Isaiah 11. 1-10, Psalm 72. 1-7,18-19, Romans 15. 4-13, Matthew 3. 1-12
‘Tis time the get the decorations out and deck the halls with holly. Or maybe you’re one of those who leaves decorating until Christmas Eve. Me? I try to get in there at the start of Advent and then I don’t have to worry about it as services accumulate. Then I leave it up all the way to Candlemas.
The second Sunday of Advent is all about transformation. Transformation of what? Of whom? I’d like to take you back a couple of Sundays to the 24thNovember. Christ the King. I began my sermon in St Peter’s with a statement. An exclamation. Christ is King! Hallelujah! And only one person responded. I wondered what the sermon slot is for? Is it so one can mentally make their shopping list? Or for one to settle into a half comatose position, mind wandering, with one half an ear open? Christ is King! What? You want a response? Yes, actually, I do.
You see, Christ is either king or he is not. At the end of the liturgical year, which we celebrate on the 24thNovember, we get to shout it loud. Over the rooftops, that our Christ is king! Are we so lukewarm, like the churches described in Revelation, that that fact Christ is king is neither here nor there? The fact is, Christ is either King in your lives, or he is not.
The Christ redeemed humanity by being the ultimate sacrifice. A sacrifice of peace. What we, surely do, each time we share the peace. There may be those with whom we have grumps and perhaps they have germs too. But we share the peace with each other, not because we should be seen to do so, or because we’re grownups or children, but because we are called to do so as Christians. Yes, there may be times that people don’t wish to shake hands for medical or other reasons, but there should never be offence felt by either the giver or the receiver. The grace that God gives us is sufficient to cover all this. We are redeemed. We are freed. Released. We were slaves in captivity but the Christ’s sacrifice freed us. Surely then, when I shout ‘Christ is King!’ it is a poignant moment for celebration?
He brings in a kingdom of truth and life. Not one of half-lies or half-truths. Not one of manipulation or blackmail. One of freedom, where the church can grow, without being held back because of fears. A kingdom of life. Each of us, who has accepted the Christ into our lives has that life, that kingdom, within us. We are in that kingdom, where the Christ is king!
As we come to the altar – the Lord’s table, we jostle together with our sisters and brothers. Knowing that the first will be the last, and the last will be the first. We come together, shoulder to shoulder, with our hurts, and aches, and germs. We lay all of this on the Lord’s table. Through the Eucharist, we are transformed through the Holy Spirit into one people – the people of God. The Eucharist is not just about eating the bread and drinking the wine and toddling off to our seats to wait for the end of the service. Every part of our gathering today – enacting the liturgy and praying the prayer of consecration remakes us as part of the church triumphant – if only we allow it. Christ is either king in your life, or he is not.
Then, suddenly, we found ourselves in Advent. I read a blog recently that asked about the six days between Christ the King and Advent 1. I wonder, have you ever thought about the transition period? What happens then? Is it like the six days of creation where the Spirit hovered over the deep? The deep things of God? His thoughts? His love for us? Or was there no thought, no adjustment as we entered Advent?
We’re looking for Christmas – that’s all there is to it. It’s just around the corner, isn’t it? Children getting excited, the marketing’s doing its stuff and the large corporations have been working for months thinking of ways for us to part with our hard-earned cash. The expectation is that we know what is to come. We know that we celebrate the birth of the Christ child. That knowledge is drummed into our heads.
Advent, the expectation, the hope, the joy. It’s all about a new reality. One, that if we really want it, will spur us into stepping out in faith in a way that we have not done so before. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ in me.” We have a solidarity in grace that is pervading our lives in a way that it has not done so before. It stirs something up within us that we can’t quite put a finger on, or understand, or see.
I wonder…what are our deepest desires as Christians? To feel affirmation? To be loved? To know that it is unconditional? None of these can ever be met by humans in the way that God can reach out. Perhaps, you feel that these desires have a ‘once-upon-a-time’ mentality or finality to them? Perhaps, something or someone happened, got in the way, and these desires have been somehow deadened or defeated? Much of that is because we don’t want to reignite pain in our lives. I’m talking about mental pain or anguish.
I recently watched on telly the documentary into Dag Hammarskjold’s life and death. It occurred about 15 years before I was born but the legacy of the secrecy that surrounded his death pervaded not just my life, but probably the lives of every expat in sub-Saharan Africa. I was reminded of things, events, that I had consciously buried deep. The mental anguish that accompanied that pain still had an effect. I had to consciously stop what I was doing and mentally hand it over to God. To lay it there, at his feet, at the foot of the altar, and consciously step into the new reality that God has for me. Me in Him, and Him in me. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ in me.”
Deadening of pain, of course, can occur in a variety of ways. Some turn to alcohol, or drugs, or work. Deadening the body’s natural responses suppresses the desire to change. By dealing with suffering, we can start dealing with hope. God is hope. He is love. He is relationship. All the things we need and desire in our yearning for affirmation of who we are.
If relating to God means we have a relationship, then spirituality – our desire – is the compassion that builds and nurtures genuine relationships. Without spirituality, religion becomes legalistic. Bound in rules and regulations. Without an adherence to a faith community, i.e. a religious community – spirituality can become all about the I. The ego. Self-centred. Presuming to have all the answers.
We need a balance. We need the mystical understanding of grace flowing throughout our lives in a way that nothing else can achieve. We can find that through our participation of the Eucharist. Our participation in the Holy Mysteries of God. Are we willing to allow ourselves to glimpse the light of God and take our first step, this Advent season towards that future? Are we willing to trust, like the patriarchs and matriarchs did? Like the prophets? That enough light lies ahead – and trust that God has got our future in mind? Are we willing to bring all of that to the altar of God?
We have a choice in Advent, and we don’t tend to do altar calls in the Episcopal church, but I’m going to buck that trend, and do so from here. Either you can choose to live with the pain and anguish that rules and marrs every interaction, or you can choose to bring it with you to the altar, to the Lord’s table. There, you leave it. You lay it down, and you ask God through his bread and wine to transform you from inside. Are you willing to step into this new reality, and go with the transformation of God in your bodies and out into the world?