How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
Depart, depart, go out from there!
Touch no unclean thing;
go out from the midst of it, purify yourselves,
you who carry the vessels of the Lord.
For you shall not go out in haste,
and you shall not go in flight;
for the Lord will go before you,
and the God of Israel will be your rearguard.
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, ‘There is peace and security’, then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
Nicodemus Visits Jesus
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’
‘Every journey begins with a single step’. It’s not an uncommon saying that’s meant to encourage us simply to make a start. However, about ten years ago I discovered just how wrong this statement can be if it’s not qualified. I was in Israel on a study trip, and myself and a bunch of friends were in the market place in the Arab part of Jerusalem. We’d just popped into a shop and I was quite taken with what we found there.
I can’t remember exactly what it was, probably some drum or other, you know me, but I said to them to go on and I would catch them up. I left the shop a few minutes later and set off after them. It probably took me about 100 metres before I realised I was walking in the wrong direction, back the way we had come! In order to find my friends I had to go back the way I came, past the shop I’d been in and off up the hill where I duly caught up with them, bemused as to what had taken me so long.
So let me qualify that saying with this: ‘Every journey begins with a single step provided it is in the right direction! The point of this address tonight is to make sure that, as we begin our Advent journey, we are indeed heading off in the right direction, and that direction is towards the Kingdom of God, not back the way we came.
This whole season of Advent is directed towards preparing for the coming of Christ, much as Lent is about preparing to celebrate his death and resurrection, but that preparation has two possible directions, and we normally only go off in one direction. For most of us the direction that we take in Advent is the route that is marked, ‘Christmas this way’.
I guess that in an advertising dominated consumerist culture where many of our thoughts are directed by what we’re going to buy for Aunty Mabel, it’s not surprising that our preparations can’t stretch beyond thinking about events just a month in advance. But Christmas is truly only one destination for an Advent journey. Our reading from 1 Thessalonians reminds us that there is something else that we need to have uppermost in our minds and that is following the route which is signed, ‘The return of Christ.’
This is one of the hardest doctrines to fathom in the whole New Testament, made even more difficult by our fundamentalist brothers and sisters who have developed all sorts of extra-biblical ideas about this. But from the perspective of what I want to talk about tonight we need only recognise one thing, that writ large across the New Testament is a belief, held by Jesus himself, that he will return to establish his kingdom here on earth.
This other Advent destination, then, towards which we must be aiming, is the route that prepares us for this kingdom to come. Our faith declares that we are already a part of it, but there is a world of difference between saying we are a part of something, and living as a part of it. For example, 70% of this country’s population declares itself to be Christian. So where are they.
Our faith must be one of action, not just words, and being a part of the Kingdom of God therefore requires that we live as subjects of that kingdom, and I choose that word ‘Subject’ very carefully. We are not members of an organisation that we have joined; we are subjects of a kingdom, and so should live as such. This idea of living as a subjects is something you will hear more about over the coming weeks and months.
But to live as a subject requires that we begin with a particular attitude. We cannot live as subjects of a kingdom unless we first consider our willingness to submit to the rule of Christ as he comes in his kingdom. Are we ready to submit our wills to his? I suspect that for many of us the answer is probably, ‘Yes but not yet.’
The difficulty I think we face is with this whole concept of submission. I spoke a little about this at 8.00am last Sunday, and that sermon is online if you want to read it. In essence I said that if Christ is King, then we must subject ourselves to his rule. Advent is about preparing for his kingdom to come, and so we must be examining our hearts to see if we are in submission to his rule.
However submission is not an easy concept in the 21st century. It reeks of an ancient hierarchical and patriarchal system, one that I am happy to leave behind if we’re thinking about the church. But submission to Christ is not the same as submission to the church. Submission to his rule is not the same as doing what Patrick or I tell you to do. We’re just priests. He’s Christ the King.
But one cannot hope to be subjects of a kingdom unless we begin our Advent journey by submitting to our King. So what should our submission look like?
It’s a little cold so let’s warm ourselves up with a summer image. Imagine you’re back on the beach and watching the children making their sandcastles. Now children have never really understood something vital about sandcastles. They always build them below the high tide level. It is inevitable that when the sea comes in it will roll over their sandcastle and level it.
Usually, particularly on the north Atlantic coast, it takes three, maybe four waves, and then that sandcastle is gone. It’s completely flat. All of its character has been wiped away. Is that what we mean by submission? Well I’m horribly afraid that vast swathes of the church think that it is, with the result that no one dares step out of line and do anything creative, because our submission is not submission to God, it’s about appeasing people.
So what do we end up with? A flat, boring, featureless level ground. There’s no danger and no trouble; just blandness. And do you know what, I think that’s half the problem that the Church of England faces. For generations we’ve tried hard not to upset anyone. We’ve become one of the blandest organisations in existence. Instead of submitting to God we’ve submitted to the world and it’s rolled over us like a high tide and stolen our character. We have equated Christian with niceness.
Have you ever wondered why the proportion of men is so much lower than that of women in church? Men are fuelled by their God-given testosterone. It’s a gift that drives us on to make and do and achieve and be. St. Peter was full of it! But the church of England is perceived as emasculated, submissive to the world and not wanting to upset anyone. It’s no wonder that men won’t join.
And nor will they until we start to become something more, when we start to submit to the will of Christ and begin living as we are supposed to. So what should submission really look like? I think we find it in the Gospel reading that Patrick read to us. This is one of the alternative Advent readings for today and I chose it because of what Jesus said to Nicodemus.
To really get the drift of this you need to understand that the word for Spirit in the New Testament is identical to the word for wind.
We who are born again, or born from above, the Greek has both meanings, are born of the Spirit which can also be translated as being born of the wind, and that’s the kind of submission I’m thinking of. If you stand on the coast path of North Cornwall and look at the trees around you, you will immediately notice something distinctive about them: they all slope away from the sea.
You cannot miss it, and you will only see it so clearly on the coast. They have been blown by the wind since the day they first emerged above the ground. It has shaped them and moulded them throughout their lives. And they look distinctive and unique. They are wind-trees, and it makes them interesting. You look at them and notice their distinctive shape. You ask yourself why they look that way, and the answer comes back, they are shaped by the wind.
Or let me put it another way. They have submitted to the wind. They have submitted to the wind and it has given them character and interest. It has also made them tougher and stronger. Submitting to the wind has given them a strength. Their roots have gone down deeper.
And that, I believe, is what submitting to the reign of Christ is about. It is about becoming a child of the Wind, submitting to the Spirit, being blown in the direction that She wishes to take us, and choosing to go and to do what is asked of us.
Advent is about preparing ourselves for the Kingdom of God. Advent is therefore about learning to submit to the reign of Christ, the King who has come and will come again; the One who we will all have to face eventually and to whom we will all have to give an account of our lives to.
Yes he is loving. Yes he is full of grace and forgiving. But he is also King, and so we should be learning to submit our wills to his, that by the Holy Spirit we may be shaped, and our roots may go down deep, and that through us the Lord can bring hope to a world that so needs him.