Advent 2 2014
Sunday 7 December 2014
Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8
May I speak this morning in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If you were properly awake when we started the service you may have noticed that we lit the first and second of our advent candles to mark the fact that we have now started the second week of our advent journey to Christmas. One or two people have mentioned to me that they were surprised to see three purple and one pink advent candles rather than the four red ones that may have been used here in previous years.
You can probably tell that I am desperately trying to avoid four candle jokes at this point – I think I got away with it.
I explained that I prefer these colours to plain red firstly because purple is the liturgical colour of the season and secondly because the pink candle represents Mary on the last Sunday of Advent, which is also called Gaudete or ‘rejoice’ Sunday, and is intended to be a real lightening of the mood as Christmas is nearly upon us. Some Churches don’t just have a pink candle on that day but they also have pink vestments and hangings and so forth. In fact there are two Sundays in the year in which pink, or rose, vestments can be worn – one is Gaudete Sunday in Advent does anyone know when the other is and what it is called? Laetare Sunday in Lent, which we also know as Mothering Sunday.
The amazing thing about this job is that I could, if I wished, wear a pink frock in public twice a year and still be semi-respectable. And that’s before we even get to finishing off a whole load of wine at the end of the service.
Anyway, as people asked about the candles I thought that it wouldn’t do any harm to spend a few minutes reflecting on the meaning of the advent candles. Now I have to say at the outset that this is only one interpretation of the candles and how they relate to each week’s readings and this is not set in stone as the emphasis of the readings does change slightly from year to year – so this is intended as a helicopter view rather than a microscope view.
So, with that caveat in place, what do they each stand for:
Advent 1 – The Patriachs
Advent 2 – The Old Testament Prophets
Advent 3 – John the Baptist
Advent 4 – the Pink one – as I mentioned – The Virgin Mary
Christmas Day – Jesus Christ
So the first Candle, last week’s candle, – the Patriarchs.
When I was at theology college the very word Patriarch was 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 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. This is one of those years when the reading for today was more to do with John the Baptist than the Old Testament prophets, which goes back to what I was saying about these things not being set in stone but which also emphasises the fact that John is very much in the character of an old testament prophet and, in many ways, provides a bridge between Old and New testaments. He was obviously an enormously important character at the time of Jesus’ ministry. In appearance he looked 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. However 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.
In a few short weeks we shall 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 – after all that I said 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 our 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.