The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s149g06 Advent 2 10/12/2006
'in the fifteenth year .. the word of God came to John ..' Luke 3.1
How fortunate we are that week by week, month by month, year after year, clergy have got up in pulpits all around the world and, after reading, study, prayer and preparation have sought to bring, to you and to me, the word of God!
As a person who has done this for some time, let me let you into a secret. It is far, far easier to be the guest preacher somewhere, than it is to preach to essentially the same congregation, week after week. So the great preachers of the world the Wesleys and the Billy Grahams actually have a far easier task than the humble clergyperson who gets up in front of you week after week. The Wesleys and the Billy Grahams have really only one sermon, honed and refined after many deliveries to different audiences. So for me the really great preachers of this world are not those who attract huge crowds as they wander around the world. The great preachers are those who deliver, week after week, some reflections on the readings from scripture that differ each Sunday.
Soon after I was ordained it happened that I had a bishop come for a confirmation service. He gave a wonderful dissertation without a note in front of him - lasting about 45 minutes. While I thoroughly appreciated his theology, his scholarship and his delivery, after the first 15 minutes I wondered if he would leave anything for me to say next Sunday ..
Much of our 'Christianity' is all about hoping that the minister will attract lots of people like the 'Wesleys' and the 'Billy Grahams' of this world - so we can quietly retire and leave it to others to carry on without, of course, changing anything.
In every congregation of which I have been a member, the people come because they like what is happening. They might like the doctrine espoused, the ritual practiced, the fellowship enjoyed. The task of evangelism becomes getting the minister to communicate what we like about church attendance to others, to get others to come, to appreciate what we appreciate .. But like what I like - is not the word of God! And the converse - if you don't like what I like you will go to everlasting damnation is also not the word of God.
So inevitably congregations are caught in a bind. In this very fluid society, where people go where it suits rather than where they are obliged, congregations are caught in promoting what they see as valuable, and being open to changes that others, if they were actually to come, will inevitably make.
A week of so ago I attended a local fundraiser and the band there sung John Paul Young's song 'Love is in the air' and I made the 'flippant' comment that we should sing this as an introit in Church one day. No doubt it would be sung more heartily that most of the introits I have heard sung in Church. I remember thinking, soon after I was ordained, a long time ago now, how wonderful it would be to have some of the music of 'Jonathon Livingston Seagull' during the mass. I have never achieved this. One young organist I know had the temerity to play the tune of "Rudulph, the red nosed reindeer' as a recessional after the traditional carol service some years ago. Despite the congregation stopping and heartily clapping this, it was never repeated. No doubt someone quietly told him that this was not appropriate in 'our' church.
The trouble with the word of God is that it doesn't come and force us. Again, many years ago I left a parish of two centres and they had separate weekday services. After I left, they joined with the neighbouring parish that also had two centres. Many years later it happened that I was asked to help out in this parish and I found that they had become a real 'high church' parish having a mass each weekday. The other two centres had their weekday services too. Now they all had their own service, and the four different groups of people had continued to come to 'their' service, each group on the different day the day and time that they were used to. Even though they were all worshipping in the same building, the people were still coming on 'their' day, 'their' time. They prided themselves on their 'faithfulness' but what were they being faithful to? Their own stubbornness?
Everyone in the Anglican Communion agrees that we have to change, and we accept that changes will have to be made, and we don't mind changes being made, just as long as the changes don't affect us and our worshipping life. This is delusional thinking.
The word of God comes to support us and we feel comfortable about this, except that the word of God also comes to support other people as well. This is rather less comfortable, for we would actually prefer the word of God to challenge and to get others to change their ways, particularly in supporting 'us'.
How easily we insulate ourselves from hearing the word of God by assuming that the word of God, when it supports us, is for us, and when it is confronting, is directed at others often others who are of course most often not here to hear!
My text for today implies that the word of God came to John at a particular time and date. But I suggest that the word of God is never absent from us or from anyone and it is a word of comfort for all people. As I said a couple of weeks ago: St Paul defines a prophet in these words: 'Those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.' (1 Cor 14.3)
It is important to realize that members of a congregation put the minister 'between a rock and a hard place' by expecting him or her to attract other people to attend worship. If new-comers cannot make their own visible contribution the new-comer will inevitably ask if this congregation is really worth being a part of. Is the Christian love there proclaimed only about what the congregation can get from new-comers? Make no mistake about it, this is not Christian love. So the 'success' of a church is directly associated with the openness of the existing congregation to changes other people might make. Usually the minister is the person least wedded to the existing furniture, ritual or doctrine for they have come from a string of parishes before anyway.
So if we really were to listen to the word of God, I begin to wonder what our Church might actually look like. It will not necessarily be where 'Love is in the air', 'Rudolph the red-nose reindeer', and 'Jonathon Livingston Seagull' might be heard. But it will be where there is a fundamental openness to other people, their contributions, their perceptions. The Church will be characterized by an appreciation of what people other than those who come to church make to our society.
Let me say that there is little point in hoping that God will raise up more Wesleys or Billy Grahams to convert the world, if then they do come to Church only to find that we in the Church still only want others for how they can support us. Again, this is not Christian love and while we do not practice Christian love we cannot expect God to bless us.
So the word of God comes to us week by week. It is not a word for others, others who are not here - it is a word for us, to make our love genuine. It is not a kissy, kissy, huggy, huggy love, for that can be as self seeking as any other demonstration of love. The sort of love I am talking about can be practiced by the most reserved and undemonstrative of Christians.
Since my podcast interview on 'shrinkrapradio' I have been reflecting on enlightenment, sadly not a phrase closely associated with traditional Christianity. As I say - this is sad because Jesus is the light of the world and we are meant to be 'in Christ'. If we have an outlook that means we have to change the world then the god that demands this of us is actually a demon. It is a far easier and happier task to see and appreciate the good in others. This burden is indeed 'light'. It is light for us who are called to see the good in others and it is light to those whose good is illuminated by us.
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