A sermon preached by David Barton in St Mary’s Iffley on the Third Sunday of Advent 2017.
Readings: Isaiah 61:1-4,8-end. I Thessalonians 5:16-24
I was deeply touched this past week – as perhaps you were – by the story of the baby who was born with a heart outside her body. It was discovered during pregnancy, and no one was sure she would survive to birth, or even survive the process of birth. But she did, and when she was born, she was holding her heart in her hands, as if she knew just how precious it was, how in need of protection. Now, after three operations, her heart is where it should be, and the doctors are sounding cautiously positive about her future.
Her parents have called her Vanellope Hope. Venellope after a courageous character in a film her parents admire, (and she is a brave little girl) and Hope because that is what she has been to her family. A gift of hope, when tragedy was expected.
It’s a story for our troubled times. But also a story for Advent. In Vanellope Hope’s case all the signs point to disaster. Hope lies in the skills of doctors and nurses, working at the very edge of possibility, and her own determined spirit. Advent is also about two interlocking possibilities. Advent recognises we live in a deeply troubled world, troubles to which we have made our own contribution. But it also says that this world is only a hair’s breadth away from the reality of God. Advent speaks of a time when that thin but opaque veil will be torn away. We will have little to say, little to show for ourselves before the awesome wonder of this mighty God. But we will also have Hope. Hope because the God we saw in the face of Christ Jesus loves and forgives and will blot out our shame in his embrace, offering life when we thought there would be none.
But hope is a slender thing, like the vulnerability of a new born baby. So often the evidence seems to point in the opposite direction. And the events of our times sometimes seem to discourage rather than encourage it.
So its interesting to see the way this works in today’s readings. Last week, in a sermon Anthony was going to preach, but didn’t because he was trapped at home by the snow, he talked about the Prophet who we nowadays call Second Isaiah. We are reading his writings each Sunday this Advent. Second Isaiah worked among to the exiled Jews in Babylon. They had been there, by then, for 40 years. They seem to have given up any expectation of return home to Israel. Depression was ingrained. But Second Isaiah, in some of the finest language of the Bible, promises that God has not forgotten them, therefore there is hope. One day he promises, they will return.
And that is what happens. A change of regime in Babylon means that they are given the freedom to return. But, in the end, only a handful do so. And when they get there it’s not really what they had hoped for. They are not welcome to the people who have remained behind. The land is ruined, the temple a heap of stones, they have no money and they are few. Today’s first reading, written 10/20 years after the one last week, is addressed to them. Perhaps it’s delivered in Jerusalem itself. It’s an optimistic passage, but notice how it does not ignore the problems. There are “ruined cities and devastations of many generations.”
Bleak yes. But, Second Isaiah’s words are full of hope, because, he says, behind the thin veil that separates us from God, God has not forgotten you. The true reality is that all will be well. And the prophet goes on to speak of the signs they are to look for so that they will remember this. Little things: the new clothes the bride and her groom manage to afford for their wedding; the green shoots of the crops in the fields that are signs of the future harvest. In effect he says: Take your eyes away from the negative, and look for the little things which are promises of future Joy. They are signs that God has not forgotten you.
It’s a wonderful passage, and it’s a passage that was of great importance for the early church. Luke tells us that it’s these verses that Jesus chose to read in the synagogue at the start of his ministry. And it says a lot about the way Jesus viewed his ministry that he should choose this piece from that particular period of Israel’s history.
And that sense of living in uncertain, troubled times but looking for signs of hope runs through that second reading from 1 Thessalonians.
This epistle is the earliest document in the New Testament written about 20 years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. And it’s wonderful insight into how these very early believers lived out their new identity as Christians.
The epistle itself is short, and so is that reading – and it gives the impression of being almost self contained. Eight little commandments and a blessing that includes a promise. Forty one words in the Greek. They are perhaps a kind of quick teaching Paul might give to new converts. What is important is that with these little phrases Paul is pushing his readers towards a quite different way of looking at things. Things around them – things around us – may be deeply worrying. But they are to live in the light of God’s future, which is, event by little event, breaking out all around.
Rejoice in the Lord always. Always? Well, on the evidence of politics, no. But the deeper truth is that you and I are held, always held, in the love of God. That is the true perspective of our lives. If we remember that there is plenty to rejoice about.
Pray without ceasing? Well, easier said than done you think. There is always so much to do. So we settle for half an hour a day. But Paul was busy too. And there is time. I sometimes think that intercessions are best done when walking. A name on every step, all the people and situations we would want to remember, name by name as we walk in the presence of God.
And Gratitude in all circumstances. We are gifted you and I. Nourished by the words of the bible, fed with God’s grace Sunday by Sunday at this altar. Grafted into this fellowship here. These are the true things. It is so easy to forget how gifted we are.
Little things, little things all of these. But they open our eyes to seeing the world differently. There are eight of these little phrases. It’s a good exercise to take one a day and ponder it – keeping it in the back of our minds, turning the phrase over until it becomes part of us. Paul intended them to be thought of like that I think – guidance for living as a Christian in an uncertain world.
And then the final blessing, with its wonderful last line. He who calls you is faithful. One of the sisters at Fairacres – who had actually taught me in Sunday school, and who died a few years ago at the great age of 101 – told me a touching story about that. Many years ago, when her nephew was confirmed at the age of sixteen, she sent him a card and wrote on it the words of that last line, in Greek: pistis ho kalon. Faithful is the one who calls. And she said, deeply touched, that years later, after he had been a lecturer in theology and become an eminent Bishop, her nephew told her that he had always kept that card by him. Treasured reminder of a profound truth. And I guess he has it still.
Faithful is the one who calls. And it takes us back to the start of this sermon – the child and her heart. This Christian life is a pilgrimage of the heart. And Paul’s insight is telling us that God’s heart is always open to us, always faithful to us. So there is every reason for our lives to be filled with hope!