Sermon title – What’s in a name?
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Sermon title – What’s in a name?
Sermon title – Joy!
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Sermon title – “Prepare”
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Sermon title – John, is his name.
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Throughout the ages, mothers grieve. One grieving mother said to me recently: my boy went straight to God.
In our Old Testament passage it is mother Rachel who grieves for her children. In our New Testament passage it’s the mothers whose baby sons have been killed by king Herod. Neither of the passages is an historical account. Instead, both of them give a reality of life. Innocent children die. Tomorrow on December 28th that is what is remembered in the Christian year, the death of the innocent children as we have it in our New Testament reading.
King Herod feels threatened by the arrival of the new born king, of whom he is made aware of by the three wise men.
Herod thinks, ‘good to know’, and then says, ‘Come back and let me know where I can find Him so that I can worship Him’. When he realises that he has been tricked by the wise men, he finds his own way of getting rid of the new born King.
Fear and power. Put them together and you get the killing.
This Herod is clearly a twin brother of Pharaoh of Egypt. Same character. Same fear. Same power. Pharaoh too demanded that all new born baby boys were killed: thrown into the river Nile. Two powerful rulers with the same style of reigning.
While king Herod kills, the new born King is taken to the land of Egypt. He escapes the cruelty, is not going to be killed…yet.
In Luke’s Gospel, where it tells about the shepherds that went to the stable in Bethlehem, it says that Mary, ‘treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart’.
This Jewish young girl, who magnified the Lord with her song
Holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
He has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate; (Luke 1: 49-52)
Oh, she knows what her Lord had done in the past, when Israel was led out of Egypt…and now in the light of that; in the light of all that she already knew, and now had come to know, and now feels when she is holding her baby, she is pondering.
But then, the next moment she finds herself with Joseph and Jesus fleeing, to Egypt.
Israel and Egypt. In the bible they seem to have a kind of love-hate relationship.
Once, Egypt was the place where Jacob and his sons went when they had a famine in Canaan, where they lived. The bread in Egypt saved them. It did, but not for ever, for the offspring of Jacob and his sons, Israel, for them Egypt turned into hell when they were made slaves.
Meanwhile, the people of Israel grew in number.
So much, that Pharaoh was terrified that Israel would continue to grow into a strong nation and would be able to stand up against him. And so Pharaoh exercised power in his way. And that power killed.
So, here’s an Egypt that symbolizes the powers that oppress, kill, makes life hell.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Egypt is the opposite of that. The new born King is kept safe there in Egypt, until Herod’s death and Mary and Joseph and Jesus went to live in Nazareth.
Into Egypt and then out again. Why this movement? Well, the reason is given,
This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
In all the stories that we have, throughout the Bible, it’s about what God says and does. His word and deed are one, that’s why it says,
‘Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.’ (Deuteronomy 6:4)
Where it says that the shepherds rushed to Bethlehem, it doesn’t say that they went to see the Christ child. They went to see,
‘…this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” (Luke 2: 15)
What happened was that the word of God had become flesh. That word of God made them rush to Bethlehem, where they found that that word had become a baby, the Christ child.
Jesus was saved from the hand of Herod, just as Moses was saved from the hand of Pharaoh. Both were saved to save; saved for God’s purpose.
So, Joseph was told, in a dream, to flee to Egypt.
Herod does not allow for ridiculing him. None of the tyrants do; it is what they do: they mess about with people. Don’t we all know that Egyptian Pharaohs continue to exist throughout the ages? It’s just that their names change.
Jesus as a baby, is not killed, but he will be, later and he will be called: king of the Jews, words immersed in the cynicism; the contempt with which the King of the Jews is nailed to the cross.
The Massacre of the Innocents, it’s a story about Egypt, about Bethlehem, it’s a story of all times. Always again those tyrants who cause mothers to cry and weep in despair, as Rachel did, representing all the mothers of Israel, at the time that Israel were gathered in order to be deported to Babylon. Inconsolable they were, the mothers in Israel. Inconsolable they were, the mothers in Bethlehem;
Inconsolable they are, the mothers and fathers of children, teenage children and adult children, of children who have been taken away from them. Inconsolable are the children who have lost mothers and fathers.
Yet, the story of the vulnerable, poor King that was born in the stable goes hand in hand with the suffering that comes with the death of all those innocent children killed by Herod. In them the suffering of the Christ child was already foretold. They already suffered and died with Christ before He did.
The good news of Christmas is that in the midst of that suffering; because of that suffering, God came down to go through every minute of precisely that suffering Himself, in His Son. But then, after the suffering and dying, God did something again: He raised His Son from the dead. In that resurrection, suffering and death are held.
So, here we have in the Gospel of Matthew, two kings. The one with whom we are all familiar; who is loud and visible; the one who exercises power as it suits him or her; channelling them into their purposes:
That king vs the new born King.
As Christians, we don’t share a kind of general hope: the hope that all will work out, somehow, or that there is something after life. No, our hope is specific. Through Christ, God Himself is our hope, in that He is with us, throughout everything we go through.
Coming to the end of a hear in which so much pain has been suffered, so many lives have been lost and are being mourned, we have this hope. It gives us solid ground under our feet. It gives us reason to ponder in our hearts, as Mary did.
As we are about to enter a new year, be encouraged and persevere in that hope: our Lord Jesus Christ.
It was Frank’s first time as the department store Santa and just before the grotto opened for the day, he looked out through the curtains to see a queue of mums and dads and children snaking all the way from the grotto to the toy department. ‘What am I letting myself in for?’ he wondered. ‘Am I going to be any good at this? I think I look the part, I’ve got the glasses and the white beard, I’ve got the red robe with the white fur and a red suit and I’ve got the black boots, I’ve got plenty of padding. I look like Santa, even if I don’t feel like him. Hope I’m going to be okay.’
Jackie the elf sensed his trepidation. Jackie usually worked behind the makeup counter but every December she took two weeks’ holiday to work beside Santa in the grotto because she just loved Christmas so much. She’d seen plenty of Santas come and go, and she could tell Frank was nervous.
‘Look, don’t worry about it,’ she said. ‘Try to relax and enjoy yourself. Just, whatever you do, try not to scare the kids, won’t you? Be jolly, be Santa.’
Frank did relax, and for a while everything was okay, and he did enjoy himself. For the first half a dozen children, that is. But the seventh one, well, it didn’t go so great.
Frank could tell the wee boy was scared of him. As he came into the grotto he was half hiding behind his mum, looking at Frank as if he were some kind of ogre, not friendly old Santa Claus. And as soon as his mum sat him down beside Frank, he started bawling and crying. You could probably hear him in the menswear department, and that was on the floor above. He just wouldn’t stop. And his mum just looked at Frank expectantly, as if to say, ‘Well, you’re Santa, deal with it.’ Frank looked at Jackie the elf, but he didn’t get any support there – Jackie just folded her arms and looked amused. She’d seen it all before.
None of Frank’s ‘Ho, ho, ho’s’ seemed to be having any effect. And telling the wee boy he was definitely on the nice list and not the naughty one didn’t help either. But then Frank had an idea.
First he took off the glasses, and the boy could see the eyes that were looking back at him weren’t the eyes of an old man, but they were young and they were twinkly. Then he took off the white beard and the wee boy stopped crying and looked at him curiously. Then Frank took off the red robe and jacket, leaving him in just an ordinary t-shirt. The wee boy looked at him and laughed, the tears all gone.
Now both of them, Frank and the wee boy, were quite relaxed and happy in each other’s company. And now they were the best of pals, Frank told the boy a story. It was a story about how once, a very long time ago, God decided he was going to come down to earth to live alongside the people there, to be among them. He didn’t want to frighten the people, so he was born the same way as they were, he wore the same clothes as they did, he lived an ordinary life just like them. The wee boy listened, hanging on Frank’s every word, his eyes getting wider and wider. And as Frank told the story, he started to put all the Santa gear back on again. He put on the red jacket and the red robe, the glasses and, finally, the long white beard. Eventually, dressed as Santa again, Frank gave the wee boy his gift and then, all too soon, time was up. There was a whole queue of children waiting to see Santa, so the wee boy and his mum had to leave. As they went, his mum turned to Jackie and said, ‘That was nice, but it’s a shame that your Santa spoiled all the magic.’
Looking back at Frank, the department store Santa, Jackie smiled and said, ‘Maybe it ended the magic, but I think it’s started a whole lot of wonder.’
We dress up Christmas in all sorts of ways, we give it a red suit and a white beard and, sometimes for us, like the wee boy in the department store, it all gets a bit overwhelming. This year, maybe more than any other we can all remember, Christmas is pared back, stripped down – you could say it’s like Frank sitting there in his t-shirt instead of his Santa gear. But I think this year gives us the perfect opportunity, if opportunity is needed, to remember the true message of Christmas – that God is with us, God is among us. And next year, well, next year we’ll put all the gear back on again and Christmas will be just like we’ve come to know it. But the message will still hold true, no matter how much we dress it up.
The birth of a child brings about emotions in the parents that cannot be described by words. Emotions that overwhelm, deep love, intense joy. After months of waiting, after all the pain that comes with giving birth, there is pure wonder.
And the child itself, as it grows, he or she discovers all sorts of things, with amazement, watched by its parents.
Pure wonder is something that happens to you, you’re captured by it. In our bible readings, it happens to the shepherds, and to the people who hear from the shepherds what has been told about this new born child in the stable.
The story doesn’t say that they believed what they heard. It says that they wondered.
But then, can faith begin without wonder?
There are people who wonder about things a lot. There are people who do less so and there are people who just don’t.
How do we hear the story of the birth of Jesus; the story about Jesus’s mother and Joseph; the story about the shepherds. How do we hear the stories that follow from there? The story that tells about the twelve year old Jesus in the temple. Only twelve years old, He amazes the teachers of the Scriptures with his insight. And Jesus continues to amaze people when He heals the sick, when He speaks to people words that make them aware of new things.
Words that regularly amaze, shock His disciples, for instance when they stop children to come to Him. Jesus reacts to that by doing the opposite. He called the children to Him, saying:
“Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Luke 18:16-17)
The little boy in John’s story was scared until Frank removed all the layers that made him Santa. That stripping off layers, that made the boy calm down. And then when Frank told the boy the story about how God chose to come down to earth to be with His people, the boy heard every word Fank was saying. And hearing them, the boy’s eyes got wider. He was amazed.
Just like the shepherds when they were told about the new born king by the angels; just like the people who, through the shepherds heard about the new born baby in the stable.
In the midst of all those wondering people there is one who starts to think deeper,
‘Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart’
Would she have begun to see connections between what she was told, knew, came to know, what she felt? All her pondering was brought about by that wonder, that came to her when she was told the Good News that she was going to give birth to God’s Son. The news that she, humbly, received, without understanding how that could be.
How much of our thinking allows for; is triggered by wonder? Is it not all too often played down, stifled even, by the layers that we are not so willing to remove: the layer of the insistence on self-protection; the layer of ‘wanting to fix things’, the layer of ‘wanting to stay in control’.
That would be the reason why Jesus took a child as example for his disciples and for us now. For a child is free from those layers. Therefore, for a child, there is so much room for wonder.
As Frank could see in the eyes of the little boy who listened to Frank’s story about God coming down to earth; about how He chose to do it: as one of us, to be with us.
Following this new born boy in Bethlehem’s stable, we’re taken into lots of stories with people who wonder, amazed about what Jesus does, what He says, when He refers back to what has been said in stories that tell about His ancestors, in the Old Testament; to what has been said by the prophets who foretold His birth.
May the story of Jesus’ birth with all those other bible stories, kindle in our hearts a whole lot of wonder, encouraging us to discover more and more about the Holy One, who chose to come down in the vulnerability of new born baby, for us, to be with us.
When we are left in the dark, we react. In different ways, according to how we are as persons. We try to find things that make that darkness disappear; take things in our own hands; find things with which we can bring some light to us again, things that have the effect of a torch, switched on, handled and controlled by us, so we don’t feel lost anymore.
But what we have learned, this year, is that we don’t have control. We lost the control we thought we had; that we assumed we had. Without having control of our lives, we feel lost.
Last week we saw how David was lost, because he had lost the voice of Samuel, the prophet. The prophet who had anointed David king, when he heard God’s voice, saying to him, ‘Arise, anoint him, this is he.’ (1 Samuel 16:12)
‘Hearing’, particularly in the name of the book called Samuel is essential as you can hear in the name Samuel, ‘sama’, which means to hear. In the bible, names are not just names. Their meanings are reflected in the person’s personality, so here, ‘hearing’ is reflected in Samuel as prophet, and in Samuel as bible book. However, through Samuel’s death, there is no prophetic voice to be heard by David anymore. That direction is lost. That is the darkness David finds himself in. And while that is so, David is hurt, unappreciated, scoffed at by Nabal.
But in fact, it is God Himself who is mocked by Nabal. For David had been chosen, set apart by God, for His purpose: to be Israel’s king.
The way David reacts to Nabal is uncontrolled, he loses his temper, is overwhelmed by anger and aggression, and he lets that aggression determine what he is going to do. He will, with his men, kill Nabal and his men.
So war is declared.
In this dire situation, one of Nabal’s men thinks of Nabal’s wife Abigail. He goes to her and says to her what he doesn’t dare say to Nabal, his master,
…one of the young men told Abigail, Nabal’s wife, “Behold, David sent messengers out of the wilderness to greet our master, and he railed at them. Yet the men were very good to us, and we suffered no harm, and we did not miss anything when we were in the fields, as long as we went with them. They were a wall to us both by night and by day, all the while we were with them keeping the sheep. Now therefore know this and consider what you should do, for harm is determined against our master and against all his house, and he is such a worthless man that one cannot speak to him.” (1 Samuel 25:14-17)
This servant of Nabal tells Abigail what has happened and what is about to happen. When Abigail hears what the servant is saying, there’s no sign of solidarity with her husband. She doesn’t say anything about the fact that the servant calls her husband a worthless man. Instead, she takes action, immediately. She does what Nabal should have done, when he was asked to give David something of the abundance he had, of his wealth. For it was also thanks to David’s care for Nabal’s shepherds, that Nabal was able to make the profit he had made. But then, the name Nabal, means ‘fool’. Consistent with what his name means, he is of course only full of himself and when you’re full of yourself, you don’t see and hear anything else.
Abigail reacts quickly and takes two hundred loaves, two skins of wine, five sheep, grain, raisins and cakes. With all that she is on her way to David, on a donkey, but she says nothing to her husband.
Abigail and Nabal, they are not a happy couple. In last week’s reading it was said specifically that Abigail was discerning and beautiful. Discernment comes with wisdom. That is what we have in Abigail as opposed to what we have in Nabal. In this couple we have wisdom versus foolishness.
When Abigail saw David,
she hurried and got down from the donkey and fell before David on her face and bowed to the ground. She fell at his feet and said, “On me alone, my lord, be the guilt. Please let your servant speak in your ears, and hear the words of your servant. Let not my lord regard this worthless fellow, Nabal, for as his name is, so is he. Nabal[is his name, and folly is with him. But I your servant did not see the young men of my lord, whom you sent. Now then, my lord, as the Lord lives, and as your soul lives, because the Lord has restrained you from bloodguilt and from saving with your own hand, now then let your enemies and those who seek to do evil to my lord be as Nabal. And now let this present that your servant has brought to my lord be given to the young men who follow my lord. (1 Samuel 25: 23-28)
Here we see how tact, wisdom and grace come David’s way through this woman. She sees, discerns David’s temptation and prevents David from giving in.
David may have lost sight of his call, but Abigail hasn’t. Samuel’s prophetic voice is no longer there, but God uses Abigail’s voice. Abigail stands firm in the promise, in the purpose that God has for David. Her encounter with David, is immersed in her faith in the Lord, and we can hear it in how she, like Mary, spells out God’s power and so magnifies God. She says,
Please forgive the trespass of your servant. For the Lord will certainly make my lord a sure house, because my lord is fighting the battles of the Lord, and evil shall not be found in you so long as you live. If men rise up to pursue you and to seek your life, the life of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of the living in the care of the Lord your God. And the lives of your enemies he shall sling out as from the hollow of a sling. And when the Lord has done to my lord according to all the good that he has spoken concerning you and has appointed you prince over Israel, my lord shall have no cause of grief or pangs of conscience for having shed blood without cause or for my lord working salvation himself. And when the Lord has dealt well with my lord, then remember your servant.” (1 Samuel 25: 28-31)
Abigail’s wisdom and humility come to David, while he finds himself in the darkness of his anger. Through her, he is reminded of who he is: God’s anointed one.
Through this story, Abigail’s wisdom comes to us too. It can be received by us and remembered, when we find ourselves in the darkness of our anger, impatience, our criticism.
A change of shift of focus, within us, from ourselves to God, just as we see that happening in David, that is what makes room in our hearts for Christ’s arrival…
Because David understood Abigail, he could say:
‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me!’
How receptive are we to reminders of who we are, children of the one Father? How receptive are we to God’s call to open up to His wisdom, wisdom that is immersed in His love and to let that wisdom shape our thinking?
Thanks to Abigail who, through her strength and humility, was indeed her Father’s joy, David’s plan to wage war; to insist on his way of taking revenge, didn’t happen. Instead, it became peace.
And from within his own peace he said to Abigail, ’Go up in peace to your house…’
Abigail did tell Nabal. God took his revenge, that’s why David didn’t have to do it.
Let that so be for us. Let us realize, be reminded, like David, that God’s purpose for us is peace. And from within that peace, let us be, our Father’s joy.
Abigail is quite a popular name. It means, ‘father’s joy’. You may well know an Abigail.
Our Old Testament passage, which is part of a bigger story has an Abigail. Does she do justice to her name? What is the story here?
First of all the prophet Samuel is no longer there; the prophet who anointed the young shepherd David king, while Saul was still king, had died. Even though Samuel and David didn’t see much of each other, David was aware of Samuel’s presence; of his prophetic voice and that was a silent support to David.
The fact that in our story Saul is still king, is the reason why we find David in the wilderness. For Saul is after him. And in this wilderness of Paran, David is a steppe sheriff. A good, caring one. He looks well after the shepherds of Nabal, a wealthy businessman, who is Abigail’s husband. So David is the shepherd of these shepherds, but at the moment the sheep of these shepherds are not in the fields. They’ve been taken away as they’re getting sheared. That also means partying; a yearly feast than no shepherd wants to miss: the celebration of lots of wool with lots of drinking, and lots of food. Nobody thinks about the fact that the harvest is good also thanks to David, who had been protecting Nabal’s shepherds, so they could do their work in peace.
David thinks, ‘give a little, take a little’. So David sends his men. Say to Nabal: ‘Peace be to you, and peace be to your house, and peace to all that you have, from David, the son of Jesse. He has taken good care of your men. Share a little bit of what you’ve gained.’
It was not unusual to do so, to give a bit of the profit. It was courtesy to do so, but Nabal’s refusal is so much more than meanness and rudeness.
Nabal is not just mean and rude. That’s what it may be to us: unfair, unkind, just taking no giving. But in Bible stories it doesn’t stop with how things are for us, human beings. Bible stories give more, they also tell how things are seen by God.
David? Who’s he?
Well, David is the chosen king by God. God had His plan with David. So what we actually have here is scoffing at God.
This scoffing from Nabal echos what Pharaoh once did,
“Who is the Lord’, Pharao said, ‘that I should obey his voice.. I do not know the Lord.
When David hears this, he is furious.
“Every man strap on his sword!”
Now this doesn’t sound like David, so touchy and so violent. It is as if things are different, now Samuel is no longer there for David. Has it changed David? Is David a bit lost without Samuel’s prophetic voice? Has David lost direction?
Let’s hope not. Good Lord, do something. For if You don’t, your chosen king David is going to be like Saul and then what? Then we’ll be back at square one.
What is it again Isaiah says…?
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone. (Isaiah 9:2)
David is at this point of walking in the darkness of his anger. And this is where this story, that happens in the wilderness of Paran, that seems so not relevant to us, is exactly the opposite of irrelevant.
For the darkness in which David finds himself, is not different from ours; is not different from the people of whom Isaiah says,
The people who walked in darkness
We pray the words of the Lord’s prayer together, every Sunday, ’Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’.
Do we, kind of know what we’re saying at the moment we’re saying it, and then forget when we find ourselves, like David, caught in exactly that moment of temptation?
For the temptations to let our reactions and actions be determined by our anger, our impatience, self interest, all these temptations come to us on a pretty regular basis. That is why the first prayer of our worship is the prayer of confession, when we bring to God all those things that we thought, said and done that were not in line with God’s will, but that were detached from Him.
So through David, we can see ourselves. His anger may be justified, anger in itself is not sin, but how it’s handled can come close to sin and become precisely that.
As for Nabal, the husband of the discerning and beautiful Abigail, Nabal means ‘fool’.
Foolishness is spelled out and illustrated in the book of Proverbs:
Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.
Whoever sends a message by the hand of a fool
cuts off his own feet and drinks violence.
And wisdom is spelled out too.
In the same book of Proverbs, wisdom is this:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
For by me your days will be multiplied,
and years will be added to your life.
If you are wise, you are wise for yourself;
if you scoff, you alone will bear it. (9:10-12)
Foolishness vs wisdom.
So here, in our story we have the couple, Mr Fool and Mrs Wise.
What now may begin to emerge is that this is not a story that gives us historical facts. This story is actually a parable that has truths that don’t stop being truths.
We see how human David is. He is overwhelmed by his anger and his reaction is to give in, just as we often do, it’s so natural. But that has consequences. And the consequences lead us more and more away from God into darkness, from which we cannot save ourselves, even though we think we can. We do so by switching on a light, a light that we can find: finding things that cheer us up, that keep ourselves busy, by taking ourselves not too seriously. But those lights last only so long, they’re superficial.
The light that came to Mary is different.
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.
That same light came to Joseph, in a dream, when the Lord spoke to him,
…Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)
Now, it would be wise, discerning, to acknowledge that God’s son was born as a Jewish boy, which means that the name He was given was Yeshua, rather than Jesus. Yesua means ‘God saves’. If you have that in mind, what the Lord said to Joseph makes more sense,
She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Yeshua (meaning, ‘God saves) for he will save his people from their sins
Our parable about David, and Nabal and Abigail, it doesn’t stop with David giving in to the temptation of his anger. We’ll follow the story next week and see how God went His way with David, how He didn’t let go what His Hand began through Samuel, in David.
That’s is how God is, He doesn’t let go what His Hand began. And that is why we will have Christmas again.
When I was asked just the other day to give the service this week, the first thing I thought was, ‘No problem, it’s the first Sunday of advent, and advent is all about preparation, I’ll just speak about getting our preparations right, about getting ourselves ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus, about setting out on a journey that will end with Christmas and all that comes with it.’
But then I thought, wait, things are a bit different this year, aren’t they? I mean, normally the shops would be mobbed, the excitement would be building, we’d all be talking about where we’re going to spend the day, who we’d be spending it with. The church would be getting ready for its busiest time of the year, with carol services, Christingles, Christmas tree festivals, Christmas fayres. This year, although I know it’s early yet, it’s all just a bit muted, isn’t it? More than a bit, I think. Most of these things, the festivals, the fayres, aren’t happening this year and I think we’re all in something of a limbo, not quite sure what’s going on and how we’re going to deal with it.
So how do you prepare for something when you don’t know what it looks like? You wait for a clearer picture, I suppose, you wait for things to come into focus a bit. And that’s what advent is about too. It’s about preparation, but it’s also about waiting.
And we’ve been getting good at waiting, haven’t we? We’ve had plenty of practice this year. You could say that this year, most of it, at least, has all been one big advent. We’ve done a lot of waiting. Waiting in the queue outside Tesco, or Asda, or the chemist. Waiting for that one hour a day when we were allowed out for a walk. Waiting for the daily updates from the government at 5 o’clock. Waiting for it all to be over. And we’re still waiting. We’re waiting each time there’s an announcement about which tier we’re going to be in, waiting to find out how much freedom we’ve got. Waiting for the pubs and the shops to open. Waiting for a vaccine. We’re still waiting.
In our Old Testament reading this morning, Isaiah was waiting too. Waiting, just like we are now, for things to get better. But where we tend to wait patiently in silence, Isaiah wasn’t like that – he struck out, he wanted to know why things weren’t getting better and he wanted action. You can hear his frustration as he prays to God: ‘Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence.’
They’re hard words to hear, aren’t they? Isaiah’s prayer is the prayer of a man who’s struggling so much to make sense of the world he’s living in. A man who wishes God would make himself known, come down and sort it all out, just like he used to do. Maybe that sounds familiar?
We don’t know for sure exactly when Isaiah wrote these words, but what we do know is that the great days of Israel’s history, the days of David and Solomon, when Israel was, relatively speaking anyway, prosperous and peaceful, these days were in the past.
Isaiah lived in a much later time, when generations of ungodly kings had led the people badly, when people had turned from the God of Moses and Abraham to all sorts of other gods. And it was a time when God was remote because he didn’t like the way Israel was going, so he left the people to their own devices. The people had made their bed and God was letting them lie in it. But the problem actually was not so much that God had abandoned the people, but that the people had abandoned God, and Isaiah knew this. ‘There is no-one who calls upon your name,’ he said, ‘No-one who rouses himself to take hold of you, for you have hidden your face and made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.’ Isaiah knew that the problem didn’t lie with God, it lay closer to home.
But where was God? That’s what Isaiah wanted to know. Why had he ‘hidden his face?’ How was Israel going to get out of the mess it had found itself in. Was God going to come and bless his people again?
Isaiah wanted God to come down in a blaze of glory like he used to do, when he’d done awesome things and the mountains quaked. That wasn’t going to happen. But it didn’t stop him waiting and hoping.
As I say, maybe it sounds familiar. Maybe we can identify with some of what Isaiah was going through. Our situation isn’t the same, but there are similarities. This is a tough time for us, just as Isaiah’s time was tough for him. We find ourselves in an unfamiliar world, one that we wouldn’t have recognised this time last year. Maybe it’s worse for us in a way, because we feel so helpless, it’s all so much out of our control. Isaiah had a very black and white view of why Israel was in the state it was, but thankfully we don’t hold to his Old Testament concept that it’s our iniquities, our sins, that are to blame for the position we’ve found ourselves in. There’s no-one, there’s nothing to pin the blame on. So we feel helpless.
But where Isaiah was looking forward, waiting for the day God would come, we look back knowing that he did come, only not with fire and fury and quaking mountains but as a child in a manger in Bethlehem. Isaiah waited, and he hoped. And that’s what we do during Advent, we wait and we hope. The first candle of Advent represents that hope.
I think I need to explain something at this point, and it’s that hope as we know it and biblical hope aren’t quite the same thing. When we speak of hope in our day-to-day lives, what we’re really talking about is wishful thinking. We hope that we’ll get the Christmas present we want. We hope the sun’s going to shine tomorrow. We hope that the vaccinations everyone’s talking about are on the way. The way we think of hope is that something good will happen, or that something bad won’t happen. And there’s always an element of uncertainty whether it’ll happen or not. When we say we hope the sun will shine, what we’re saying as well is that there’s a chance it won’t.
But hope in the Bible isn’t the same. Biblical hope isn’t just a wish that something will happen or not happen – biblical hope expects it to happen. It’s called a confident expectation, or a secure assurance.
Isaiah waited, hoping and looking forward to the day that God would come down. As we wait during Advent, our hope is our confident expectation, our secure assurance, that as he came to us in Bethlehem all those years ago, so he’ll come to us again. That’s what we remember at Advent.
As I say, we’ve done a lot of waiting this year, and we keep waiting, patiently waiting for things to get better. And the politicians and the health experts keep telling us to be patient, that a vaccination is on the way, sit tight, it’ll be alright. But patience takes different forms, I think – there’s such a thing as passive patience and active patience.
Passive patience is when you wait and do nothing, stand still. Active patience is when you slow down, take your time, but never give in. Passive patience says stop, don’t move. Active patience, I think it can be best summed up in the old wartime poster, ‘Keep calm and carry on.’
In our New Testament reading earlier, I think Jesus was telling the disciples something similar. Don’t stop what you’re doing just because I’m not there in person, he was telling them. Keep going, stay awake, be ready, do all the things I’ve told you to do, like take care of your people and live the way I’ve told you that you should be living. Now, he was talking about the end of days, about the final judgement, his second coming, and that’s a subject for a whole different sermon so I’m not going to say too much about that today, but those words, ‘stay awake’, I think they speak to us now in all that we’re going through.
Because staying awake means actively waiting. It means keeping calm and carrying on. It means continuing with our lives despite all that’s happening. It means continuing to care for those we love and those who need our help. We can’t shut our eyes and ignore all that’s going on around us. Because not staying awake and closing our eyes, well, that means we’re in the dark, and if there’s a place we don’t want to be at a time like this it’s in the dark. And for the times when we struggle, when we feel the darkness close in, there’s always our candle, the candle of hope, and what it represents – the hope that God gave us by coming to the world to be among us and by being with us always. Our candle, when we need it, is our light in the dark.
So Advent is here, and we begin our preparations for Christmas, we wait for a Christmas that we all know is going to be different in so many ways this year. But most of the things that are different, well, maybe they’re things that shouldn’t matter so much to us. I know it’s important to have all the family round, I know it’s important to give gifts and receive them, I know it’s important to some people to have parties and festive celebrations. But this advent, and every advent, it’s more important to remember what and who God gave us that first Christmas, to give thanks for him, to recognise the impact and the effect he has on all our lives. And I think if we remember these things first, it makes every Christmas, Covid or no Covid, a Christmas worth waiting for.