The First Sunday in Advent: A Prophet’s Tale
Holy Communion Service conducted by Revd. Jennifer Millington
This sermon is taken from Isaiah 64, verses 1-9; 1 Corinthians 1, verses 3-9
A Prophet’s Tale: The Orpington Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a famous book called The Canterbury Tales, about a group of people travelling together on a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage is a special kind of journey. It is not like travelling a route from A to B for business or for visiting family or for going on holiday. A pilgrimage is as much an inner journey as an outer one. It is not only about getting your body to a different place but your soul as well. People still go on pilgrimage today hoping that, by making this journey, they will learn a whole lot more about life, about who they are and about God. They expect to come back changed. Chaucer’s pilgrims were heading for Canterbury, an ancient holy place.
This was centuries before trains and cars, so these pilgrims were walking and, as they walked, they shared stories to pass the time. They told tales they had heard; tales about themselves; stories that had made them laugh; stories that had made them cry; tales that had inspired them; tales that had outraged them; and a few tales that would be, let’s say, “inappropriate” to repeat in church.
In the Christian church, the season of Advent has long been seen as something of a pilgrimage. We may not be going anywhere different during Advent. Most of us are far too busy dealing with what is happening right here to go anywhere else. But it is something of a spiritual pilgrimage as we try to get our heads round the incredible story that God himself became a baby in Bethlehem. You may remember John Betjamin’s famous poem:
And is this true? For if it is, no loving fingers tying strings around those tissued fripperies, the sweet and silly Christmas things, bath salts and inexpensive scent and hideous tie, so kindly meant, no love that in a family dwells, no carolling in frosty air, nor all the steeple-shaking bells can with this single Truth compare- that God was Man in Palestine and lives today in Bread and Wine.
Can this be true? When we finally make time to sit still and confront this truth it leaves us bewildered. We have heard it, sung it so many times but can it be true? And if it is, then what does it mean for us-God living among us? What does it mean for us in church today and out of church tomorrow? What does it mean for us in the workplace, in the family, in the shops? What does it mean for us when we are partying? What does it mean for us when we are weeping? What does it mean for us when we are angry? What does it mean for us when we watch the news? You cannot take a truth like this on board and remain the same.
Advent will take us on a whole new inner pilgrimage if we wish. So, ask yourself, what would you like to learn on this pilgrimage? What might you hope to become? What would you wish to be shown? And if Geoffrey Chaucer was to write a book called “The Orpington Tales,” what might be the story you would wish to share?
The prophet Isaiah had a tale of outrage to tell. He had seen his once strong nation gradually failing under a series of weak Kings and corrupt governments. He had witnessed the annihilation of his country by the super-power of Assyria and his fellow citizens taken off to foreign lands to be used as slave labour. Years later he had heard the incredible news that his people were finally to be released and allowed home to rebuild their country. But the homecoming was not what the people thought it would be. They had pictured themselves recreating the land of the past (which most of them could not remember anyway) but of course we can never go back to the way things once were. Then, the work was hard, long and laborious: there was no infrastructure in place. As people-not unnaturally-focussed exclusively on re-building their own homes, there was no community. Human beings who had known exile, imprisonment, cruelty, pain and huge loss did not find it easy to be kind, patient and generous to each other. Nor were they particularly interested in God. So far as they were concerned, He had let them down. Sure, they would eventually get around to rebuilding the temple and saying their prayers but God could wait.
Isaiah had a deep sympathy for his bruised and broken people but he could see that a society built on anger and greed and cynicism would not long survive and nor would it be a good place to live. So, he shouts at God, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down!” Make the people listen to you. Show them who you are. DO something to prove that you have not abandoned them.
I guess we all have tales of outrage to tell, things that make us feel very angry and frustrated: The Brexit process; North Korea; Syria; the refugee crisis; the escalating need for Food Banks; the state of the NHS. Our own experiences of serious illness; deep grief; bullying. Take two minutes just to turn to your neighbour and share a story (your own or someone else’s) that has recently made you feel very angry……
“Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!” Don’t we all feel like Isaiah at times? IF there is a God and IF this God loves us and IF this God is so powerful, why does not he come down here and sort things out?
It sounds as though Isaiah is calling on a super-hero figure: Superman, Batman, Spiderman; the kind of being who does tear the heavens open and fly down, straight into any bad situation and sort everything out. He will annihilate the baddies, reassure the goodies and leave everything sweetness and light, promising to return if things go wrong again. MAKE your name known, pleads Isaiah. His people want to be freed up from bodily pain and social injustice but Isaiah can also see that they need to be freed up from their spiritual weariness; from their despairing cynicism about the future. They need a new hope to inspire fresh life and faith in them.
The prophets did have tales of hope to tell- of a potter moulding clay into something new and beautiful; of a shepherd going out of his way to seek the lost and wounded sheep; of a ruler who not does not shout or dictate but governs with love and compassion; of a dream in a valley strewn with dead, dry bones that became filled with the breath of God and restored to life. The prophets told tales of hope, although perhaps not quite the kind of hope that faith in Superman or Batman might produce. For these were tales not of what God might do for them but of what God might do with them.
St Paul was telling a tale of hope in his letter to the church in Corinth. If you read right through the letter you would think that he did not have much to hope for. The church in Corinth sounded like the stuff of which sit-coms are made. The congregation argued over every single thing, including who was their best former Minister. They liked speaking in tongues during worship just so long as no one could understand what they were saying and their celebration of Holy Communion appeared to have become a matter of “bring your own picnic” and “my quiche is bigger than your quiche.” These people were also living in a bad world, largely ruled by a ruthless super-power and their new-found faith made them very vulnerable. What hope was there for this church?
But, says Paul, right at the start of his letter, “you will be OK. For you will be spiritually enriched in every way and these spiritual gifts from God, given through Jesus Christ, will keep you strong and give you hope.”
Paul was not proposing that the Christian community shut itself away from the rest of the world in a closed ghetto, so that believers and their children could live “pure” lives, untainted by the materialism, promiscuity, violence and decadence of their society.
Paul thought it perfectly possible for Christians to live as part of their social culture and yet also live in the kingdom of God. They could live a godly life in an ungodly society and remain uncorrupted. They could grow spiritually even under the threats of hardship and persecution. They could be re-shaped into a vibrant, loving and committed faith community despite the many misunderstandings now dragging them down.
And how could this happen? Because the spiritual gifts of love, hope, faith, courage, goodness, wisdom, healing, peace come from God and God may be trusted to do as he promised. Despite the many “issues” in the church at Corinth, Paul prays thankfully for highly gifted people. If they will only use the gifts they have been given humbly and lovingly they will become prophetic voices in the world: telling tales of outrage in the face of injustice but also sharing stories of hope- that by the transformation of their souls, men and women will find the power to transform the world.
It was not by tearing open the heavens and swooping down like the “caped crusader” to kill the bad and give prominence to the good that God would save the world. It was by renewing his Spirit in us so that we could save the world. God had entered the world in the person of Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ had opened up vast new channels of the Holy Spirit in humanity, enabling them to continue the work he began.
You see, at the end of the day, human beings come to resent people who do things for them. The people we really value are those who have taught, inspired, enabled and equipped us to do things for ourselves. A world that someone else sets up for us will come not to work for us anymore. Only a world of which we can feel a sense of ownership and responsibility will remain “our” world, meaning that, as we travel on our Advent journey, our stories of outrage can be replaced by stories of hope; hope for God-in-us.
Do you remember how, at the end of Series 8 of Lewis (the Detective Dramas), Lewis announces that he is retiring from the police? He urges his sergeant James Hathaway, to apply for promotion and take his place as Inspector. In previous episodes, it has been clear that Hathaway is not altogether happy with his life or his profession or himself and he refuses to move forward in his career, deciding instead to resign.
But when Series 9 opens, Hathaway is back. We learn that he went on a pilgrimage, heading for that famous shrine in Spain, The Camino de Santiago- the way of St James, presumably in the hopes of sorting himself out and deciding what he did want to do with his life. In turns out though that he never actually reached St James. He got within sight of it, then turned around and headed back to the UK and the police force again. So the pilgrimage- though physically unfinished- had achieved its spiritual aim and showed Hathaway where he really needed to be, both for himself and for the wider world. It reminded me of TS Eliot who wrote that “we shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
A pilgrimage, even a purely spiritual one, can lead us to some truly holy places. We might well be asking if it is really worth our spending more time in private reflection and prayer; in worship together at a time when our Christmas to-do lists are spiralling out of control? Surely we would be better occupied knocking half a dozen items off the top of the list. Maybe…but have we not learned from past experience that no sooner have you knocked six items off the top of the list than another twelve get added onto the bottom? And the tension and the weariness mount up; and you start to get snappy with people and resent those who have done nothing worse than accept your invitation to Christmas Dinner. And the world news gets you down and the crises-large or small- in the family are too much for you to deal with. And the tale you end up telling is of how you go to sleep and dream that you are peeling 500 Brussel sprouts whilst singing Hark the Herald Angels sing and you wake up to find you are still doing it.
A spiritual pilgrimage can give us a whole new perspective on the place where we are. It can re-energise our loves; re-focus our priorities and re-affirm our strengths. It can re-inspire our faith; re-commit us to our church; replace stress with peace and gives us the courage to dare to believe that yes, God came to us in Jesus Christ and lives in us and though us today.
Let me leave you with some words from Ira E. Williams:
People were always so sure that God stood on the rim of space and looked down on humanity with little more than scorn or pity or an occasional act of benevolence. They were so sure- until they looked into the face of a child in a manger and dared to say, “God is with us.” They were so sure that God was like a king who enjoyed his power and dominated his subjects- until they looked into the face of a carpenter riding a donkey into a city and saw him make weak people strong. They were so sure that God would want them to deal cruelly with all who were different from his favoured worshippers –until they looked into the face of a man on a cross asking God to forgive his tormentors. Remembering these things, how do you think God would come to you?
Take a spiritual pilgrimage through Advent. Take a few minutes each day to ask yourself how God might come to you. Trust him to keep his promise. Keep watch for his coming. And wonder, hopefully, where you will be and who you will be on Christmas Day.