Advent Faith

Advent faith Reading: Isaiah 40:27-31

Today is the third Sunday of Advent.  In the parish of Bramley we have a one-word theme each week during Advent. So far we have had HOPE and PEACE. This week’s word is FAITH.

What does that mean to you? People can sometimes be put off  getting involved with Christianity because we talk of faith, thinking that faith means already understanding the Bible, or believing certain things about God.  But all that can come later.  Faith, to begin with, simply means trusting God – just trusting that he exists, and that he cares.

Isaiah spoke to people who thought God was ignoring them in their problems.  No, he said, God understands everything. You just need to trust him, then you can be as strong and free as the eagle, in other words you will find the strength to cope with your problems and feel in control of your life, rather than being earthbound by your problems and other people’s expectations.

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Let’s look at a couple of pictures.  The first is a photograph of a bird – actually it’s a chough, a sort of large crow, not an eagle – but it is flying high above a lake.  My friends and I had spent hours climbing the mountain by our own effort, fighting against gravity, but here was this bird just soaring easily on the thermal currents.   I took this at a time when I had been a Christian for over ten years but was exploring options for ministry. This view from a mountain top spoke to me, of the way God might be freeing me from previous commitments to serve him.

 

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The second image is of a place some of you may know, the chapel at Scargill House. About five years after I had taken the first photo, praying in the silence of the chapel in the Yorkshire Dales, God gave me a picture in my mind, in which I was a baby bird, and God my mother. She was telling me it was time to fly the nest, not to be afraid but to trust her to know that now was the time to start flying. Within months of that I had given up my previous job, taken a big cut in income and started serving God in a new way in a new place. Since then I have worked for four different Christian organisations and trained as a Reader.

The point is that you don’t need the gifts of a prophet, the intellect of a bishop, or the wingspan of an eagle to start flying with God.  An amount of faith and trust as small as the tiny wings of a baby sparrow will do.  The question is, do you trust God when she says that she knows better than you do what you are capable of, and that you are now ready to fly with her?  It’s only the start of a lifetime’s journey, but it has to start with that simple act of faith.

Advent hope 

A reflection for the first Sunday in Advent – written for the online service from St Peter’s church, Bramley 

Bible Reading: Romans 15:7-13 (New International Readers Version)

Christ has accepted you. So accept one another in order to bring praise to God.

I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews. He teaches us that God is true. He shows us that God will keep the promises he made to the founders of our nation.  Jesus became a servant of the Jews so that people who are not Jews could give glory to God for his mercy. It is written, “I will praise you among those who aren’t Jews. I will sing praises to you.” Again it says, “You non-Jews, be full of joy. Be joyful together with God’s people.” And again it says, “All you non-Jews, praise the Lord. All you nations, sing praises to him.” And Isaiah says, “The Root of Jesse will grow up quickly. He will rule over the nations. Those who aren’t Jews will put their hope in him.”

May the God who gives hope fill you with great joy. May you have perfect peace as you trust in him. May the power of the Holy Spirit fill you with hope.            ____________________________________________

Today is the first day of Advent, the season when we prepare to welcome Jesus. Our parish has a one-word theme each week, and this week’s word is HOPE. Hope, in the way the way Christians use the word, is more than just wishful thinking, it’s trusting that God has a plan for our lives and that his promises of restoration and rebuilding will come true.

At the start of Advent the Church looks back to a time before Jesus, when God’s people were without hope. They were living in exile, separated from family and unable to communicate with them, grieving for those who had been killed in war, unable to do their usual jobs.   Doesn’t that sound familiar, as we spend this advent still reeling from the effects of the virus?

Like them, we may feel we have nothing to hope for. But God sent prophets with a message of hope, that he would rescue his people and take them back to where they belonged, restoring relationships and building communities.

The words of the prophets did come true – God restored the Jews to their land.  But there was more, a greater hope that God would one day come himself to reconcile his people – not only the Jews, but all people on earth, even those most excluded from society.  That’s why in this reading St Paul tells his readers to “accept one another” or in other translations, “welcome each other”– he was talking to Jewish and non-Jewish Christians, but the same applies wherever there is division in society.

This call to welcome others is especially relevant today, when we see so much division, so much inequality, so much discrimination in our world.  Never forget, Paul says, that God’s promise of hope is to all people, but most of all to the excluded.

Indian-fishermen

What does this look like in practice?  Take these fishermen. They live in a village called MGR Thittu in Tamil Nadu, south India which we visited in 20o6 with Tearfund.  They are Dalits, those below the bottom tier of the caste system.  They were cut off from society, poor, despised, uneducated, unable to work in the towns. Then the 2004 tsunami hit them, destroyed their boats and their homes.  They had no hope.  But Indian Christians from an organisation called EFICOR (with financial support from Tearfund in the UK), and Christian Aid, came to their rescue with a practical message of hope.  They built new homes, gave them new boats, and opened a computer teaching centre so that they could learn to use the Internet, get jobs in the city and become part of mainstream society. Above all, the Christians brought a message of God’s unconditional love.  Several of the Dalits turned to Christ and now there is a local church in their village.

That’s what Advent hope looks like in India.  But who are the excluded people who God is calling you to welcome? Who are the people God is calling you to bring hope to, this Advent?

[Postscript: since I drafted this earlier this week, Tearfund have asked for prayer for the Tamil Nadu region as it has been hit by a severe cyclone, with large numbers of people evacuated from the coastal areas.  Pray that once again, they may be given hope for the future].

The Bible in a Year – 13 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

13 December. Hebrews chapters 7-10

Chapters 5 to 10 are a lengthy explanation (originally for the benefit of Jewish readers) of how Jesus has superseded all the requirements of the Jewish law, at least those that relate to sacrifices, food laws and anything else to do with Temple ritual.   Judaism has of course moved on itself since those days and no longer has a Temple or sacrifices, so the distinction is not as great as it was.  But the point is still worth making, that Jesus started a completely new way of relating to God.

There are several points to the writer’s argument, and some of them (such as Jesus being equivalent to the obscure priest-king Melchizedek from the time of Abraham) are rather too obscure to explore here.  More to the point is the fact that the old system of sacrifice required an endless succession of priests who died like everyone else, making regular sacrifices in a specific place (the Tabernacle or Temple), using animal blood, to forgive sins that had been committed, but could not achieve atonement (putting right) for sins that people had not yet committed. So there was no end to that system and it had no effectiveness outside the Jewish community who participated in the rituals.

Until Jesus, that is. He came as the one who outlived death, so requires no successor.  He shed his own innocent blood instead of that of young animals, so no animal sacrifices are needed. He ascended into heaven and is therefore connected with all places at all times, so his sacrifice is also effective at all times and places. And he came for the benefit of all humanity, whether or not of Jewish heritage.

So why does the Church re-enact Jesus’ last meal (and thus symbolically his sacrifice) every day in many places, and at least every month in most congregations?  Isn’t it enough to take Communion once, as we are baptised only once?  Although Jesus’ death is effective at forgiving the sins of those who confess them in faith, we fallible people constantly need to be reminded of that.

We also need to be reminded regularly that “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (9:28), which is why we have the annual season of Advent in which we are now living.  And “in a very little while, the one who is coming will come and will not delay; but my righteous one will live by faith.” (10:37).

 

The Bible in a Year – 10 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

10 December. Titus chapters 1-3

The letter to Titus is similar in its content to those to Timothy: both men are given instructions on who will make a suitable elder or bishop, guidance for living with integrity, and guidance on how to teach older and younger men and older women (it was for the latter to teach the younger women, presumably to avoid any impropriety).

One difference is the hint found here in Titus of the hope in the Second Coming.  I’m picking that out as it is one of the themes of the present season of Advent.  Paul writes: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds” (2:11‑14).

The theme of Advent is often said to be that of waiting patiently for Jesus to return.   But that does not mean doing nothing.  On the contrary, the call is to be active in good works, as Jesus indicated in his various stories of the ten maidens with lamps, the tenants in the vineyard, and the rich man with his overflowing barns.  So Paul also writes here that Christians should “be careful to devote themselves to good works”.

He also tells them to avoid “stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” (3:8-9). It’s so easy to let our energies be diverted by discussions and debates, whether it is about politics, morality or church customs.  Not that any of these are inappropriate subjects for discussion, but if they distract us from the basic call of Jesus to serve the needs of others in his name, or if they result in divisions and distrust within the Church, then we have our priorities wrong.  When Jesus returns, there is nothing in the scriptures to suggest that he will judge people according to their preferred style of worship, the political party they support or how they have earned their living.  He will, however, judge us (living or dead) on what good or harm we have done for other people, whether immediate neighbours or unseen people across the world. Good works don’t save us, but unrepented evil acts will condemn us.

Hear again what Jesus will do on that day for which we wait: “purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds”.  That is the Advent call.

The Bible in a Year – 2 November

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

2 November. Matthew chapters 23-24

Much of the teaching of Jesus about the Kingdom has, until this point, been positive: stories and examples of how living his way, loving one’s neighbour and being generous, will bring peace and joy.  But now it suddenly takes a much darker tone.

Following the conflict with the Pharisees and Sadducees in chapter 21 (yesterday’s reading) Jesus knows that his time is short and they are set against him.  So he drops all restraint and, in chapter 23, lets loose a series of devastating public criticisms, labelling them hypocrites, fools, blind guides and “whitewashed tombs” (clean looking on the outside but with untouchable death within). Their teaching was supposed to draw people into the covenant relationship with God, but instead only drew them into their own brand of legalism.

Following that confrontation, Jesus leaves the Temple – surely in a mood of anger, not peace – and starts telling his disciples just how bad the early years of the Church would be for them.  Not only would there be ongoing persecution right from the start, but wars, revolutions, famines and earthquakes – all the events that make societies unstable and life uncertain.  Before long these would usher in the “last day”. Jesus describes this in apocalyptic terms of darkness, fear, fleeing quickly with few possessions, when “the desolating sacrilege stands in the holy place” (24:15).  This latter reference is usually taken to refer to the destruction of the Temple in AD70, a generation after the Resurrection of Jesus, when the Jewish people would be forced out of the Promised Land for a second time, for what would turn out to be nearly two thousand years.  Christians, though, have always had a parallel understanding of an eventual “second coming”, or “rapture”, when the followers of Christ would be saved from the final destruction that will come upon humanity. This is too big a subject to explore in depth here.

The one glimmer of light in all this is that during this time of persecution and war, “this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations” (24:14).  So the purpose of the church is not to being about peace on earth, which we will never have more than fleetingly among what is generally a violent society and a dangerous world, but to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven as the good news that there is an alternative to earthly suffering and certain death, and Jesus is the key to it.  No wonder the refrain of Advent is “Come quickly, Lord Jesus!”