A sermon on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28 by Rowland Croucher
Life will come crashing in on each of us some time. And different people will have different reactions…
The other day a hairdresser I hadn’t met previously asked what I did? My usual response is ‘I’m a counsellor.’ ‘So am I,’ she said. Of course: most hairdressers and many taxi-drivers are ‘counsellors’. ‘So what’s been an interesting case?’ I asked. She said she was working in a suburb not far from here, and an elderly ‘regular’ came in on a different day than usual. Why did she change her day? Well, her husband was dead at home, dead in bed, he’d died during the night. ‘Have you contacted anybody?’ the hairdresser-counsellor asked. ‘Oh no,’ the lady replied, ‘I had to have my hair done first!’
Last week I had a birthday (I forget how many I’ve had 🙂 and later that night Jan and I and two of our daughters were playing Rummycub. Our son, quite a brilliant poet and philosopher, who loves to ‘stir’ us Christians at every opportunity came over from next door where he lives with his family and asked: ‘If you knew the end of the world was about to happen would you continue to play this stupid game?’’Yes,’ we all responded. (Martin Luther when asked a similar question said he’d plant a tree)…
Three of the greatest sermons in the English language in the 20th century focussed on this question. Arthur John Gossip tragically lost his wife when they were in their middle years, and the following Sunday he stood in the pulpit to preach. His first sentence: ‘When Life Tumbles In, What Then?’ Gossip took as his text Jeremiah 12:5: ‘So, Jeremiah, if you’re worn out in this footrace with men, what makes you think you can race against horses? And if you can’t keep your wits during times of calm, what’s going to happen when troubles break loose like the Jordan in flood?’ Gossip preached: ‘I don’t think you need to be afraid of life. Our hearts are very frail, and there are places where the road is very steep and very lonely, but we have a wonderful God. And, as Paul puts it, “What can separate us from his love? Not death,” he writes immediately. No, not death, for standing in the roaring of the Jordan, cold with its dreadful chill and very conscious of the terror of its rushing, I, too, like Hopeful in Pilgrim’s Progress, can call back to you who one day in your turn will have to cross it, “Be of good cheer, my brother, my sister, for I feel the bottom and it is sound.”’ Gossip had reached the bottom of who he was in his grief. But at the bottom, he reached the core of all that he believed: ‘You people in the sunshine *may* believe the faith, but we in the shadows *must* believe it. We have nothing else!’
John Claypool, a brilliant Southern Baptist pastor and preacher who became an Episcopalian priest, preached four sermons from the Book of Job while his nine-year-old daughter, their only daughter, was dying of leukemia. In the final sermon he said: ‘God reminded Job that the things he had become so indignant about losing actually did not belong to him in the first place. They were gifts – gifts beyond his deserving, graciously given him by Another… To be angry because a gift has been taken away is to miss the whole point of life. That we ever have the things we cherish is more than we deserve. Gratitude and humility rather than resentment should characterize our handling of the objects of life.’ In Tracks of a Fellow Struggler he tells how he came to thank God for the *nine years!!!* he and his family had enjoyed the company of their gorgeous little girl, Laura Lue.
The third powerful sermon on this theme was preached on Sunday 23 January, 1983, by the senior pastor of Riverside Church, New York, the Reverend Dr. William Sloane Coffin. The sermon began: ‘As almost all of you know, a week ago last Monday night, driving in a terrible storm, my son Alexander – who to his friends was a real day-brightener, and to his family “fair as a star when only one is shining in the sky” – my twenty-four-year-old Alexander, who enjoyed beating his old man at every game and every race, beat his father to the grave…
‘My consolation lies in knowing… that when the waves closed over Alex’s car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break… And I know that when Alex beat me to the grave, the finish line was not Boston Harbor in the middle of the night. If a week ago last Monday a lamp went out, it was because, for him at least, the dawn had come. So I shall seek – so let us all seek – consolation in that love which never dies, and find peace in the dazzling grace that always is.’
If you listened carefully to those stories, there were *differing* but complementary responses to the reality or prospect of life tumbling in on us: self-respect, living in the ‘now’, faith in a good God, gratitude and humility, and an assurance of the tender love of God.
It’s Advent in the Christian year, and that’s what Advent is all about. It’s about the hopes and fears of all the years, the triumphs and tragedies of all the years, the joys and griefs of all the years and in all of our lives… coming into a healing/salvific focus in the person of God’s Messiah. The great classical Advent images are of darkness giving way to light, grief to faith or even joy, the barrenness of a desert to the beauty of paradise – paradise restored, longing to hope and the arrival of God’s salvation – especially in the advent of the Messiah, Jesus our Lord, then and now.
Our readings today are full of these themes.
The prophetic text in Isaiah 61, as you know, was applied by Jesus in the Nazareth synagogue to himself: ‘Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing’ (Luke 4:21). At the beginning of his messianic ministry he offers this brilliant summary of what he came to do, and what he commands us to do (John 20:21). Last time preaching here I suggested that Jesus’ mission and therefore our mission is three-fold, in every context: justice: confronting the ‘powers’; mercy: addressing people’s pain; and faith: the ultimate belief that the universe is friendly, that God can be trusted. And it’s all here in our Isaiah text: faith that the Lord God has actually come into our situations of misery and pain and grief; bringing justice for the oppressed, for captives; the Jubilee ‘good news’ that those who’ve been sold into slavery through war or debt can legally be freed, those who’ve had their lands expropriated can have them back; a gift of hope that the future is as secure as God’s promises; that a covenant of justice will prevail between God and God’s people; and mercy – God comes with tenderness to bind up the broken-hearted… comfort those who mourn, giving joy to God’s people like that of a bride on her wedding-day…
By the way, let me lift some words out of our epistle at this point: ‘Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil’ (1 Thessalonians 5:20-22). Prophets are ‘seers’: they see beyond the obvious and the tangible to what is ‘really real’. So in a rationalistic post-enlightenment culture majoring on science and logic we’re a little wary of prophets. But in the Judeo-Christian faith prophets have a central role. The New Testament churches could name their prophets (see Acts 13:1-2). True prophets do two things basically: they comfort the disturbed and they disturb the comfortable: that is, they marry the disturbing word of justice or judgment to the tender pastoral word of love. In Isaiah we hear the prophet proclaiming healing for the wounded and the oppressed, and also ‘the day of vengeance of our God’ (a phrase which Jesus omitted, interestingly, from his mandate, and this was part of what would have scandalized his conservative Jewish countrymen!). It’s a pity our churches can’t train, and name, and accredit, their prophets…
Our Psalm (126) is a grand celebration: a paean of praise to God for doing these ‘great things’… for bringing God’s people back to Zion… it was like a dream; they laughed with ecstatic joy; like those who sow their seeds with toil and weeping and fear, but later bring in a bountiful harvest, they carry the sheaves home ‘with shouts of joy…’
John chapter one tells part of the story of John the Baptist, and the metaphor here is of light coming into the world, and baptism signifying the gift of new life, a new way of living.
The epistle reading is from the earliest written manuscript to become part of our New Testament, and Paul encourages us there to rejoice always, be always prayerful, live lives of gratefulness, and he sums it all up in a classical blessing: ‘May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.’ Another great Advent theme is of course ‘Christ will come again’. When I was a teenager I read over 100 books on the second coming: I probably knew more about the parousia than the apostles did! (The important questions about the proton – the creation of the world and the universe – and the eschaton – how God will wind it all up, are not ‘How? and ‘When?’, but ‘Who?’ and ‘Why?’).
Well, what would Paul know about life ‘tumbling in’? The disasters he lists in 2 Corinthians 11 cover it all: this great missionary seemed to live at the edge of life and death all the time – often without food, warmth or clothing, he suffered countless floggings, was stoned, left for dead, shipwrecked three times, a day and a night adrift at sea… you name it. His way of coping? Well, the basic secret is his ‘union with Christ’, and his expectation of Christ’s coming – either in the parousia or in his own dying. That’s Advent!
And now back to our main Advent question: when life tumbles in, what then? Well, we survive by affirming who we are in the midst of the storm. Paul Tillich, in The Courage to Be writes: the ‘ultimate courage is to affirm our being against all the threats of nonbeing.’ It’s a reality we face every day. The forces of non-being confront us saying, ‘You are nobody – you don’t have a right to exist.’ To affirm who you are as a child of God is the greatest power we have to resist such threats.
There is a story about a Zen priest in China when the warlords were plundering villages early in the 20th century. When his village heard that the warlord was headed toward them, all of the people fled to the hills – except one priest. When the warlord arrived, he inquired if anyone was left in the village. The answer was, ‘Only the priest in the temple.’ The warlord commanded, ‘Bring him to me.’ When the priest was brought into his presence, the warlord drew his sword and cried, ‘Do you know who I am? I am he who can run you through with this sword and never bat an eye.’ The Zen priest replied, ‘Do you know who I am? I am he who can be run through with your sword and never bat an eye.’ I wish I had that kind of courageous assurance to face up to the threats in my life, don’t you?
But Advent is mostly about who God is and what God wants to do in our world and in our lives. Ignatius Loyola founded the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. It was his life-work, the fulfilment of a consuming ambition. He was once asked how he’d feel if the Pope suppressed the Society. ‘A quarter of an hour of prayer’, he replied, ‘and I would think no more of it’.
How does someone get to be like that?
And so when life tumbles in on us, what is the ‘Advent secret’? Actually, we’ve noted several, and I’d like to close with a prophetic Advent prayer. Somewhere in this prayer each of us is included:
Come, come, long-expected Jesus. To those who have too low a view of who they are, come Lord Jesus. To those in the valley of the shadow of death or despair, come Lord Jesus. To those who have nothing much to be happy about, for whom life is too hard, come Lord Jesus. To those for whom the griefs of yesterday or the fear of tomorrow is just too much, come Lord Jesus. To those of us who care too little or care too much, come Lord Jesus. To those who are living out the consequences of bad choices made by them or for them by others, come Lord Jesus. To parents of difficult or sick or wayward children, or to those who have been abused, or to those who are single and would like to find a partner, or who wish they didn’t have the partner they’ve got, come Lord Jesus. To those for whom work is hard to find or hard to enjoy, come Lord Jesus. To those who long for better bodily and mental and spiritual health, come Lord Jesus. To those who have lost their joy, come Lord Jesus. To each of us here, and to those absent today, in the real situations of our lives, come Lord Jesus with your healing touch. Amen.