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A BIG THANK YOU to Helen and the teachers, our parents and all our children for a wonderful nativity play entitled "Hey Ewe!" It was a very special service indeed.
Please find an audio recording above.
Peace is highly sought after these days. More than ever one can find advertisements for meditation courses, yoga weekends, alternative spiritualities, all seeking to provide a means for people to find peace. (And there are indeed many who have found great value in them). I have also read that even Christian retreat centers that 10-15 years ago were hardly used are filling up with people seeking to re-connect with a sense of God’s peace in their hearts. Peace is so sought after these days that you even find bubble bath products promising peace and tranquility.
One of the promises of Christmas is the promise of peace. When the angels tell the news of Christ's birth to the shepherds, we hear them sing: “Glory to God in the Highest, and Peace to God’s people on earth!”
In the season of advent, we seek to prepare ourselves to celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace in our lives.
The Christian tradition (together with most other major religious traditions) remind us however that there can be no peace in our lives without morality. Unless we walk in paths that are true and honorable peace will always remain an elusive hope and fantasy.
As John the Baptist seeks to prepare the way for the coming of Christ, the crowds respond with a question: What must we do?
John points them to the path of morality, the path of virtue, the way of goodness. In effect John is saying to us, the way of virtue is the doorway into the peace of God.
Christopher Jamison writes that the basic starting point for entering the peace of God is the quality of your day to day dealings with other people. He says you cannot mistreat people one moment and then find peace the next. You cannot say 'I'm interested in peace and tranquility, but not morality'.
The way of virtue, treating others, as we would want to be treated, is the way of the deepest peace.
“What must we do?” ask the crowds as they come to John to be baptized. John answers them in three ways. If we wish to prepare ourselves for Christ's coming we need to:
Firstly, Share with those in greater need:
In verse 11 John replies: "Whoever has two shirts must give one to the man who has none, and whoever has food must share it."
If we wish to prepare a place for Christ in our hearts it will be firstly through the pathway of sharing, sharing with those who are in greater need than ourselves.
It has really impressed me here in Dromore, how readily people have been willing to respond with generosity when there have been appeals for charitable causes, like the earthquake in India earlier this year.
But need is not only something that exists overseas somewhere else. I have recently become aware that poverty is on the rise again here in the UK and that there are more and more families that are relying on food banks and food parcels.
John the Baptist reminds us and invites us to find peace within our hearts through sharing our resources with those in need.
Secondly, John the Baptist invites us to find peace through lives of honesty and integrity.
In verse 12 when the tax collectors ask what they should do John replies to them: "Don't collect more than is legal.”
In verse 13 in response to questions by the Roman soldiers about what they should do, John says: "Don't take money from anyone by force or accuse anyone falsely.”
If we wish to prepare for the coming of Christ, the Prince of peace in our hearts and in our world, we need to walk in the path of honesty and integrity. Honesty in dealings with others and in our business dealings.
A few years ago I came across an article in which studies have shown that honesty in business pays in the long run. A business is more likely to grow and become profitable if it is run on honest dealings with its customers. And that should in fact make absolute sense when you think about it.
Thirdly John the Baptist invites us to find peace through the way of contentment:
To the soldiers, John the Baptist also says: Be content with your pay! How content are we? One of the most content people I have encountered in my life was one of the old Granny’s in a poor African Township I served in for 3 years from 2002-2004. In African languages, an old woman or an old granny is called “Gogo”.
This old lady was called Gogo Mogali. She was a government pensioner. In South Africa government pensions would be very very small. She lived in a very humble house built by the apartheid government – often referred to has matchbox houses because of their size. She had a little fox terrier dog named Billy who would get a cup of tea with her every morning and share some of her maize porridge for breakfast.
Gogo Mogali was not very wealthy. She had knees that were failing her, but she had a joy and a peace and a contentment about her that shone from her face and sang like gentle music from her voice. She had learned that joy and happiness and peace does not come from having all the riches in the world. She had found the Prince of Peace in her heart!
This is not a new insight. The Christian tradition has told us for centuries that true joy, happiness and peace come through simple living and gratitude for what we have.
Vs 15 ends this section with the words: “People's hopes began to rise.” May your hopes begin to rise this Christmas as you prepare for the coming of the Peace of Christ by seeking in God's Grace to walk the way of goodness by sharing with the needy, practicing honesty in your interactions with others and by finding contentment in the simple things of life!
Many Christians struggle with these apocalyptic passages in the gospels that seemingly refer to the end of the world.
It does seem that the early Christian community did live with an imminent expectation that the end of the world was near. But as time went on they had to readjust their thinking on the so-called second coming. In more mainstream Christian circles such talk of the immanent end of the world has become less and less focused on. But it is also true that there have been some Christians in every generation over the past 2000 years who have continued to preach that the second coming is just around the corner.
The first time these passages in the Bible began to make some sense to me was in reading the work of NT Wright – retired Church of England Bishop and scholar. He believes that these passages were not in fact originally about the end of the world at all, but rather about the fall of Jerusalem. He suggests that Jesus’ original statements were an insight from Jesus that if the Jewish people continued on their current trajectory there would be dreadful political consequences for them. Rome would invade.
One can see elements of that message in this passage: vs 20 When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near.
How terrible it would be on that day, Jesus said. For those living in Jerusalem, it would be like the end of the world had come upon them. It would be a dark and terrible day. For those going through it, it would feel like the sun and the moon had ceased to shine, and as though the sea was being convulsed. How dreadful it would be for pregnant woman and nursing mothers. Indeed, it is always the weakest and most vulnerable in society who suffer the most in times of war.
In verse 32, we see that Jesus is not talking about the end of the world: I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened.
About 30 years later, in 70 AD, the disaster that Jesus predicted did indeed come upon Jerusalem. The temple was utterly destroyed. Historical documents indicate that blood flowed in the streets. A dark and terrible day indeed.
What does all of this have to do with us?
There are universal lessons in this predicted fall of Jerusalem.
In the folly of humanity, history has shown how disastrous moments like the fall of Jerusalem have come upon the world and upon humanity from time to time. In verse 35 “...For it will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth...”
In a way, it is true that all of us go through experiences where it seems like our world has come crashing in... the end of the world as we know it. The death of a loved one. Loss of a job. An unexpected diagnosis. Sometimes it is literal earthquakes and literal fires that sweep across neighbourhoods as we have seen in California in recent weeks. Sometimes, economic crashes... sometimes literal wars between nations. For those living through the first and second world war, it must have seemed as though the world as they knew it had come to an end.
Interestingly in this passage, we read in verse 28, when these things come upon you, stand up, and lift up your heads, because your liberation / redemption is coming near.
How do we make sense of that? How is it that when disaster comes upon us we should stand up straight and lift up our heads because our liberation or redemption is near?
One of the ways in which disasters can liberate us is that they remind us of what is most valuable. It does so I think in two ways:
Firstly, we are awakened again to the impermanence of this world. When disaster comes, it can have the affect of awakening us from our stupor and ignorance about life. When we see how fragile life is, we are reminded that there is a spiritual dimension, the realm of the eternal that is not affected by the change and decay of this world. We are awakened to discover and seek that which is most real and most true in life.
In Western countries where there has been a relatively long period of peace and stability, it is perhaps not a surprise that secularism and atheism have arisen. When life is fairly predictable and life expectancy is long and there is a fair amount of wealth, who really needs God? Who really needs to think about things of a spiritual nature when this life seems to be offering all that we need?
But when disaster comes and this world no longer provides all we need or want, then it makes sense that people’s religious sensibilities begin to rise once again... when life fails us, then it makes more sense to look to the world of the eternal for spiritual meaning and purpose. In America after 9/11 it was noted that there was a marked rise in religiosity among Americans. A study showed similar results in those affected by the major 2011 earthquake in Christ Church New Zealand. Isn’t it interesting that Northern Ireland, which experienced 30 years of troubles which affected almost everyone in some way or another, is probably the most religious place in the United Kingdom. Trouble and difficulty remind us that this world is not all there is. There is a something more.
Disaster awakens us to the eternal dimension of life.
Secondly, when the fragility of life comes upon us we also begin to have different priorities in this world... we begin to cherish what is truly valuable in life. We become grateful for the things that really matter in this life, those priceless treasures that money just can’t buy:
I think there are many who are aware today of of how fragile the world is. But the truth is, most of us are not in a position to do much about it except to live with as much faithfulness and integrity as we can within our own small sphere’s of influence. And in the end that is all we can do.
In verse 34 we read “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap.” I read this verse as a call to faithfulness and not to allow ourselves to be weighed down with anxiety about things we have little control over.
Do our best to live as followers of Jesus, putting into practice his teachings to the best of our ability.
And in Luke 6:46-49 we read that when we do that, when we hear Jesus words and seek to put them into practice, we are like a builder building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built.
This Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, that season in which as a faith community we consciously begin to prepare ourselves to celebrate again the birth of Jesus among us.
And so, in this season of Advent, let us dig our foundations deep again as we seek to build our lives on the things that matter the most and allow our homes to be built not on the fleeting chances and changes of this world, but rather upon things of infinite and eternal value. May we treasure with gratitude the small things in life that make life worth living and deep and meaningful.
And in doing so, on Christmas Day, may we not simply celebrate the birth of Christ in the distant history, but may we celebrate the birth of Christ in our hearts, in our words, in our actions and may that second coming of Jesus in us and through us bring joy to the world.