17.12.17 – SERMON FOR THE THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT | 17.12.17 – SERMON FOR THE THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT

X May I speak in the name of the God of peace – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.“

I don’t know about you, but I always hear that passage with a great yearning in my chest.  I am the one thirsty for good tidings.  I am brokenhearted.  I am captive.  I am bound.  And I long for the God of peace to sanctify me, make me sound in spirit and soul and body.  The Isaiah passage is very beautiful: who would not want to exchange “beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness”?  What about becoming a tree of righteousness?  Whenever I hear it, I think: “Yes, that’s it – that’s what I’ve been wanting.”  Well, in 1 Thessalonians we’re told that the one who calls us “is faithful, and he will do this”.  Yes, but when, oh Lord?

Let’s look at timing first, then.  In my experience, “when” is not anything fixed or linear.  There are those few times when I feel sound, when everything seems to hang together and the God of peace is very close.  There are, alas, rather more times when I feel captive and far off.  And then there are the memorable times when I feel both strongly at once.  My confused and confusing humanity opens up just enough to hear the God of peace and to recognise at the same time that it’s my confused humanity that he loves and wants to use – because ours are the hands and feet and eyes that Christ has in the world now, to do his work.  I’ve heard this with my ears and acknowledge it with my head, but at those times I know it with my spirit and soul and body.

Today’s passage from Isaiah is what Jesus chooses as his job description when he begins his ministry at the synagogue in his home town.  And if we are to be doing his work, it is our job description too.  So all those things I want to feel – the joy of good news, balm for my heart and release from my chains – it’s those things I should be helping others to feel if I am to do Christ’s work.  I am to help those who mourn, and be a builder and mender even in the face of the desolation of generations.  When I was a teacher and headteacher, the job description seemed very apt.  Now I preach and offer spiritual direction, it still fits the work, however clumsily I carry it out.  Luckily, the ones who come to work in the field late in the day get the same pay – because it’s the work that matters, not who does it, and all Christ’s hands belong to clumsy human latecomers like me.

At this point, just for a moment, stop and think of someone you know who offers you that love and hope.  I’m not thinking of the great leaders, here, though we sure need them; I’m thinking of the less showy but essential builders and menders.

With that person in mind – and just for the record, I’m thinking of my maternal grandmother – how do they achieve the sense of peace and release which they give to people?  Of the people I have met, it strikes me that they all give off an almost luminous sense of calm.  Not that they are not energetic, and sometimes as mad as a prophet crying in the wilderness, but there’s an inner calm, a tentative, shining certainty in them, which allows all my hackles to lie down.  Unlike the blind conviction of the maniac, that certainty is not about their own rightness, but about the possibility of things coming right – and again, not just for them but for all of us.  Whoever they are, and in whatever faith tradition or none, they have not only a vision of that possibility but a grasp of how it could happen.  Even if they claim to have no religious faith, they are still making straight the way of the Lord – making it easy for Christ’s work to be done.  And even if they have no religious faith, that hope comes of a faith in humanity – often against the odds and against the evidence – which provides the same inner peace.  The Bible tells how God has the same faith.

Thessalonians offers us a blueprint for how we might shine like this: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances…  Do not quench the Spirit.  Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.”  This sounds like busy, hard work.  But if you look closely, rejoicing always, praying without ceasing and giving thanks in all circumstances are more about an attitude than activity.  When you look on the bright side and walk about in a spirit of thanks (this too is prayer), the bright kernel of hope and love grows in you.  The Holy Spirit is constantly welling up inside us – we actually work quite hard to quench it and douse that attitude of thanks and optimism.  So just stop working so hard!

Yes, test what you hear but listen to Isaiah, listen to Paul, listen to what those quiet people sent to you from God are telling you.

We all make mistakes but we can still hold fast to what is good and abstain from evil when we recognise it for what it is.  This is a blueprint, not a prescription, something we flesh out with our individuality – how to become “a person sent from God” ourselves.

To finish, I want to return to becoming a tree of righteousness.  This lovely image suggests many things.  A flexible strength and sturdiness which that tentative inner calm can give, not just to us but to those who meet us.  It suggests a slow growth and maturing – there’s hope for us all.  It suggests a great variety of types – beech, rowan, banyan – there’s hope for us all.  And it also suggests a stillness beneath outer movement – that inner calm.  To me, in particular, it suggests a poem which I will share with you.  Mary Oliver is someone who expresses for me that attitude of openness to God and joyful thankfulness for his glory in creation – whatever the circumstances  – a contemplative attitude which is not about my busy, hard work, but just about him.

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks, and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.

I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”

The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,”
they say, “and you, too, have come
into the world to do this, to go easy,
to be filled with light, and to shine.”

Amen