Third Sunday of Advent (Year C)
Sunday 13 December 2009
9.00 Communion Stone, 10.30 Communion Appledore
Let us Pray:
O God our Father, we are preparing to celebrate the birth of your Son Jesus Christ. While we recall his coming as a tiny baby in weakness and humility, may we be reminded that one day he will come again in power and glory. Keep each of us watching, waiting and faithful to your call to be your church in this place. Amen.
During Advent we traditionally light candles on the Advent wreath.
Whilst, on one level, the advent wreath is simply an attractive visual aid that helps us to see Christmas drawing closer week by week there are also traditions associated with the wreath and the meaning of each candle.
Does anyone know what the candles are associated with?
Advent 1 – The Patriachs – Abraham, our Father in faith to David, the ancestor in whose city Jesus was born.
Advent 2 – The Old Testament Prophets who foretold the coming messiah
Advent 3 – John the Baptist who paved the way for Christ
Advent 4 – The Virgin Mary, who said yes to God and was with Christ from the manger to the cross
Christmas Day – Jesus Christ
Other custom designates the four candles as the prophecy candle, the Bethlehem candle, the shepherd candle, and the angel candle.
Another tradition refers to the four themes of hope, love, joy, and peace.
This morning I want to think briefly about how the Anglican tradition concerning the candles – Patriachs, Prophets, John the Baptism and the Virgin Mary, tell us something about how we can and should be as a church. There is obviously enough material here for a whole sermon series but as I am only here for this week we are going to have the edited one week version!
So the first Candle – the Patriarchs.
Now I have to say that when I was at theology college the very word Patriarch was thought of and used by some as the worst sort of left over from a bygone age – sometimes the principal was called a Patrician behind his back, it was intended as a complaint or even an insult but I think that he might have liked it had he known.
Of course “Patriarch” is just another name for “Father” and it refers here to the fathers of the nation of Israel – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I want to think about two things concerning Abraham from which we can learn.
The first, of course, was his personal faith. When God called him to leave behind the land that he knew and to follow God’s call to an unknown place that is exactly what he did –Abraham stepped out in faith. There is something that we can all learn from that faithful response to the call of God. When God calls us as individuals do we follow or do we hide?
But the story of Abraham is not merely the story of personal faith and personal growth. Because of his trust in God Abraham become the leader first of a great family and then the ancestor of all the Jewish tribes. So the story of Abraham is the story of personal faith being deeply connected with collective faith and that should speak to us as a church. We are not merely here as un-connected individuals – yes, in many ways we are each called here for different reasons and out of different motives and we each come here from our own lives but as a church we are not merely a group of individuals we are something much greater than that – we are part of the family of God in this place, brothers and sisters in Christ. So the Patriarchs remind us that we are all part of the same family of worship and that it is better to journey together in faith than wander alone.
The Second Candle is the Old Testament Prophets, who foretold the coming of God’s Messiah.
The Old Testament contains huge numbers of prophetic writings from Isaiah to Zachariah who each, in their different ways, spoke about the coming of Israel’s saviour, often as a corrective against a society that had lost its way. As a church we should certainly be aiming to both learn from the prophets and to be prophetic ourselves. Being prophetic does not simply mean telling the future like a monotheistic Gypsy Rose Lee but rather it means being willing to interpret the present state of the world against God’s standards of loving justice and then not being afraid to speak up and speak out at the gap between the two. What does this mean? It means that we as a church should not be afraid to speak prophetically about social injustice, about environmental vandalism, about the subjugation of faith in the face of secularism. We should not be afraid to speak out prophetically about our faith and not be afraid or embarrassed by what we do on a Sunday – we can and should be a nation of prophets proclaiming the coming Messiah, especially in this time of Advent.
And that brings us nicely to the Third Candle – John the Baptist. I am a huge fan of John the Baptist and I will be thinking about him further in tonight’s evensong sermon. He was obviously an enormously important character at the time of Jesus’ ministry. In appearance he looks like Elijah from hundreds of years earlier – and John is also a prophet who was preparing the way – but not for a future Messiah but rather for the actual Messiah, his cousin Jesus Christ.
And how did he prepare the way for Christ? By calling for those around him to repent of their sins and to be baptised into a new life directed towards God. Now each of us as individuals should be preparing the way for Christ in our own hearts by a constant repentance and re-immersion in the cleansing power of God’s Holy Spirit – but perhaps we as a church should also take the challenge of John seriously in a collective fashion and not be afraid to say that there are things going on in the world that need repentance and baptism – if we live in a wilderness of non-belief we can either give up and go home or we can seek to prepare the way of the Lord.
Well, so far it has all been a bit masculine hasn’t it – the patriarchs, the prophets and John the Baptist are all very male and I think that it was for that reason that some of my colleagues at college felt so strongly about patriarchy. The Fourth Candle reminds us that there is a feminine side to what it means to be the church and that, of course, is represented here by the Virgin Mary.
Now it has to be said that the Virgin Mary gets a bit of a rough deal in Churches that came out of the Reformation. It is of course true that pre-reformation Catholicism elevated the adoration of Mary too far but, unfortunately, the response of the reformation churches has often been to ignore her or just to be a bit embarrassed by her. But to sideline the Virgin Mary is not only to sideline an important feminine influence on our thinking and behaviour but it is also to lose out on some important lessons.
Firstly, like Abraham, the Virgin Mary said “yes” to God when he called her to turn her life upside down and it was because of that “yes” that the family of God that comes from Christ was born. If Abraham’s “yes” gave birth to Israel, then, in both a literal and a figurative sense, Mary’s “yes” gave birth to Christ and hence the Church. And as his Mother Mary was with Jesus throughout his life – she was beside him at the manger in Bethlehem and she was beside him at the foot of the cross.
We will shortly be celebrating the nativity and it is very easy to draw close to Jesus as a baby in a manger – after all it is a beautiful and unthreatening scene which is accompanied by some great carols. But sticking with Christ all the way to the cross is another thing entirely and it even proved too much for most of the early disciples. And yet that is our call, and it is the same as Mary’s call – to say ‘yes” to God and to stick close to Jesus all the way from the Manger to the Cross.
Finally all four candles – the Patriarchs, the Prophets, John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary, all have one thing in common and it is the most important lesson for us to learn both as individual Christians and as a Church. They are standing in a circle with Christ in the middle. They are all in relationship with each other but they are each defined by having Jesus standing in their midst.
As a Church and as individuals we should remember always that without Christ at the centre of who we are and what we do then we lose are very reason for being. Our purpose in life as a church is to say “Yes” to God, to prepare the way for Christ by calling the world and ourselves to repentance and baptism in God’s presence and to stick close to Christ through thick and thin knowing that he is always at the centre, at Advent, at Christmas and for eternity.