Advent III: Rejoice, the Lord is near

The lectionary passages this week are Zephaniah 3.14-20, Philippians 4.4-7, Luke 3.7-18. Canon William Gulliford, who is Diocesan Director of Ordinands (DDO) for the Diocese in Europe, as well as Vicar of St Mark’s, Regent Park, London, offers his reflection.

 

baptism site

The traditional site of the baptism of Jesus. Photograph taken on recent CEMES* study pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Advent has lots on in many ways.

For many Diocese in Europe chaplaincies, ensuring the Christmas bazaar, the Nativity play and carol service are all done before many of the regulars depart, is a priority. Although a vicar in London, as well as DDO for Europe, I have much the same church-diary issues. Only on the second Sunday of Advent this year we had the St Mark’s, Regent’s Park Nativity as the sermon, while we were still singing On Jordan’s bank, the Baptist’s cry…. The poor Baptist was rather swamped by angels, tiny sheep, and the Christmas Tree.

Fortunately, the Advent lectionary presents John the Baptist on two Sundays!

The Gospel writers are of one accord that the Baptist’s ministry was a time of preparation for Jesus’ own. St Luke, our Gospel writer for this year, gives us much more detail about his background. If for all the Gospel writers the Baptist represents a tangible connection with the Hebrew Scriptures, this is especially underlined in Luke’s account of John’s infancy. Like many of the ancient prophets, he is of a priestly line, but this is of little significance in terms of what the Baptist will go on to proclaim, which seems to have no direct connection with the Temple, in which his father had served. As Zechariah concludes the Benedictus, Luke says simply “and the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness till the day of his manifestation to Israel.” (Luke 1.80) This statement is heavy with possible meaning, and is picked up when we meet John again in Luke 3.4 (last Sunday’s reading) when Luke quotes Isaiah 40.3-5 “The voice of one crying in the wilderness; Prepare the way of the Lord.”

As the CEMES* interns experienced on their journey to the Holy Land this November, the Judaean wilderness is a remarkable place. It is not some distant terrain, out of reach, for only the intrepid to explore.  Immediately to the East of the Mount of Olives, the wilderness tumbles into the rift valley, towards the Jordan and the Dead Sea. Rain hardly falls there, and oases are miles apart. Only the Jordan, sustained by water from the North, and springs in the valley and its basin interrupts this hostile landscape.

A radical community sought to live in this barren wilderness at a place known today as Qumran. We are learning more about them as the texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls are published and studied. The overlap between the condemnation by the Qumran community of the Temple hierarchy, and what John says is striking.

qumran cave 4

A cave at Qumran where some of the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.

In this Sunday’s reading, John responds to the tax collectors and soldiers that make their way to him. The chastisement they receive is implicitly less severe than that offered to the Jerusalem authorities, at whose root an axe is laid. It could be that the directness of the Qumran rule, which calls it members to kindness, humility and self-control (1 QS 2:24) is being extolled by John, outside the walls of an otherwise tight and secret enclosure.

One key connection between John and Qumran appears to be a ritual washing.  The Jewish historian Josephus speaks of the Essenes practising such a thing, “but one to hallow the body, not to forgive sins”.

Certainly, the Qumran texts are insistent on monogamy for the married and strict chastity for the monastic. John the Baptist’s imprisonment comes about because of his furious criticism of the Tetrarch Herod Antipas’ second marriage to Herodias. This will lead to his death.

There is a lot going on in today’s readings.

John was a historical figure, as borne out by many sources. He is also an intriguing one – until very recently there was a tiny community called ‘the Mandaeans’ in southern Iraq who revere John and not Jesus. For Eastern Orthodox Christians he is known as the Forerunner. He prepares the way, in preaching and as he challenges the strong.

We are called to rejoice as well! This seems a tall order with so much to ponder and the threat of violence in the air. Advent III is Gaudete Sunday, a moment of refreshment and rejoicing. Zephaniah explains that our rejoicing, even in the midst of foreboding, is possible. The eve of battle might be a moment of fear, or, we may rejoice if God is rejoicing (Zephaniah 3.17); and we must hold on to the truth that he will bring us home (3.20).

St Paul repeats this call to rejoice, for the simple reason that the Lord is near. This joy will be seen and known as gentleness. Joy and gentleness are not to be hidden virtues, limited to the initiated, but are characteristics of the faithful, which effervesce well beyond the Church – expressions of God’s peace which “surpass all understanding which will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

Where the Baptist calls in the wilderness, our Lord is near at hand and we will rejoice.

*CEMES = Church of England Ministry Experience Scheme: a church-wide scheme to give young people thinking about possible vocation to ministry a year of opportunity for practical ministerial experience and time for theological and personal reflection. Under William’s guidance the Diocese in Europe has participated in the scheme for several years.

If you would be interested in contributing to this blog, please contact Clare Amos at clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

 

Advent II: The Message and the Messenger

The lectionary passages this week are Malachi 3.1-4, Philippians 1.3-11 and Luke 3.1-6. I am grateful to Ben O’Neill, currently working in Vienna, for sharing his reflections.

One of my tasks here at Christ Church is to manage the Church’s Twitter page, @CCVienna. The concept of Twitter is to keep people up-to-date but with a character limit. We’ve all encountered the hypothetical lift situation in which you are asked to summarise the Christian faith before you reach the third floor. The need to condense our message into one short, snappy statement, can be difficult. So, who are you? What is your message?

It seems to me that most answers to these questions today would include at least one word that ends with -ism. Even within the Church, many of us are keen to divide ourselves into camps. We find all sorts of labels to try and define our identity. This Sunday, we consider John the Baptist. S Luke’s portrayal of John reminds us that our identity is not found in any of the -isms that we create, or the labels we use, but in our relationship with Jesus Christ.

ben pic

Ben and other CEMES interns visiting the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem during the recent CEMES study pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Ben is  in the front row standing approximately 4 to the left of the Patriarch, wearing a suit and tie.

Although John the Baptist comes chronologically before Jesus, Luke’s account demonstrates what it means to follow Jesus – namely a recognition that John’s identity is not based on whether he is a Pharisee or an Essene or a Sadducee: Luke doesn’t use his character limit to say on which side of the fence John sits regarding being a Pharisee, Essene or Sadducee. There are no words ending in -ism in sight, but he is grounded in a promise-keeping God.

Luke exhorts us not to focus on John, the messenger, but the person about whom the message is sent. John hears a message from God and he is unafraid to share it, exactly as he hears it, unadorned and unmanipulated.

So, what is that message? It is one of repentance. In the Malachi reading, we see the description of the Messiah’s coming as like a ‘refiner’s fire.’ This image reminds us that following, turning our backs on material possessions and the allures of worldly passions, can be painful. But the role of a refiner is not to destroy, but rather to make the metal more precious, valuable and usable than when it is found in its raw state, as an ore, in a river or stream: there is a positive end that emerges from the difficulties and divine admonishments we face.

The word ‘repent’ means to turn back, to align our wills more closely with the will of the Creator God for us; just as the refining process removes impure molecules, repentance is about actualising the state of glory, realising what it means to be made in the Image of God, the Imago Dei. Repentance is about turning away from sin to follow Christ, and part of that process is being reminded that we need to view these other labels and frameworks, which we construct, in the context of God’s sovereignty.

We, in the Church, can be just as guilty of this. In the divided Church, with its many denominations and even inter-denominational divides, it is easy to focus on the –isms that divide us, rather than what unites us. Gerard Hughes in God of Surprises, defines sin as ‘not letting God be God.’ We all have egos, and personalities, but when we read the Bible or approach Christ in these Holy Mysteries at the Eucharist, we need to empty ourselves of all our social constructs in order to allow God to be God and to allow ourselves to be changed and shaped, becoming humble and obedient like Christ.[1] As Fr James Schall puts it, ‘At Mass we are full of the Lord, not full of ourselves.’[2]
And so, for what are we here? What is our message? What is our purpose? Given 5 minutes to summarise our lives what would we talk about? Would we, as John the Baptist does so clearly, talk about God – or would we use it to glorify ourselves or start narrating all the different -isms with which we identify? In Advent, I am reminded of the Magnificat, ‘My soul doth magnify the LORD.’ Immediately before this, Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth has just been praising Mary. This opening line puts things into perspective, recognising that it is God who is worthy of the praise and attention, to divert attention away from herself. John the Baptist’s denial of himself, to point solely to Christ, does the same thing. Saying don’t focus on me, the humble messenger, but focus on God who sent me and who is about to be born into the world, to suffer temptation and death for our sake and to rise again to defeat death and sin, winning the keys of death and hell. Focus on Jesus Christ in whom alone our Salvation and glory is to be found.

Benjamin O’Neill is serving as Intern of Christ Church, Vienna, as part of the wider Church of England Ministry Experience Scheme, a role he combines with being an Erasmus student in the German Department of the University of Vienna. Originally from Durham in the UK, he is currently discerning his vocation to ordained ministry with that diocese.

[1] See Philippians 2:7
[2] https://adoremus.org/2009/06/15/what-do-we-mean-when-we-say-quotin-persona-christiquot/

Advent Sunday 2018: Watch and Pray

We are grateful to Rt Revd Robert Innes, our diocesan bishop, for being willing to inaugurate this lectionary blog, with his contribution for Advent Sunday 2018. The lectionary readings for Advent Sunday are Jeremiah 33.14-16; 1 Thess. 3.9-13; Luke 21.25-36. In his reflection below Bishop Robert focuses on the Gospel reading from Luke.

Robert_250pxI am writing these words from an office in Westminster. Around the corner, PrimeMinister May is addressing the House of Commons on the Brexit withdrawal treaty. Two cabinet ministers and several other ministers have resigned and the talk is of a no-confidence motion. The British political situation is as uncertain and frankly scary as anything I have known in my lifetime. The press is full of apocalyptic language: ‘meltdown’, ‘collapse’, ‘judgement day’. That is just the UK scene, but you might get a similar sense of quaking foundations in other European countries and globally. How very consonant with the biblical imagery of Advent!

Luke’s gospel seems to be set in about AD 60 (AD 58 according to Tom Wright). Nero is emperor. We can only imagine the tension in Jerusalem. Some would be longing to take back control from Roman rule and re-establish their own sovereignty. Others would be looking to make the best deal possible with Rome under the circumstances. A good number no doubt sense impending disaster.

Jesus predicts a double calamity: the fall of Jerusalem and beyond that a final catastrophe. Yet, counter-intuitively, he tells his faithful disciples that these things are signs of hope. The kingdom of God is near. Their redemption is at hand. Jesus conveys what one author has called ‘the terrible yet joyous expectation of time’s imminent end’[1].

The truth is that the gospel is not linked to any political or social order. And the message of Jesus is far more than a tidy set of moral exhortations or social principles. It is disruptive and demanding. It is endlessly challenging. It is always calling us on to something beyond who we are and what we have established. Perhaps 1000 years or more of Christendom lulled us into a false sense of security. But that has gone, and the liberal political order to which it gave birth is now feeling the strain too. The times are a-changing.

The advice of Jesus in the face of worrying uncertainty is not to surrender to an impending sense of gloom. Rather we are to ‘watch and pray’. Followers of Jesus are not to be tempted to lose heart or lose faith. Neither for us the attitude ‘eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die’! We are instead to ‘lift up our heads’ and trust with confidence in the outworking of God’s purposes and providence.

Perhaps in the diocese in Europe we have an advantage. We are used to provisionality. We borrow buildings. Our congregations change. We know all about fragility. We rarely have the luxury of adopting a ‘business as usual’ attitude. Nonetheless, living away from our home countries, as most of us do, makes us especially vulnerable to changing circumstances. It is tempting either to stick our heads in the sand or to become fearful and defensive. Can we instead cultivate a positive and even joyful sense of being alert and watchful?

The gospel was born in an atmosphere of apocalyptic ferment. We can identify with that feeling today. So I encourage us to pray, in the words of one of our Advent prayers:

O Lord our God,
make us watchful and keep us faithful
as we await the coming of your Son our Lord;
that, when he shall appear,
he may not find us sleeping in sin
but active in his service
and joyful in his praise;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

[1] David Bentley Hart in ‘No enduring city’, www.firstthings.com/article/2013/08/no-enduring-city.

If you would be interested in contributing to this blog, please contact Clare Amos at clare.amos@europe.anglican.org