Saturday, 8 December 2007

Second Sunday of Advent. 9 December 2007; Matthew 3:1-12. Melanie Groundsell.

I came across this story recently :
A taxi passenger tapped the driver on the shoulder to ask him something. The driver screamed, lost control of the car, nearly hit a bus, went up on the pavement, and stopped centimetres from a shop window. For a second everything went quiet in the cab, then the driver said, ‘Look mister, don’t ever do that again. You scared the daylights out of me!’
The passenger apologized and said he didn’t realize that a little tap could scare him so much.
The driver replied ‘Sorry, it’s not really your fault. Today is my first day as a cab driver. I’ve been driving hearses for the last 25 years’.

Surprises are often jolts in what can be a sometimes mundane life. When they come they can force us to think again about priorities, direction in life, values, and spirituality.
We come to this passage in Matthew straight from an account of Jesus early childhood. The previous chapter ends with the comment that Jesus made his home in a town called Nazareth. And then, suddenly, we are launched into the opening of chapter 3 – In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’.

This is a dramatic entry. Whereas Mark, Luke and John use John the Baptist as part of the opening theatre scene – as a person who is known to the audience before we get going on the journey, Matthew announces the arrival of John the Baptist with trumpets. The doors of the Gospel swing open, and there stands John in the wilderness of Judea, looking for all the world like Elijah of old. For us, it’s a shock to see him. Who could have guessed it?
His appearance is itself a claim that God’s ways with the world are often strange, unforeseen, and unpredictable. Here at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, John the Baptist announces a call to worship in the flesh. Not a benign and cheery Good morning, but a real call to worship that shakes the cobwebs off the pews: ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near’.

And so we are reminded of the action of God in history.

It is often sudden, unexpected, and sometimes we may feel intrusive.
In our comfortable ideas of Western pilgrimage, with an even road that meanders through the English hillsides, there is little to compare with the incoming presence of an awe inspiring God. Sometimes an Elijah appears, a nation repents, a Berlin Wall is dismantled, a Martin Luther King, or a Mahatma Gandhi emerges.

God’s will shatters the comfortable, ordinary ways of doing things, and breaks in on the world in a jarring surprise. I know that some of you will have been shocked by my news today
– and some of you may still be trying to absorb the impact, reflecting on your own experiences of illness.

Always though, when God breaks in this way – He is pointing beyond
– Beyond to somewhere different
– To a different reality
– To a world that is new
This connection to the ‘beyondness of things’ is vital in our own spiritual journey. We look on times when God breaks into our lives unexpectedly as times that can stretch and transform the normal fabric of life so that they let in cracks of eternity – and I think too help us to see those cracks in ordinary life as well. From those signs of eternity within ourselves, and our world, we are then able to speak something of eternity beyond.

How, though, do we describe this beyondness. We need to stretch the language and thought we use. Poetry goes some way towards describing in images what we fail to articulate through sentences. And yet even here, words often fail to describe the mystery that we see.
Perhaps we need to be led into the realm beyond words. As Solzhenitsyn has commented in his work on art, it is like that small mirror in the fairy tales – you glimpse the inaccessible, a realm forever beyond reach where no horse or magic carpet can take you.
(Alexander Solzhenitsyn from Nobel Prize speech titled The gift of art )
John the Baptist also struggled to describe what he was seeing. He knew in his own heart that the one to come would be greater than he, and would transform the world as we know it.

Yet how to describe this image of transformation?

We can almost sense John’s frustration with the Saducees and Pharisees as he tries to articulate what is to come – they can’t seem to understand what he is trying to tell them. What John sees is a little of the beyondness – the mystery of God – that lies beyond human language, and pictures, and poetry, and can only exist in silence.
Those of you who came to the Advent meditation on Tuesday will recognise the words of Walt Whitman :
After the seas are all cross’d (as they seem already cross’d)
After the great captains and engineers have accomplished their work
After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, the ethnologist,
Finally shall come the poet,
The true son of God, singing songs.

There is a sense in which God is beyond all human knowledge, beyond human language, beyond any kind of shape that we can construct.

And yet, especially at this time of Advent we are confronted with this mystery that is God, breaking into our structured world, pointing us to somewhere that we can’t yet see, to an unknown world that seems to be beyond description; to a reality that seems to transcend anything that we can experience on earth.

We are faced with a challenge. In order to follow God on this journey, we have to take a road that we don’t know exists, to find a path that appears not to be there.

It seems to be an impossible task – and yet we are called to follow on this journey.
As John of the Cross wrote in the 16th century (and subsequently made famous by T S Eliot) :

In order to arrive at that which thou knowest not,
Thou must go by a way that thou knowest not.
In order to arrive at that which thou possessest not,
Thou must go by a way that thou possessest not.
In order to arrive at that which thou art not,
Thou must go through that which thou art not.

An impossible journey – and one in which in many ways I feel I am just beginning.
Just beginning to find a path that doesn’t exist;
Just beginning to leave the road in order to find it;
Just beginning to find the emptiness that will support and sustain me;

I think Thomas Merton put his finger on the struggle that many of us face when he said:
“We must live by a power and a light that seem not to be there. We must live by the strength of an apparent emptiness that is always truly empty and yet never fails to support us at every moment.” (Thomas Merton).

And so we wait.

We wait with John the Baptist for the coming mystery;

We wait in the silence that speaks beyond words;

We wait for an all transforming God to break in on the world, in the shape of a baby.

First Sunday of Advent; 2 December 2007; John 1:1-5; Kim


A relighting Christingle, made possible, of course, with a trick candle. What we celebrate today, though, is no trick but reality: the truth of what God has done for us through his Son, Jesus Christ.
‘What has come into being, in him,’ said our reading earlier, ‘is life; life that is light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has been unable to extinguish it.’ No matter how dark it may seem, somehow that light keeps shining, bringing strength, hope, courage and peace into even the bleakest of circumstances. As one of the Psalms puts it: ‘If I say, “Surely darkness will steal over me, night will envelop me”, darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as day; for you both dark and light are the same’ (Psalm 139:11-12).
It’s time, then, for us to think about how we are going to be ready to receive this Light of Christ this Christmas time? How can we prepare to receive this Light of Christ? You could join us each Tuesday evening during Advent for Prayers and Meditation prepared by Melanie, you could come along to the Carol Service on the 16th December, you can join us for the Crib Service on Christmas Eve at 3.00pm. But today we are preparing to light up the darkness in the lives of Children who for one reason or another have run away from home and are in need of a ‘Big Bag’. A simple bag containing all sorts of things that will make that child feel valued, loved and saved.
Later we will be lighting our own Christingles, not relighting ones but nevertheless reminding us of light that cannot be extinguished: the light of Christ shining in the darkness of our world. As your candle is lit, ask God to help you prepare and to be ready for His coming. Amen.