Eleventh Sunday of Year B

While I like gardening, I don’t do enough of it in practice, I’m sometimes forgetful, and not fond of weeding. There is, however, something wonderful about taking seeds or cuttings and placing them in compost and watching them grow. It never ceases to give me a thrill. Once they have grown you end up with something that you can eat, smell, look at, or even sell: it is a source of joy, of nourishment of body and soul. It is an image used by the prophet Ezekiel this morning to look forward to a future where God’s people are sheltered, it looks to a Messianic future, to one fulfilled by the church, as the Lord plants the twig on the lofty mountain of Calvary. The Cross is our only hope, it is the Tree of Life, through which we have life, and all people can rest secure. Ezekiel’s image is used by Jesus in the parable of the Mustard Seed to show people how his prophecy is being brought about in and through Jesus, the Messiah. This is the promised Kingdom of God, becoming a reality in and through Christ. 

We in the West live in an age of anxiety, where we are all worried: what are we doing? Are we doing the right thing? Could we or should we do something different, something more? The Church is in a mess, numbers are falling, what are we going to do about it? Perhaps rather than worrying, we might pause for a second to consider that people have noticed a downward trend in Christian belief and practice over the last two hundred years. It is not something new, but it is complex and long-standing, and cannot be easily reversed. But it is God’s church, and God calls us to be faithful, and to trust in Him.

In the parable of the Kingdom with which this morning’s Gospel (Mk 4:26-34) starts, the one who scatters the seed does not know how things grow, and for all their sleeping and rising they cannot influence matters, they just have to sit back and let something mysterious and wonderful happen. That is how God works.

The church founded by Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and entrusted to his apostles began as a small affair, just a few people in a backwater of the Roman Empire, written off as deluded followers of another charismatic prophet. It isn’t an auspicious start; it isn’t what a management consultant would tell you to do. But a small group of people had their lives turned around by God, and told people about it, and risked everything, including their own lives to do so. The Church has now grown to point where there are several billion Christians on earth. Here in the West the picture may currently look rather bleak, but the global picture is far more encouraging, people are coming to know Christ, to love Him, and serve Him. And even if we have been going through some bad harvests over here, the trick is to keep scattering the seed as they will grow in a way which can defy our expectations. It is after all God’s Church not ours. 

Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed, a small thing, only two millimetres in diameter, and yet in the Mediterranean climate it could grow into a bush as large as 3’ x 12’. It has a small beginning, but there is the possibility of remarkable growth, and the image of birds nesting in its shade signals divine blessings (cf. Judg 9:8-15, Ps 91:1-2, Ezek 17:22-24) Jesus is taking the imagery of Ezekiel and showing how it will be brought to fulfilment in and through the Church. Such is the generous nature of God, that we have somewhere where we can we can be safe, and where we can grow in faith. Such is Divine Providence that God gives us the Church as means of grace, so that humanity may be saved. Through the saving death of His Son on the Cross, we can be assured of salvation in and through Him, a sacrifice which will be made present here this morning in the Eucharist, where Christ feeds us, His people, with His Body and Blood, to nourish and strengthen us.

Thus we can, like the Apostle Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, always be confident:we can put our trust in God, as we know that we cannot be disappointed. On the Cross, God’s victory is complete, so we please God by following his commandments: loving Him and loving our neighbour, motivated by the love of Christ, shown to us most fully when he suffers and dies for us, to heal us and restore us, to bear the burden of our sins: ‘he died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.’ (2Cor 5:15 ESV) 

And so in the Church we live for Christ — our thoughts, words, and actions proclaim the saving truth of God’s love for humanity. If we seek God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of others, and are forgiving ourselves then we can be built up in love. If we are devout in prayer, nourished by the word of God, and by the Sacrament of his Body and Blood we are built up in love, our souls are nourished and we can grow into the full stature of Christ. So let us come to Him, and be fed by Him, healed and restored by Him, living in love and encouraging others so to do, for the glory of God and the building up of His Kingdom.

If we are faithful, if we keep scattering seed in our thoughts, our words, and our actions, then wonderful things will happen. We have to trust God to be at work in people’s lives, and be there for them when they do respond. If we can be as welcoming as the Mustard Tree then we will have ensured that people have a place where they can come to know Jesus, and grow in love and faith. The trick is not to lose heart, but to trust in the God who loves us, who gave His Son to die for love of us. If we are confident of who Christ is, and what He has done for us, then as people filled with the love of God, we will carry on the Church’s mission of proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of God, and people will come to know and trust that love which changes everything, 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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Easter III [Acts 3:12-19; 1John 3:1-7] Luke 24:36b-48

This morning’s Gospel account of the post-Resurrection is quite a surprising one. Disciples have just come straight from Emmaus, where they recognised Jesus in the breaking of the Bread, which is confirmed by the disciples, who said that the Lord has appeared to Simon Peter. And then, all of sudden, Jesus is there among them, and says, ‘Peace be with you’. They are startled and afraid — they cannot believe it. He was dead. They saw Him die on the Cross. People don’t rise from the dead. And there He is in front of them. It is immediate, and abrupt, and startling. It is no wonder that they think that they are seeing a ghost, a spirit. They need reassurance, they cannot yet believe. Jesus invites them to inspect His hands and feet, to see the mark of the nails, to gaze in wonder at the wounds of love, to see that God loves them. He’s not a ghost, but a living being — flesh and blood. They’re happy, but they still cannot believe, so Jesus says, ‘Have you got anything to eat?’ They give Him a piece of grilled fish, and He eats it in front of them. He’s not a ghost, He’s alive, living, breathing, and eating. God takes flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and lives among us, dies, and is raised to new life, to show us what God has in store. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, which we celebrate at Easter, which we keep celebrating for weeks, truly is Good News. it takes a while for this to sink in to His disciples, they cannot take it in. It is extraordinary, but it is TRUE.

Jesus then reminds the disciples that before His death, he had told them that everything in the Jewish Scriptures about Him must be fulfilled. He has to suffer and die, for our sins. He does this willingly, out of love, because He is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. It takes them time to understand that He has risen from the dead, and likewise they’re not going to understand the entirety of salvation history immediately. It takes time, even just reading the readings at the Easter Vigil takes time, and this is just a snapshot of what the Old Testament contains in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Writings. Most of the writings of the Early Church do just what Jesus did, they go through Scripture to see how it points to Jesus, how it finds its fullest meaning in and through Him, the Word made Flesh. I could stand here for hours, days weeks even, and only scratch the surface. Obviously I’ll spare you that, but in the rest of the time that I have to live on earth, I know that I can only begin to tell people about Jesus, and explore how the Bible points to Him. But I need to do it, to explain to people who and what Jesus is, and does, and to say to the world around us the words of St Peter from our first reading this morning, ‘Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out,’ [Acts 3:19 NRSV]. The call to follow Jesus and to believe in Him requires a change of heart and mind, a change in how we live our lives, something we have to keep on doing all our lives, a constant commitment to turn from the ways of the world, the ways of sin, to turn to Christ, and follow Him.

Christ explains how His Suffering and Death are foretold in Scripture, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins are to be proclaimed in His name to all the world. So all of Scripture points to Him, even the awkward, and hard to understand bits, the bits which we would prefer not to read. And we need to tell people about Jesus, who he is, what He does, and why it matters.

He came to offer people an alternative to the ways of the world. You can find temporary happiness in many things, but shopping isn’t going to save your soul. Only Jesus can do that. Amazon, or the High St can do many things, but they’re not going to save you, forgive you your sins, or give you eternal life. Stuff doesn’t save, Jesus does. Our materialistic culture tries its best to hide from this fact. We fill our time with business and distraction. We do all sorts of things which we enjoy, which provide transitory pleasure. But lasting happiness can be found in Christ, and in Christ alone.

I’m as bad as anyone else at this. I admit it. I don’t deserve to be standing here saying this to you. I’m no better than you, probably I’m worse. I certainly don’t feel worthy to be called a shepherd of Christ’s flock. And that’s the point: I’m not, and it’s alright, none of us is, or ever has been, or ever will be. It’s not about us, but about what God can do through us, if we let Him. This is the reality of Christ’s Death and Resurrection. He does what we cannot do, so that we can live in Him.

We don’t need to worry because we find our JOY in Him, in Jesus, our Risen Lord. We are witness, just like those first disciples in Jerusalem, charged to tell people the same Good News, that Jesus died, has risen, and offers NEW LIFE to all, regardless of who they are, and what they’ve done. This is he demonstration of God’s love for the World, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.’ [John 3:16-17 RSVCE] God’s grace does not abolish our human nature, but perfects it, through faith, through the sacraments, outward and visible signs of inward spiritual grace, so that through Baptism and the Eucharist in the Church, people come to know Jesus, the Word made flesh, and share His Risen life, and are given a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, prepared by a loving Father.

People may not wish to come. They may be too busy. It may not mean anything to them, they can write it off as religious claptrap, an irrelevance in the Modern World. But it is still offered to them, and to everybody. To come to know Jesus, to trust Him, to love Him, to be fed by Him, and with Him, to have new life, and the forgiveness of sin through Him, and Him alone. For as St Peter says, ‘there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.’ [Acts 4:12 RSVCE], so my brothers and sisters in the joy of Easter let us share this so that the world may believe 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, dominion and power, now and forever.

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Duccio, Maesta, Altarpiece, Siena Cathedral

Lent III – The Cleansing of the Temple

It is hard for us to imagine, but for Jews in Jesus’ day, the Temple was the most important building in the world. It was the religious centre of Israel, a busy place, where devout Jews and others came to pray, to be near God. In this morning’s Gospel we see Jesus in quite an uncompromising mood: this is no ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ but rather here is the righteous anger of the prophets, a sign that all is not well in the world. Sin separates us from God and each other, it isn’t how we’re supposed to be.

When Moses receives the Ten Commandments from God on Mt Sinai the first is, ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.’ Could it be that the temple traders, in their desire to profit from people’s religious observance, have broken this first and most important commandment? Has their desire for making money, for profit got in the way of what the Temple is supposed to be about: namely, worshipping God? It’s become a racket, a money-making scheme to fleece pilgrims who have come from far away and who do not have the right money or the correct sacrificial animals with them. This is no way to worship God, a God who loves us, and who showed that love by delivering Israel from slavery in Egypt.

The temptation to have power, to be concerned above all else with worldly things: money, power, success, and influence, are still a huge temptation for the Church and the world. We may not mean to, but we do, and while we think of God as loving and merciful, we forget about righteous anger, and our need to repent, to turn away from our sins — the desire to control others and to be so caught up on the ways of the world that we lose sight of who and what we are, and what we are supposed to do and be. This is why we have the season of Lent to prepare ourselves, and to repent.

The Jews demand a sign, and Christ prophesies that if they destroy this temple then he will raise it up in three days: He looks to His death and resurrection to show them where true worship lies — in the person of Jesus Christ. Christians should be concerned with a relationship, our relationship with God, and with each other. Likewise Christians can all too easily forget that Jesus said, ‘I have come not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfil them’. The Ten Commandments are not abolished by Christ, or set aside, but rather His proclamation of the Kingdom and Repentance show us that we still need to live the Law of Moses out in our lives: to show that we honour God and live our lives accordingly. In His cleansing of the Temple, Christ looks to the Cross and to the Resurrection, He shows how God will restore our relationship. The Cross is a stumbling-block to Jews, who are obsessed with the worship of the Temple, and it is foolishness to Gentiles who cannot believe that God could display such weakness, such powerlessness. Instead the Cross, the supreme demonstration of God’s love for us, shocking and scandalous though it is, is a demonstration of the utter, complete, self-giving love of God, for the sake of you and me — miserable sinners who deserve condemnation, but who instead are offered love and mercy to heal us and restore us.

When we are confronted with this we should be shocked — that God loves us enough to do this, to suffer dreadfully and die for us, to save us from our sins, and from the punishment that is rightly ours. We do not deserve it, and that’s the point. But we are offered it in Christ so that we might become something other and greater than we are, putting away the ways of the world, of power and money, selfishness and sin, to have new life in and through Him.

‘In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.’ [J.H. Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845) Ch.1, §1 Part 7] If we are changing into Jesus Christ, then we’re on the right track. If we listen to His word in Scripture; if we talk to him in prayer and let him talk to us; if we’re fed by Him and with Him in the Eucharist, by Christ who is both priest and victim, so that we might become what He is – God. If we’re forgiven by Him, through making confession of our sins, not only do we come to understand Jesus, we become like him, we come to share in his divine nature, you, me, all of humanity ideally. We, the People of God, the new humanity, enter into the divine fullness of life, we have a foretaste of the heavenly banquet — we are prepared to enter the new life of the Kingdom, and to live it.

Lent should be something of a spiritual spring clean, asking God to drive out all that should not be there, preparing for the joy of Easter, to live the Risen Life, filled with God’s grace. In our baptism we died with Christ and were raised to new life in the Spirit. Let us prepare to live that life, holding fast to Our Lord and Saviour, clinging to the teachings of his body, the Church. Let us turn away from the folly of this world, the hot air, and focus on the true and everlasting joy of heaven, which awaits us, who are bought by his blood, washed in it, fed with it. Let us proclaim it in our lives so that others may believe so that all may praise the Father, the Son and 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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Lent II Year B

In Mark’s Gospel, just before the passage we have heard Jesus asks his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ After he hears the answers Jesus asks, ‘But who do YOU say that I am?’ (Mk 8:29) Peter answers that He is the Messiah, and Jesus told them sternly not to tell anyone about this.

He asks the same question of each and every one of us this morning, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ It is worth taking a few moments to consider just what our answer would be. A very nice man? An inspiring teacher? Yes, all those things, and more; as Christians we can only echo the words of St Thomas after the Resurrection and simply say, ‘My Lord and My God!’

That’s who and what He is, and nothing less. True God, and True Man, who comes among us to proclaim that God’s Kingdom is near, and that we need to repent. We need to turn away from sin, and turn back to God, a God who loves us, and who sent His Only-Begotten Son to show us just who much He loves us.

Jesus teaches that the He must undergo great suffering, like the servant in the prophecy of Isaiah, be rejected by the Jewish  religious authorities, be killed and after three days rise again. It is quite a lot to take in. Peter, who only a few moments earlier has acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, the Lord’s Anointed, just can’t take this. It isn’t part of the plan. It isn’t supposed to happen. Peter cannot bear the thought of Jesus suffering and dying, he loves Him. Peter just cannot understand that it needs to happen, that it is Who and What Jesus is.

Fundamentally, ours is a God who makes promises, and keeps them. He makes a promise to Abraham, and keeps it. God makes promises because He loves us. We don’t deserve to be loved because we sin, we alienate ourselves from God, and each other. But because God loves each and every one of us, then Jesus goes to die upon the Cross to demonstrate this love to the world.

Jesus says to us, that we have to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him. It sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it! But like many things Jesus says it is fine in theory, but in practice it is a lot harder. For two thousand years we’ve been struggling with it, and that’s the point. It isn’t easy, I wish I could say that it was, but quite frankly it isn’t. I know that I struggle, that I’m not a good Christian, that I need to trust God more, but also I know that I am not alone in this, there are several billion Christians alive today, and countless billions through the last hundred thousand successive Sundays who have felt just like this. Rather like Peter, I don’t want Jesus to die for me, I don’t deserve to be saved, such are my many sins, that I should be cast away from God’s presence for all eternity. And yet, Jesus died for me, to save me, and for each and every one of you.

God loves us: frail, weak, sinful humanity. He gives us this time of Lent to prepare to celebrate Jesus’ Passion, Death, and Resurrection. He gives us a chance to enter the desert of repentance, and, with renewed vigour, to follow Him. It really is good news. And we need to lose our lives for Christ’s sake: living out our faith in all that we say, or think or do — to follow Him, whose service is perfect freedom. We live, not for ourselves, but for the God who loves us, who died for us.

So now the Cross is our only hope — the sacrifice of God for humanity, not something we can give God, but something he gives us — a free gift of infinite value. God gives it to us and to all the world for one simple reason — love, for love of us — weak, poor, sinful humanity, so that we might be more lovely, more like Him. God sends His Son into the world not to condemn it, but so that the world might be saved through Him — an unselfish act of generosity, of grace, so that we might be saved from sin and death, from ourselves, so that we can share new life in Him.

It is that same sacrifice which we see here this morning at the altar, which we can taste and touch, which we can eat and drink, so that our lives and our souls can be transformed more and more into God’s likeness. It is something which we treat with the uttermost reverence because it is God, given for us, because it can transform us to live as children of the Holy Spirit, freed from the shackles of this world, free to live for Him, to live as He wants us to, His new creation, of water and the Spirit. This is what the Church has done on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, in memory of Him, to make the holy people of God. To make us holy: so that everything which we say, or think, or do, may be for His praise and glory, living out the faith which we believe in our hearts, as a sign to the world that the ways of selfishness and sin are as nothing compared with the generous love of God.

So great is this gift, that we prepare to celebrate it with this solemn season of prayer, and fasting, and abstinence, to focus our minds and our lives on the God who loves us and who saves us. We prepare our hearts and minds and lives to celebrate the mystery of our redemption, so that our lives may reflect His glory, so that we may live for Him, fed by Him, fed with Him, with our lives and souls transformed by Him. We are transformed so that we can transform the world so that it may live for Him, living life in all its fullness: living for others, living as God wants us to live. Living the selfless love which saves us and all the world, living out our faith, and encouraging others so to do, can and will conform us to Christ, so that we may be like Him, and become ever more like Him, prepared for eternal life with Him, 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.

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The Baptism of Christ: Gen 1:1-5; Acts 19:1-7; Mk 1:4-11

 

January is a time for making resolutions: we start the New Year full of optimism, full of promise, but despite our good intentions, most of us, myself included, have probably broken them by now. We mean well, and we fail. And that’s the point. We try to turn over a new leaf, but we find it hard to stick to. The God whom we worship understands temptation and sin, because he lived as one of us. He is a God of love, of mercy, and forgiveness. How ever many times we fall short we be assured that we will be welcomed, healed, restored and pardoned. God loves us as we are. We do not need to earn his love, or deserve it. He loves us and longs for us to have the fulness of life in Him. Today Jesus shows us the way back to the Father,

The ideas of baptism, of becoming regenerate, born again in Christ, of repentance, a change of mind, turning away from sin, and turning to Jesus Christ seem, as ever, to be just what we need as human beings, men and women, who despite our best efforts to the contrary just find it all too easy to be and do what we know we shouldn’t.

John the Baptist goes out into the desert in this morning’s Gospel. He goes out into the wilderness, to a place on the margins, of society and of human habitation, to take people out of their comfort zone, where they feel safe, to a place of encounter with God. John is ‘proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. His message is a simple one: Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand. What he does – pouring the water of the River Jordan over people –  signifies their turning back to God, a new start, a new beginning, wiping the slate clean. What starts as something symbolic becomes something more with the Baptism of Jesus – it becomes a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

Jesus does not need to be baptised, he has no sins from which to repent, there is nothing which separates Him from God, the Father. He is both God and man, and yet He is baptised – out of obedience to the will of the Father and for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit – so that we can see God in action in the world. The heavens are torn open, and the Spirit of God is active in the world. God has taken flesh in the womb of Mary and is born among us, recognised and worshipped by the Wise Men. Now he shows us the way back to the Father, through obedience and humility, through repentance, turning away from the ways of sin and the world, and turning back to the God who loves us. This is what the church is all about – proclaiming the same message, going the same thing, sharing in the same grace, which we do not deserve, we haven’t worked for or earned, but which God in His love and mercy gives us. We receive adoption, we become part of the family of God, we are born again, of water and the Spirit, we are ‘in Christ’, clothed with Him.

The utterly unnecessary nature of the act of Jesus’ Baptism discloses something profound about the nature of God and His love for us. God gives us more than we ask for, because it is in His nature to be generous in a way which astounds us. There is something reckless, profligate, and extravagant, utterly over the top, about the love of God, which should prompt us to react in a similar way.

John’s baptism of water prepares the way for the baptism of the Holy Spirit in Christ, through which we enter the Church, it shows us a new way of life, life in the Spirit, life with God, which has a profound effect on our lives, who we are and what we do. It opens a possibility to us, of living in a new way, a way of love, which mirrors the generosity shown to us by God. It shows us in the Church what it is to be truly alive and how to live in a new way. It points to another act of God’s extravagant love – that Christ dies on the Cross, to take away our sin, to carry our burden, which separates us from God and each other. This sacrifice is made present here and now so that under the outward forms of bread and wine we may partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, so that our souls may be nourished and our lives transformed by God’s very self – a solemn moment, the holiest thing on earth, the most wonderful moment of our lives. Here, now, God continues to give himself so that we can continue to be transformed, something which begins at our baptism, to prepare us for heaven, and so that we can live the life of the Kingdom of God here and now – living out that self-giving, reckless, extravagant love and forgiveness in our own lives, and in the world around us.

It sounds easy, being extravagantly loving and forgiving, and yet for two thousand years we have struggled with it. It is easier to be selfish and sinful. Yet, despite our shortcomings, God continues to forgive us, so that we can carry on trying to be the people he wants us to be, which we need to be together, as a community of love and forgiveness, which is what the Church is.

Ours is a faith which can transform the world, so that all humanity can share in God’s life and love, each and every one of us can become part of something radical and revolutionary, which can and will transform the world one soul at a time, it may sound strange, crazy even, but that is the point. Rather than human violence, cruelty, and murder, the only way to transform the world is through the love of God. This is what the church is for, what it’s all about; it is why we are gathered here, to be strengthened and nourished, through prayer, the Word of God, and the Sacraments of the Church, strengthened and nourished to live out our faith in our lives to transform the world. Nothing more, nothing less, just a revolution of love, of forgiveness, and healing, which the world both wants and needs, so let us live it so that the world may be transformed and believe 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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