What are you waiting for?!

What are you waiting for?


Sermon preached on Advent Sunday 2015

(Texts Jeremiah 33: 14-16 and Luke 21: 25-36)

 I started work on this sermon with a clear vision in mind – one which was as vivid as today’s gospel account and only slightly less formidable!

It was a vision not of the Son of man, however, but of the actress Stephanie Cole and her character “Diana” from the 1990s series “Waiting for God”.

In that series Diana is a rather feisty resident of Golden Acres retirement home who, alongside her neighbour – the slightly befuddled Tom – flatly refuses to grow old gracefully. And they seem to spend every waking hour causing chaos both for their families and the home’s rather proscriptive management team.

Diana is the archetypal maiden aunt – who speaks her mind without restraint – who finds fault where others might turn a blind eye – and who, underneath a very stern exterior, has a rather childish sense of fun.

And so I had in mind both Diana, and the title of the series – “Waiting for God” – as I turned my thoughts to the beginning of Advent.

We are then entering the season of “waiting” – waiting for the coming of “God with us”.

Both our readings seem to be pointing us forwards –and with a certain sense of urgency. What’s rather odd is that Jeremiah and Luke seem to have swapped places!

Jeremiah – seems to spend most of his time moaning, alienated from his people in order to proclaim God’s judgement on them: those of us who periodically wade through the book of Jeremiah at Morning Prayer can testify that he’s hardly an uplifting read.

And yet here – from chapter 33 – there’s a lovely little snippet – full of hope and God’s reassurance that if the people wait patiently for him they will be restored: “Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.” A wonderful vision that is all the more compelling from the lips of Jeremiah – the prophet of doom.

But then what is Luke up to?

Luke normally gives us nice things to read – it’s Luke who gives us Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat, as the birth of Jesus is announced to her – it’s Luke who gives us the detail of the Nativity – shepherds with their flocks, the stable and manger for the new-born messiah.

So, again, it’s a bit of a shock to find a rather different tone in today’s reading – it’s almost as if he’s making up Jeremiah’s light-heartedness!

Here Luke is also pointing forward to something new – but with dire warnings along the way.

At the very least, there’s a sense that – even as we await Christ’s coming again – it’s more like waiting for Diana, the maiden aunt, who may well upbraid us publicly for our sloppy appearance, or any other number of failings, rather than awaiting an old friend whose appearance will immediately fill our hearts with joy.

You’ve probably seen – on fridge magnets, or postcards and similar places – the phrase “Jesus is coming – look busy!” And I think there’s a hint of that in Luke’s reading. Both Jeremiah and Luke seem to be urging us to be on the lookout – to be alert to what is going on around us – and to know what or whom it is that we are waiting for.

Luke uses the image of the fig tree to demonstrate the way we notice the changing of the seasons and, by analogy, urges us to learn to read the signs of the times –  AND the signs of God’s coming kingdom.

We are not to be terrified by events – appalling though they may be – because what lies beyond will be unimaginably better than now. But we do need to be ready.

“Be alert at all time”, says Luke, “praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

So, in this season of “waiting for God”, how DO we prepare ourselves for his arrival??

On one level it may be rather like awaiting our sternest maiden aunt – we may attend to those things in our lives that we know are most likely to draw critical comment, to minimise the embarrassment of meeting. We want to “appear” before Christ in the best light possible.

And we might also want to refresh our memories as to what it is we’re looking for: it would not go down too well with Aunt Diana if we turned up at the station to meet her off the train, only to fail to recognise her on the platform.

And Luke seems to ask how sure we are that we will recognise the Son of Man when he comes again – and whether we NOW recognise what God is up to in our midst?

So, although we may not relish the prospect, we do need to engage with the less comforting passages of scripture, as well as the “fluffy tales” of Christmas – in order to remind ourselves of Christ’s teachings – of the “kingdom values” we are meant to be living out and looking out for in our communities now – so that we can prepare ourselves for the time when we will stand before the Son of man.

We’re used to the notion of Lenten resolutions – preparing for Easter by a season of restraint or of active preparation. Could we then use Advent in a similar way to prepare ourselves more methodically?

Perhaps we might spend a few minutes each day reading from scripture – a Psalm a day, or stepping through a particular Gospel – or even Jeremiah!

We might keep a particular time of prayer during each day (over and above what we normally do) – to help sharpen our senses.

Or, if you are accustomed to lighting an advent candle each day – why not spend 5 minutes just sitting and watching it burn? And as you gaze at the flame – try to “be still in the presence of the Lord” (to borrow a phrase from the Psalms).

Whatever might work best for you, perhaps we can share a common Advent resolution to “be alert”, to look beyond ourselves – to the things that lie ahead for us – and to try to become more aware now of God’s presence – surrounding us and within us.

Greater love …

Sermon preached on “Remembrance Sunday”

Recently , I found myself engaged in a conversation about the way that certain songs, or pieces of music, can become associated in our own minds with a particular time or place. It may only need a few bars of music, or a specific phrase to be sung, and we are plunged back ten, twenty thirty years – and in our minds eye we’re transported to another time and place – among the sights and sounds and possibly even the smell – of a long-forgotten episode in our lives. For a short time, those sensations are incredibly vivid and real.

For me, one such “trigger” is the phrase we often hear at Remembrance services – “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”.

I first came across those words, as a 17 year-old, singing with a scratch choir of students in the Chapel of Oundle School, near Peterborough. It’s a large and impressive Chapel, built in 1921 as a memorial to those killed in World War 1.

As with our parish church, there is an apse – a curved wall – behind the Altar.  And, unlike the building here, there is beyond the apse an “ambulatory” – a corridor – curving round below the level of the high windows, from one side of the chapel to the other.

And it’s to that place that MY mind travels as soon as I hear the phrase “Greater love hath no man than this”.

What I remember most is a series of colourful stained glass windows, showing the Seven Ages of Man – travelling through from Infancy – a bonny baby sitting on a mat – to old age (described on the final window as “the second childishness”).

Along the way there are some lovely, humorous touches: in the second window, “the schoolboy” is shown – trudging reluctantly to class, with text books scrumpled under one arm and hands firmly in pockets. The 6th age, by contrast, shows a rather self-important looking school master – clutching a sheet of geometry homework, with several crossings out and corrections on it … still definitely in red ink (not allowed these days!).

In between the windows, however, there is something of a contrast: etched on the pale stone are three large black crosses, each with golden rays radiating from the centre. And, beneath the arms of each cross, are the names of old boys of the school who didn’t make it through the Great War – along with their faded photographs.

I think what hit me at the time, and what stays with me even now, is that peculiar blend of colour and beauty and gentle humour, alongside the starkness of that cold, dark stone memorial – and the reality that lay behind it.

It gives the impression of mixed emotions – of tremendous pride AND profound regret – a sense that somehow the natural order of things had been disrupted.

It serves as a reminder that, among the proud young men of Oundle School, there were some who experienced perhaps the first four “ages of man” – infant, schoolboy, lover and soldier – but knew no more of life than that.

In the setting of a school, surrounded by the vibrancy and optimism of youth, the words “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” take on a particular significance and poignancy.

On one level, of course, those words actually have nothing at all to do with Oundle School, or with the Great War or with any other conflict.

They were first written in St. John’s Gospel, where Jesus is preparing his friends for his own death.  Contained within a passage about love – those familiar words seem to be concerned with revealing the depth of Jesus’ love for his friends and the depth of God’s love for his people.

And they certainly provide no mandate either for bloodlust – or for the cult of martyrdom that exists today among some religious fanatics – the suicide bombers and others who imagine that acts of terrorism somehow promote the will of God.  Jesus commanded his friends to love, not hate.

In appropriating those words, and associating them with those who’ve died in war – we are using them for a very different purpose from that intended by the person who first wrote them down, sometime in the first century AD.

But then that kind of “appropriation” – of relating the Scriptures to our own context – is a natural part of our Christian tradition, and especially in relation to Jesus himself:  It IS in trying to make sense of his life that we start to make sense of our own.

By exploring the meaning of Jesus’ words and actions, and the real human emotions that he grappled with, we begin to recognise shadows of our own humanity – and the means to cope with the challenges that WE face.

Jesus died for his friends, but he taught them to live for each other.

And – for most of us at least – it’s that kind of sacrificial living – in a way that puts the welfare of the whole community ahead of our own personal ambitions – that we need to embrace if we are to preserve the peace which has been so dearly bought.

Even as we give thanks for 70 years of peace, we sense that there are new challenges for us to meet. Recent events in Mogadishu and Egypt, and the ongoing tensions in Syria and Sudan and elsewhere, the huge number of refugees forced to flee their war-torn homes, all serve to remind us that there are real and present threats to that peace.

If we are going to meet those challenges, then we need to be ready to show support for our armed forces in confronting those who now seek to undermine the cause of peace.

If we are going to meet those challenges, then all of us need to be resolved to work across differences of religious or political outlook – to escape the cycle of greed and the struggle for power over others, that keep the human race divided.

All of us need to be alert to the circumstances that allow individuals, or groups within our own nation to become alienated from mainstream society – all of us need to be aware of the tensions and inequalities that lead to strife between nations – and to do whatever we can to bring about a more stable situation.

Even today, then, we need to recount our tales of heroism – whether they be about the young men of Oundle School, or the men commemorated on our War Memorial outside, or anyone else.

We need to remember those who overcame their fears – to confront the evils of their day – so that we might be encouraged to believe that it is possible for us to do so today.

We need to remember the stories not just of the men who died, but also of their wives or girlfriends, their parents and families, their neighbours and their school-friends.

We need to remember the stories of those who survived war, but whose lives were shattered.

And we need to remember the stories of those who “gave their lives” in other ways – working tirelessly to rebuild those shattered lives and to create a better future, not only for their friends, but for the generations to come.

As we remember them all, and their experiences of the past, they may yet teach us how to live for tomorrow.