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First Sunday in Advent

I want to share two stories with you this morning, both of which happened this week, and neither of which have anything directly to do with Advent, although indirectly they do, because both things made me question what it is as Christians, that we believe is the key message of the Gospel.

But first let me talk briefly about Advent, and our readings for today. Today marks the beginning of the season of Advent, a time when the church, as God’s people, waits for Jesus to return and establish his eternal kingdom. The church is in a similar situation to that which Israel was at the end of the Old Testament: in exile, waiting and hoping in prayerful expectation for the coming of the Messiah. 

Israel looked back to God’s past gracious actions on their behalf in leading them out of Egypt in the Exodus, and on this basis, they called for God once again to act for them. In the same way, the church, during Advent, looks back upon Christ’s coming in celebration, while at the same time looking forward in eager anticipation to the coming of Christ’s kingdom when he will return for his people. And our readings for today, talk to both the situation of Israel waiting in exile for God to act on their behalf again, and also the church waiting for the return of Christ. 

Our first reading is from the book of the Prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s prophetic career began in 627 BCE (in the thirteenth year of the reign of King Josiah of Judah) and ended shortly after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. He persevered with his prophecies despite intense opposition from the royal authorities. By and large, his warnings of coming disaster went unheeded. In the end his message and ministry were vindicated when Jerusalem fell, just as he had announced would happen.

Jeremiah’s prophecies weren’t all doom and gloom though. He did also prophesy that God would provide a shepherd for his people. That God would raise up a king from the line of David who would promote justice in the land of Judah and protect it from hostile forces. God would return again to His people, in and through the Messiah.

The second coming of Christ (the Messiah), when men and women would stand before the judgement seat of God, was always at the forefront of the mind of the apostle Paul. And in his First Letter to the Thessalonians, Paul prays to God that God would keep His people in righteousness, so that on that day, they would not be found wanting. In Paul’s mind, the only way to prepare to meet God is to live with Him every day.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus himself discusses his second coming, when he speaks to his disciples about a series of catastrophic events that will precede the coming of the Son of Man. He tells the disciples to watch out for the signs that these things are about to happen. Like Paul, Jesus knows the power and importance of prayer, so he also tells the disciples to pray that they may have the strength to escape all of these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man on the day that he comes.

In his Letter to the Thessalonians, Paul writes, “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.” “WHATEVER IS LACKING IN YOUR FAITH”. I want to emphasise that phrase, because it is significant in relation to the first of my two stories from this week. I’ve been here at St Andrew’s for a little under two years now, and it’s fair to say that one of the thoughts which has most occupied my thinking in this time, has been one to do with the question of how we bring more people to the Christian faith. Specifically, how do we engage with young families in such a way, that will lead them to want to become involved with our parish community, and ultimately, with our faith? 

So the question has been more externally focussed outside of our parish community, rather than internally. It is for this reason that it came as such a massive shock to me on Wednesday morning of this week when one of our parishioners, who has been a regular attendee at Sunday morning worship, rang me to tell me that they were resigning from the parish, and not only from the parish, but from the Anglican Church in general.

They assured me that it had nothing to do with me, or anything that I had done, and that it had nothing to do with anyone, or anything at St Andrew’s. They said that it was basically a case of them losing faith, and that they no longer felt comfortable being in church reciting the statements of faith that we express each week during our services of worship.

I was stunned. And I started to wonder if it was something I had done, or perhaps hadn’t done, that was the reason for their decision, even though they had already told me it wasn’t anything to do with me or the parish. Once I’d accepted that it didn’t have anything to do with me, I think I was even more shocked, because I think in some respects I could understand it more if it was related to something that someone else had said or done, rather than it being a case of that person losing their faith. It caused me to actually stop and think seriously about my own ministry, and to question whether I was doing a good job or not.

I then realised that God was trying to tell me something through this event. Because it was also connected to my second story, which was about something else that had occurred earlier in the week, that had already prompted me to think about what really was the key message from the Gospels. That something else, related to a comment that had been made about one of the songs at our recent Family Service.

The song in question was ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’, and our own Jim Alley had changed some of the words in the song to make it what we call at Mainly Music, a “God song”. One of the lines now says, “God’s that star and He loves us all”, or something very close to that. The comment made at the Family Service was that this isn’t theologically correct, and I think the inference was that we were sending the wrong message to children, and  parents, about who and what God is. 

My immediate response was one of disappointment, because I think that anything we can do these days to get young children (and their parents) thinking about God, surely can’t be a bad thing, and that any possible “theological misinterpretation” can always be addressed later, if need be, as the child grows. 

But it caused me to begin wondering if perhaps my own way of thinking and talking about the Gospel, and the key message from it, was too liberal. I began to question whether perhaps I was “watering down” the Gospel message, and at that moment I found myself asking, what is the key message of the Gospel? 

For centuries, the mission of the Church had been to evangelise people; to convert non-believers to the Christian Faith. If we think about the question from that perspective, then we can probably say that the Gospel message that has been the most emphasised is that when people accept Jesus in their lives they are “saved”, which has largely been translated as meaning that if people believe in Jesus Christ, then they will have eternal life. 

I wonder if that was what Jesus really thought. Is that what was foremost in His mind when He was preaching or teaching? I don’t believe that it was. There are certainly times when Jesus makes reference to Himself in the context of providing people with eternal life. In John 6:54 he says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day”. But for the most part, the preaching and teaching of Jesus, as recorded in the four Gospels, is focussed on people having access to the Kingdom of God through Jesus’ own life and teaching. 

The Kingdom of God is already with us, and has been, ever since God revealed Himself to humankind in and through Jesus. And the teaching of Jesus can be summed up by the Two Great Commandments: love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.

So during the season of Advent this year, as we wait to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the time when God was revealed to us, and as we reflect on the second coming of Jesus, let us not lose sight of the fact that the Kingdom of God is here with us already. Let us celebrate the fact that God has chosen each of us, and called us to be in a relationship with Him. Let us be joyful, that we get to enjoy that special relationship that not everyone else does. And let us love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and let us love our neighbours as ourselves.

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