Sunday December 12 2021
Third Sunday in Advent
Sentence of the Day
‘Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation’. Isaiah 12:2
Almighty God, you sent your servant John the Baptist to prepare the way for the coming of your Son; grant that those who proclaim your word may so guide our feet into the way of peace, that we may stand with confidence before him when he comes in his glorious kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Judge and our Redeemer.
For Psalm: Isa 12:2-6
The Gospel is an interesting passage – to put it mildly! John begins by asking ‘this brood of vipers’ what they are doing there, lays into them, and then Luke concludes with these surprising words: “And with these and many other words, he preached the good news them”. I am not sure how much ‘good news’ I would have gained from being described as a ‘viper’. So where was the good news in this reading?
The good news was that John was preparing the way for the Good News, the Messiah, but also in his preaching, he was offering hope in particular for those who felt they were outsiders, the despised and rejected – the tax collectors and soldiers, for example. John in a very real sense prepares the way for Jesus, who embodying the love of God was also to offer hope, mercy and inclusion to ‘sinners’.
In John and in full with Jesus, we see the ‘tender mercy’ (Luke 1:76-79) of God reaching out to those who cried out for help in their situations. Tax collectors were notorious for adding extra on to the taxes they were required to collect on behalf of the occupying power. They were deeply disliked outcasts because as Jews, they had betrayed their own people. John offers a surprising reply to their cry of “what should we do?” He doesn’t’ command them to stop being tax collectors – rather, he instructs them to collect only what they are required. What a remarkable reply. Tax collecting would have been their only occupation and means of supporting their families, and here again the tender mercy of God shines upon them, and prefigures that mercy seen in Jesus.
Then soldiers. Soldiers, if they were Jews, were, like tax collectors, on the wrong side of ‘respectable society’. If they were serving the Romans or Herod, they were unrepentant and rejected sinners, in the eyes of the population. Clearly, whatever their state, they were well-known for using force to extract payments and bribes, to boost their income. Which, still happens today in many nations. Both the army and the police in Zimbabwe have for years put up road blocks and ‘fined’ people substantial amounts for fictitious infringements of fictitious rules and regulations. Or just demanded a bribe, to let people pass through. Obviously this is a very ancient problem.
John does not demand they give up soldiering. Instead, he demands honesty, righteousness and integrity in their dealings with the public. As with the tax collectors, the Kingdom of God enters into corrupted institutions and begins to heal and redeem from within.
Wherever we work or volunteer or live, do we embody Kingdom values? What would John say to us, I wonder. I think he might invite us to be Godly, exceptional and ethical employees or managers – salt and light. Wherever we are, we can bring the presence of God. I have talked with Christians who have prayed over and in their workplaces, and noticed a distinct change in atmosphere – for the better!
To conclude, I suspect the ’brood of vipers’ referred to the religious elite, not to the tax collectors or soldiers, or any others who knew and despaired of their compromised lives and knew only rejection from within their communities. To them, and to those who were to encounter grace and love from Jesus, this was wonderful news. And still is ours to share today, as we move towards celebrating the incarnation of God’s love and tender mercy in Jesus.
O God of the exiles and the lost, you promise restoration and wholeness through the power of Jesus Christ. Give us faith to live joyfully, sustained by your promises as we eagerly await the day when they will be fulfilled for all the world to see, through the coming of your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in the love of Christ, and the blessing of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, rest upon you, upon those you love and those for whom you pray, now and always. Amen.
Sunday December 5
Second Sunday in Advent
The Sentence of the Day
By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
The Collect of the Day
God of timeless grace, you fill us with joyful expectation. Make us ready for the message that prepares the way, that with uprightness of heart and holy joy we may eagerly await the kingdom of your Son, Jesus Christ, who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.
For the Psalm: Luke 1:68-79
Paul’s letter to the Philippian church is one of the gems in the New Testament letters. In particular, it is called the Epistle of Joy, because joy is threaded through the letter. Given the circumstances in which it is written – imprisonment, which likely led to execution – the level of joy, and the reasons for joy, are testimony to a faith forged in adversity.
Philippians is one of the ‘prison epistles’, written by Paul during his time under house arrest in Rome between approximately 60—62 AD. They are Colossians, Philemon and of course, Philippians. Many scholars include Ephesians in the list, but others doubt its Pauline authorship.
Nonetheless, Paul’s imprisonment did not restrict his apostleship. To the contrary, he was free to minister through letters and in person, as we read in the epistle for Sunday. It reminds me of the famous Puritan preacher and writer John Bunyan, who was arrested in 1675 for preaching publicly without a license, and he was jailed for six months. Previously, he had spent twelve years in prison, during which time he had written many books and pamphlets. So, rather than seeing this new imprisonment as a great tragedy, he took an optimistic view of it.
He is reported to have said, “I have been away from my writing too long. Maybe this is not so much a prison as an office from which I can reach the world with Christ’s message.” It was during this time that he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Paul certainly sees his imprisonment as an’ office’ to reach the world with Christ’s message and is full of joy and thankfulness for both his situation and for God’s grace.
If you read the epistle in its entirety (and it is not very long!) we can easily see the reasons for Paul’s joy. These are joy because of the Philippians’ partnership with him in the Gospel; joy that, despite being in prison, the Gospel is still being preached; joy that what has happened to him will be turned to good; joy that the Philippians will know joy in their faith too; joy that the Philippians are of one mind in spirit and in love; joy in the service and sacrifice springing from their faith; joy that they are his joy; his joy in the Lord and wanting the same for them, and joy that the Philippians were concerned for him.
Paul could have felt crushed by his circumstances, he could have complained to his Lord about the situation, he could have wondered if God had abandoned him – but instead, he rejoices. What an inspiring example and encouragement to us when times are tough.
The book of Habakkuk concludes with these equally inspiring and faith-filled words: ‘Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour’.
The secret lies in the Epistle to the Philippians: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus’.
Joy is a theme of Advent – joy that in Jesus, God has drawn near, very near, and nothing can separate us from his love in Christ. Nothing at all. What a wonderful gift at a time when circumstances can be quite challenging!
Let us this Advent season put into practice the words and teaching of Paul, to actively look for reasons to rejoice and to voice those joys, with thanksgiving.
God faithful and true, make us eager with joyful expectation, as we look for the fulfilment of your promise in Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.
The Blessing (From the Epistle, of course!)
May the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, and the blessing of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be with you, with those you love and those for whom you pray, this day and every day. Amen.
Sunday November 28 2021
The Sentence of the Day
To you Lord I lift up my soul; my God I have put my trust in you; you are God my Saviour; for you have I waited all the day long. Psalm 25:1, 4
The Collect for Advent Sunday
Almighty God, give us grace to cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility; so that when he hallcome again in his glorious majesty we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and for ever. Amen.
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Reading the Epistle to the Thessalonians, we see a lovely little exchange in verses two and seven, relating to mutual encouragement and the faith-fortifying impact of Christian encouragement. In verse two, Paul’s anxiety about the new church in Thessalonica leads to his despatching Timothy, to check up on them and to ‘strengthen and encourage’ the community in their faith.
Timothy returns with good news about the love and faith of the Thessalonians, which greatly encourages Paul. In fact, as you see in verse seven, Paul was experiencing a time of ‘distress and persecution’ and the news of the faith of the little church brought relief and encouragement.
We know how hard Paul’s life was, as he battled opposition from within Judaism and from the secular authorities. In 2 Corinthians 11 he pours out his heart about his sufferings for the Gospel, and in verse 28 writes: “And besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my anxiety about the churches”.
These times of encouragement must have been lifegiving to Paul. Indeed, returning to the Epistle, he says that “now I really live” because of the encouragement from Thessalonica. “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of God because of you!”
The epistles are laced through with encouragement – there are 53 uses of ‘encourage’ or ‘encouragement’ from Acts to Hebrews, from mutual encouragement in the faith (Romans 1:12) to the role of Barnabas as “Son of Encouragement,’ to Paul writing to the Corinthians: “I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds”. (2 Corinthians 7:14). It is a good study exercise to look up all these references!
Sometimes we forget to encourage those who serve us in Christ. Few know the anxiety and even distress that can be hidden behind a seemingly ‘OK’ exterior. If Paul, with all his faith and experience of Christ, knew times of anxiety, then it seems to be acceptable for our own leaders to also struggle at times. And we should encourage each other in faith and life, looking out for those amongst us who are dealing with anxiety, stress and even fear, particularly at this time of uncertainty.
At this Advent season we also give thanks that through Jesus of Nazareth, God is a God of encouragement for all who believe. “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had” (Romans 15:5). Christ is God’s encouragement amongst us in the flesh – his life, ministry, teaching, even death, his resurrection and ascension and now his presence amongst us in the Holy Spirit, is encouragement on an eternal and cosmic scale! To tweak 1 John 4:19, ‘we encourage because he first encouraged us’.
May you be encouraged, and be an encourager, this Advent.
Give us ears to hear, O God, and eyes to watch, that we may know your presence in our midst during this holy season of joy as we anticipate the coming of Jesus Christ. Amen
May the God of all encouragement empower you to encourage others with the hope we have in Christ Jesus, and the blessing of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, rest upon you, upon those you love and those for whom you pray, now and always. Amen.