St Francis, Terriers - Advent 3 (11.12.2016)

Tony Dickinson

Have you ever stepped onto a paving slab and felt your foot go from under you? It happened to me a couple of times yesterday when I was out delivering Christmas cards. The readings this morning are, in some ways, a bit like that. They don’t offer quite the firm footing that they appear to.

The prophet, it is true, is brimming with confidence in the imminent arrival of God’s new order. Glory, like June, is “bustin’ out all over”. Healing and renewal are the order of the day – and not just for God’s people but for the whole earth.

There’s a rather different tone coming from James. He is writing for people who have lost that vision of a blossoming desert, or who still have it and want to know why it hasn’t arrived yet. “Be patient”, he tells them. “Do not grumble.” Not much joy, nor much glory, in James’s community. He’s looking at grumpiness and impatience rather than healing and renewal.

And then there’s the gospel…. No cheap optimism there. Not much hope, either. We start with John the Baptist is in prison. Not the best place from which to beginb. And he, too, is losing hope. Is Jesus really the “one who is to come”, the one who is to bring in God’s kingdom in all its glory? Has it all been a horrible mistake?

Looking at the world around us, we might be tempted to share John’s anxiety. Serious talk about the possibility that Russian interference rigged the election in the USA: our own government managing to offend both the Saudis and the Iranians – and still failing to come up with a vision of “Brexit” which goes beyond slogans: a double bombing in Istanbul: and the Assad regime poised to take control of the pile of rubble which used to be one of the great cities of the Middle East. Where, we might be tempted to ask, is God in all this mess?

Where is the prophetic voice to affirm God’s renewing, healing power? Where is the one who has come and, as we proclaim in the Creed, will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. And what, anyway, can we, an ageing, dwindling congregation do?

The answer, I think, also comes from today’s readings. In each of them, underneath the slipperiness, there is a firm footing, a firm ground for hope and trust in the God whose coming kingdom we await. Jesus, in the gospel, points John’s disciples to their own experience. “Go and tell John what you hear and see.” There’s a message there for us, too. Look for the instances of life renewed, hope restored, healing received – and share them. Think of Mo and Horia and their children, reunited at last and living in freedom and safety up the road. Think of the other refugee families that the people of this town have received and will be receiving in the coming months. Think of the work that goes on in the Hospice and the progress towards their new building. Think of the container-loads of clothing, food and medical supplies which have gone from this town to refugee camps in Lebanon and Greece – and to those under siege in Aleppo. Think of the work of the Whitechapel Mission and Wycombe Homeless Connection. “Go and tell… what you hear and see.”

And be patient. James commends the patience of the prophets, who proclaimed a word from God that they did not live to see fulfilled. Be patient and be positive. Don’t be afraid of going deeper in faith, replacing the certainties of a newspaper headline with reflection in the light of God’s word. Don’t be afraid to go from belief to practice. Seek courage and humility. Read, study, and live the words of Jesus. Another thing we can do is to stand firm for truth, to replace fear with facts when it comes to public discussions about immigrants, refugees, Muslims, racial diversity, and national security. We can also love our neighbours, particularly those who are “different”, by protecting them from hate speech and attacks, acting in support of people who are afraid because they have been targeted, especially standing alongside parents who are worried about the safety of their children. That means watching, reporting, and confronting hate speech and behaviour — against all ethnic and religious groups, women, LGBTQ people, immigrants, and all marginalised groups — and surrounding people who are being attacked with our support, both as individuals and as a community of Christians.

In what is sometimes described as a “post-truth” culture, that won’t necessarily make us popular, but as Jesus points out, John the Baptist chose to live outside the mainstream, away from the close-knit communities of first-century Palestine, as he proclaimed a new way of looking at the world. Paradoxically, that message drew to the place where he was both “establishment figures” – the Pharisees and Sadducees mentioned in last Sunday’s Gospel – and people who were also on the margins, tax-collectors and other highly unrespectable people.

Finally, don’t be discouraged. For all the hope and joy of our first reading, there is realism there, too. Between the proclamation of God’s glory and the promise of healing comes the recognition that among God’s people there are weak hands and feeble knees, that there are fearful hearts. The message for them, and for us, is “Be strong, do not fear!” In his meditation on Friday, Richard Rohr offered these words of challenge and encouragement to his readers “Be peace and do justice, but don’t expect perfection in yourself or the world. Perfectionism contributes to intolerance and judgmentalism and makes ordinary love largely impossible. Jesus was an absolute realist, patient with the ordinary, the broken, the weak, and those who failed. Following him is not a “salvation scheme” or a means of creating some ideal social order as much as it is a vocation to share the fate of God for the life of the World, and to love the way that God loves—which we cannot do by ourselves.”

What we can do is to open our lives to let God work in us and to draw on the sources of strength that God provides, feeding on the bread of his word in Scripture, feeding on his living Word, Jesus, who gives himself to us under tokens of bread and wine. He is our way from the wilderness to the Kingdom. He is also the food for our journey and our ultimate destination. To him, with the Father…