, following the Commandments of God, and shown to us in the life of Jesus Christ. We turn away from the world and we turn to Christ. We are in the world, but not of it. 
The church, then, must be a voice crying in the wilderness. What we proclaim may well be at odds with what the world thinks we should say and do, but we are not called to be worldly, to conform ourselves to the ways of the world. We live in a fallen world, which is not utterly depraved but which falls short of the glory of God, but the church exists to conform the world to the will of God. To say to the world, come and have life in all its fullness, turn away from selfishness and sin, to have life in all its fullness in Jesus Christ.
Now, the world may not listen to us when we proclaim this; it may well choose to ignore us, to mock us, even to persecute us. We have to be prepared to do this regardless of the cost, to ourselves or indeed others. We must bear witness to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, and their saving work even if it means shedding blood, of losing our lives, because it says to the world: we trust in something greater than you, we know the truth and it has set us free, we are free to love God and to serve him, and to invite others to do the same, to be baptised, to turn away from the world, and be fed by word and sacrament, built up into a community of love, offering the world a radical alternative, and holding fast to the truths which the church holds dear, since they are given us by God.
 
It’s a big, a daunting task, which, if it were up to us individually, we would have no chance of achieving. But it is something which we can do together, as the body of Christ, and relying upon God alone: it is his gospel, his church, and his strength in which we will accomplish this. Too often we trust in ourselves and fail, we need to trust in God and ask him to bring about the proclamation of the Gospel through us. We need to be like John the Baptist, preparing the way for the Lord who will come again as our Saviour and our Judge.  

 

This is what we await in Advent: the coming of Our Lord as a baby in Bethlehem and his second coming as Our Judge, bearing in his glorious body the wounds of love, borne for us and our salvation. So let us prepare to meet him and live lives which proclaim his saving love and truth to a world hungry for meaning and love and thereby honour God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, the consubstantial and coeternal Trinity, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever.

Advent II Year B ‘Repent the Kingdom is close at hand’

As Christians we are called to live in between Our Lord’s Resurrection and his coming as our Saviour and our Judge. We know that our redemption has been brought about: by Jesus’ birth and by His Death and Resurrection. This is the greatest news of all human history, and, as Christians, we should be glad, we should live lives full of joy. And yet somehow we don’t – we are tired of waiting, or perhaps we are not convinced of the truth of the message, or perhaps too distracted by the cares and worries of daily life.
I wish that I could say that this doesn’t apply to me, but I’m afraid that it does, I’m not a better Christian, though I long so to be. Thankfully, Advent is a time of preparation, of waiting, and hopefully of putting our own spiritual house in order, to greet our Lord when he comes, as the baby born in Bethlehem and as the Judge of all mankind.
       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.
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 haveto do together.
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, the last of the prophets is the voice crying in the wilderness of which the prophet Isaiah spoke. He has an uncomfortable and uncompromising message: Repent for the Kingdom of God is close at hand. 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.
       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 ours.
 Regardless of what we might think or feel, from a divine perspective things look very different. A thousand years are like a day, just as the Psalmist says. Ours is a God of patience and mercy, who wants all to come to repentance, a God who loves Creation, and who created us in His image – He’s interested in the long game – a God of love and patience.

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.