A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler Sunday 5th December 2021 Luke 3:1-2 In the seventieth year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth the Second, when Boris Johnson was Prime…
A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 5th December 2021
In the seventieth year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth the Second, when Boris Johnson was Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; and Marsha de Cordova was Member of Parliament for Battersea; and Sadiq Khan was Mayor of London; and Ravi Govindia was Leader of Wandsworth Council; when Justin was Archbishop of Canterbury, Christopher was Bishop of Southwark, and Francis was Pope, the word of God came to the people of St Mary’s Battersea.
That’s an astonishing thing to claim, isn’t it, that the word of God comes to you and me, gathered in this place, at 1125 on Sunday morning? Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not for a minute claiming that I’m a new John the Baptiser – for one thing, clothes of camels hair have a tendency to chafe and I’ve never been keen on a diet of locusts, although I’m sure there are plenty of fashionable stores within walking distance offering artisanal wild honey…at a steep price.
No, I’m no John the Baptist – and a little later I’ll explain why – but the idea that the word of God can come to us in this place, here and now, is such an astonishing and specific belief that we take so for granted, or skim over, that on this Second Sunday of Advent it is worth stopping for a moment and exploring it a little. Advent is the quintessential time of waking up, of being jolted out of ‘business as usual’, so it’s good moment to remind ourselves of the possibility, or maybe even the certainty, that among the many things we are here for this morning – to see our friends, to share in Holy Communion, to sing those lovely Advent hymns, to do what we always do on a Sunday – is to hear the word of the Lord, to hear God speak to us. To us.
Immediately I am alert to the danger of such a claim. Isn’t the world full of people, often people in conflict, sometimes people responsible for conflict, who act because they believe God is speaking to them? Well, yes, that is true. But often it seems to me that the cause of this is to do with how people react to God speaking to them. People get themselves into trouble when they start thinking that God speaking to them is primarily about them and not about God. After all, if you believe that God is speaking to you, it’s not a stretch to imagine that you are special, you are chosen, you are at the centre of God’s purposes. But this is a pretty fundamental mistake, because the idea of God speaking – God revealing Godself to us if you like – says something much more important about God than it does about us. The idea of revelation is primarily about God. Of course it’s a privilege to hear the word of God, and to be the recipients of revelation, but (as Job discovered), it’s not all about him, and that God speaks to reveal Godself to the world. The privilege of hearing the word of God revealed is to be met with humility and, however powerfully we feel to have a conviction of God speaking, our response is to speak in the way God speaks which is always, always in the language of love.
At one level, when the word of the Lord came to John the Baptist, we saw the end of one way of God speaking to God’s people and the world, and the beginning of a new way of God speaking. John the Baptiser marks the end of what we might call an Old Testament way of speaking, where God calls specific people to specific tasks. John the Baptiser is in many ways the last of the line of Old Testament figures, the last of the prophets if you like, and as he fades away into the background, Jesus emerges to take central stage. Now we see a new way of speaking. So at the beginning of the Letter to Hebrews, the writer says, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.” From this point on, the word of the Lord will come through Jesus and, from his life and death and resurrection, God will speak not in the main to specific people but to us all. Everyone can hear God speak, through Jesus. And that means that, when we hear God speak, he will always speak to us the words of Jesus and in the way of Jesus. God speaks to us in a Christlike accent.
Although I don’t think the difference is quite as clear cut, I think it’s helpful to distinguish between God speaking generally and God speaking specially. So, it is absolutely right that we might hear God speak to us through a beautiful sunset or a stunning landscape, it is absolutely right that we might hear God speak to us through reading a novel, watching a film or a TV programme or pondering the latest ideas in science, philosophy or – particularly noteworthy at the moment – the care of those in nursing and medicine. As Gerard Manley Hopkins famously put it “For Christ plays in ten thousand places,/ Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his/ To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”
But when we belong to the Christian community, when we are those who consciously choose the Christian way, believe and trust in Jesus and enter into the fellowship of the people of God through baptism and confirmation, we acknowledge a particular way that God speaks to his people in Christ. We acknowledge that God speaks to us supremely in Jesus and so when we hear Christlike things, we know Christ is speaking. But we equally know that when we hear unChristlike things, we are not hearing Christ speak. Part of what it means to live as a Christian in the world is to promote and encourage Christlikeness in the world and, where unChristlikeness appears, to seek to replace it with a more Christlike approach. We listen for signs of Jesus.
But how do we recognise his voice amidst the plethora of voices in the world? Our tradition has always encouraged people to listen to Jesus in order to recognise his voice. Like the ability we have to hear a loved one’s voice in a crowded room, or our lost child crying out for his or her parent, we need to get to know the voice of Jesus. We do this in multiple ways. We do it in prayer, as we learn to know the way in which God speaks to us, which is likely to have a very personal shape to it, based on our own personality. We do it in reading Scripture, as we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the words of the biblical authors, not primarily as an intellectual exercise, but because through these words we can be sure that God will speak to us just as he has spoken to all those who have turned to the Bible for comfort, guidance and challenge over the millennia. We do it in Christian worship, where our individual prayer and Scripture reading is combined with the prayer, bible reading of others and preaching in corporate praise and prayer. It’s interesting to note that in the New Testament, especially the Letters of Paul, where although John the Baptist has faded away, the gift of prophecy remains highly valued, such words come to people in corporate worship. This emphasis on the corporate in the New Testament is a strong corrective to the tendency we have to individualistic notions of God speaking to us. That sense of God speaking to individuals is always to be tested by the witness of corporate readings of scripture, corporate prayer and the community’s sense of discernment about what God says to us. And we do it, chiefly when we gather at St Mary’s in the Eucharist, where the promise of God in Jesus is that as we do this ‘in remembrance of him’, we will come to the closest possible holy communion with God. Whatever else ‘communion’ means, it means relationship and communication.
So “the word of the Lord does come to the people of St Mary’s Battersea” – even here, and even right now. When you set out for church this morning, did you think that God was going to speak to you today? Amid the many pressing thoughts and feelings of the day, for all the rushing around before the service, the catching up with friends, the haste to arrive on time because (as usual) you left too late – no names! – for you and me it is right to be reminded that we gather in this place together because God will meet us here in Christ and that same God will speak to us in Christlike ways.
Advent is a time to repent – to turn our lives around as John the Baptiser preached. Repentance is less about dwelling on the past and more about looking forward to the future and acting in the present to bring that future into being. So let’s momentarily acknowledge that, in our human fallibility and sin, we neglect to pay attention to the voice of God; but more importantly, let’s resolve with the help of God, to pay greater attention to the extraordinary truth that our God and Father longs to go on speaking to us in Christlike ways and that we can live better lives, as human people as much as Christian people, when we pay attention to the things he is saying to us, even in this very moment and in this very place. Amen.
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