A time of waiting… a time to rejoice – Isaiah 35, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11 (11th December, Gaudete Sunday)

A time of waiting… a time to rejoice


The desert waits.

Dry, hot, harsh.

No water here.  The few plants are bare, shrivelled.

Perhaps the odd hardy insect colony.

The occasional tough rock pigeon.

A snake or lizard.  A jackal.


Hidden away in the ground, life is dormant.  Waiting.

Waiting perhaps for years.


And when the rains do come, suddenly, without warning

The desert bursts into life.

Rivers flow abundantly where once there was a dry valley

Seeds hurry to germinate, grow.  Flowers to blossom.

Birds, animals and insects get busy, feeding, breeding.


The desert bursts into song and rejoices!


Isaiah’s community waits.

Scared, unsure, marginalised.

Ignored by those with political and religious power

by those who persist in walking away from God

tempted by wealth, unwise political allegiances, other gods.


The poor, the weak, the disabled are forgotten.

They wait.  They wait for the trouble that will surely come.

When Jerusalem will fall and Judah will be overthrown.

When their nation will be scattered and exiled in a foreign land

far from home.

They wait in uncertain times.

And their prophets proclaim the message of doom.

Over and over again.


Suddenly, like the rainstorm in the desert comes a message of hope.

The exile hasn’t begun yet, but God will not forget his people

God will especially not forget the weakest of this people.

Here is a message of hope to sustain them in times ahead.


The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad…

Waters shall break forth in the wilderness.

The blind shall see, the deaf shall hear.

A road shall appear in the desert

A road of safety that all God’s people can travel along

Back home.


Isaiah’s people can rejoice!




James’ community waits.

Rich and poor they wait.

The rich have been growing richer

at the expense of the poor.

James has harsh words for the rich.

Words of warning

about the dangers of unfair business practices

and not paying their workers a living wage.

The dangers of storing up wealth for themselves

whilst their employees go hungry.

God hears the cries of the poor.


God has heard you, says James to the poor.

God will come and come soon.

But you must be patient a little longer

Suffer a little longer.

Wait like the farmer waits for the rains to come and the crops to grow.



John the baptist waits.

He sits in prison, pondering his fate.

Examining his life and mission.

Wondering if it were all in vain.

Was he right about Jesus being the one who was to follow?

Is Jesus really the Messiah?


Like the prophets before him,

John’s life has been spent urging the people to repent

To turn away from their sins and back to God

or face the terrible consequences.

There will come a time, a time soon

when the Messiah will bring about God’s kingdom

And restore the nation of Israel.


He thought it would be this Jesus.

And now he’s not sure.

Jesus isn’t behaving as he expects the Messiah to behave.

So John sends messengers to Jesus

waiting behind for an answer.


And Jesus points them back to Isaiah

Look and see!

The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed

And the poor are hearing the good news.


A time to rejoice!


In Advent we wait,

We wait for the time

when we re-enact the story

of Jesus coming to earth as a little child.

And we wait for the time

when Jesus will come again

And God’s kingdom on earth will be fully realised.


In the northern regions of the world

We wait as the nights get longer

The weather colder

The plants become dormant

And the animals hibernate

We wait as sometimes our own energy levels sag

And life becomes more of an effort.


Advent is a time of waiting

A time of dormancy

A time of expectation

Christmas is not here yet

But like the message of hope

given to Isaiah’s community before they had even gone into exile

Here is a Sunday of rejoicing

Ahead of time


The third Sunday of Advent

Known in the Roman and Anglo-Catholic church traditions

As Gaudete Sunday

Gaudete – “rejoice”

Like Mothering Sunday in Lent

It’s a time of brief relief and refreshment

in the middle of a more sober, reflective, penitential season.

A time when perhaps we can take a step back for a moment

from the hustle and bustle

of present-buying, card writing

and cleaning the house for our Christmas visitors.

And rejoice because God’s kingdom is coming soon.


The Sunday when in some churches,

the clergy wear rose-coloured vestments

The Sunday when the rose-coloured candle is lit

on the Advent wreath.


The Day of the Lord is not here yet

We are still in our own desert world

Times are still tough

But we can see glimpses already

If we look long enough

We can see where, like the flowers and streams in the desert

God’s kingdom is already breaking through.


So on this Gaudete Sunday

This Refreshment Sunday

Let us rejoice too!

Catherine Burchell – Reader

O Root of Jesse – Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13 (4th December, 2nd Sunday in Advent)

On 17th November the residents of Rustlings Road were woken up at 5a.m..  “Move your cars” said the police.  Then the men with the chainsaws moved in. Several mature trees were chopped down.  Trees that had stood for decades.  Three protesters tried to prevent it happening and were arrested.  It made the national press.  The council argued that it was essential for street maintenance and that double the number of replacement trees would be planted. Whatever the merits of the case, the situation could have been better handled.

There is something about a big mature tree that arouses deep emotions.  Perhaps it’s the size, or the fact that some trees are many times older than any of us.  Trees provide a haven for birds and other wildlife.  They make use of carbon-dioxide and produce oxygen in return and are aptly named the lungs of the planet.  They can provide shelter from the rain and a playground for children.  No one really likes to see a tree chopped down, however necessary it might be.  It’s sad to see a stump where a mighty tree once stood.

But sometimes that stump fights back.  Sometimes in the months following the felling of a tree you see shoots sprouting from the stump.  They generally look untidy as they spring up en masse in all directions.  But you can’t deny that they’re stubborn.  That tree wants to live.  It will not go down without a fight.

The image of a felled tree is a powerful one.  The people in Old Testament times knew this too, which is why it appears in the prophetic literature.  In this evening’s reading from the prophet Isaiah, it is used to describe the royal line descending from Jesse, the father of King David.  The kingdom has been thrashed by another, more powerful nation.  The last king and his sons have been killed.  Jesse’s royal line, once a mighty tree, is now but a stump.

And yet Isaiah tells the people to have hope.  There is life in this stump yet.  A shoot will emerge from it.  A shoot which has been given the spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel and might.  A shoot which will judge the poor with righteousness.

This shoot is not fully grown.  It is fragile.  With enough determination, frequent use of the loppers and copious amounts of weedkiller it could be killed off.  But it took 10 years worth of attempts to eradicate a self-seeded sycamore that was growing out of our house!  That shoot is stubborn.  It grows where it is not expected and where it is not wanted.  It will never become the mighty cedar or oak or plane tree that once stood there.  It will not take the same form or shape as its parent tree even if you let it.  This new shoot is going to grow in a new and unexpected direction.

Powerful imagery.  And there was more imagery to come from our reading.  Before we move on to that, I’d like to share a little lateral thinking problem with you.  Some of you may have heard it before – it’s even older than some of our trees:

A man is on a journey.  With him he has a wolf, a goat and a cabbage.  They come to a river.  There is a boat, but only room for the man and one passenger at a time.  If he leaves two of them unattended, the wolf will eat the goat or the goat will eat the cabbage.  The wolf is not interested in eating the cabbage.  The cabbage isn’t hungry.  How does he get all three across the river safely and intact?

Verses 6 onwards reminded me of this puzzle.  In Isaiah’s mind, the problem would not exist, at least as far as the wolf eating the goat were concerned.  Because the prophet envisages a time when hunter and hunted will lie down together.  As in the very opening of Genesis, there will be a time when creation is once again vegetarian.  So the wolf will live with the lamb, the calf with the lion, and a little child will be in charge.  The little child will play near poisonous snakes and no harm will come to it.

This situation may not happen literally any time soon.  The traveller will still need to use his wits to get his 3 passengers across the river without eating each other.  It seems as though this very much an “in your dreams” passage.

And yet.  Isaiah speaks of a royal child leading the not only the domestic animals such as the oxen, but the dangerous wild ones such as the lions.  He lives among them and leads them.  It was more usual for such a prophecy to have him fighting and killing the lions – as David once killed the giant Goliath.  The reign of this new royal child will not be like that of the old order.  It will be different.

When Jesus came to earth, he came as a small, fragile baby.  When he became a man and became known for his healings and teachings many who followed him thought he would be the warrior Messiah that they were expecting.  They were expecting a leader in the old style – one who would, to paraphrase a certain American, “make Israel great again”.

But Jesus wasn’t like that.  He lived among the lambs of his people and he lived among the wolves and lions.  And because it wasn’t the right time for Isaiah’s prophecy to come to completion in its entirety, the lions and wolves were provoked and retaliated.  He was arrested, tried and executed.  Once again it seemed as though the tree had well and truly been felled.  But we know that this was not the end of the story.  The shoot was stubborn.  It lived.  It grew.  It continues to move and grow in mysterious ways.  And it will continue to do so until the time is right for the lion and the lamb to lie down together.  A time when the whole earth will know the Lord and the root of Jesse will stand as a signal to the nations.

Sometimes in our lives it feels as though a large and beautiful, powerful and majestic tree has been felled.  Many feel like this about the Sheffield trees.  Many feel this way about Brexit or Donald Trump, about Syria, about the recent plane crash in Columbia.  Or about something that has happened in their own personal lives.

Sometimes all we feel able to do in times like this is to sit on the stump of despair.  That’s ok.  And God will sit there with us.  But we need to be alert to when God is nudging us to look at that little shoot that’s growing just there!  At some point the time will be right to stop counting the rings of the past, but to see where this new little shoot might be leading us!


Catherine Burchell – Reader

(Some ideas used here come from Barbara Lundblad’s post for this passage on December 8th 2013 on the workingpreacher.org website)

Anticipation & Expectation – Isaiah 2:1-5, Matthew 24:36-44 (27th November, 1st Sunday in Advent)

Advent: it’s a season of anticipation and expectation.

For children it’s a time when Advent calendars or candles mark the countdown of growing excitement as Christmas draws closer.  For many adults, however, these weeks before Christmas seem to be a mad rush to do shopping, write cards, wrap presents and complete all sorts of other preparations for Christmas.

But truly – although Advent does look forward to Christmas and we remember the prophets, the forerunners and those who welcomed the good news of Christ’s birth, the incarnation, Advent also looks forward to another coming, the Second Coming, the triumphant return of Christ in glory.

Our readings today reflect that in. In Isaiah we have the glorious vision of the nations all streaming to the Mountain of the Lord, learning His ways and living in peace; and in Matthew we read the exhortation to be alert for no-one knows the date or time of Christ’s return.

Our collect (special prayer for today) and prayer after Communion also reflect these themes – calling us to live in the light of Christ, to live lives worthy of Christ and to remain faithful, watchful and vigilant that we may be found actively serving God and joyful in our praise of the Lord whenever He may return.

But what does it take seriously to lift our thoughts from the everyday pressures of the here and now to consider the end times?

Last week I read a newspaper article about an anaesthetist in California who was a successful man working in a major hospital.  He had built up considerable wealth with a mansion sized home and a number of top of the range cars but along the way he had lost empathy for his patients, never having time to talk to them. He was also quite a severe father – following the pattern of his own father and grandfather before him – leading to a relationship with his son defined by anger and by his insistence that the boy go into medicine whether he wanted to or not.

Then the anaesthetist himself needed surgery and what should have been a fairly straightforward operation actually led to complications, more surgery and finally septic shock which saw him rushed into hospital for life or death surgery. During that surgery he had an out of body experience (such as he had always dismissed when any of his patients had tried to speak of such things).  He saw himself in the operating theatre and the team doing the surgery and he also saw his mother and sisters in India.

The he had a terrifying vision of hell from which he was drawn away by the loving presence of his father and grandfather (so different from his experience of these men in life). He was drawn further and further into a place of profound love which he came to believe was the most important dynamic in life. Then 2 angels – Michael and Raphael – brought him to a place of light where he was given a new direction for his life – to offer healing to others through consciousness-based healing (mediation and other alternative therapies).

He came through the surgery and tried to tell his doctors of his experience but they were as dismissive as he would have been before. However, he went on to amaze his colleagues by giving up his hospital job and setting up a healing centre. He sold his expensive home and cars and began to live more modestly and he developed a more loving relationship with his son giving him the space to be the person he wanted to be, following his own choice of career in computing. As a Hindu he had never heard of angels Michael and Raphael but he discovered these were angels associated with healing and protecting people.

From being a hard headed, even hard hearted man driven by desire for materialistic rewards, for wealth, position and control he became much more empathic man with a modest lifestyle looking to live a life of love and healing.  He aimed to break the cycle of anger that had dogged his family for generations.

Whatever happened to this man during his lifesaving surgery, it profoundly changed him, altered his perspective on life and on relationship and he changed direction, job, home and lifestyle. He came to see love as the undergirding dynamic of life.  He felt his previous way of life had not been right and he had been given a new direction in life, a new chance.

Did he encounter Christ?  We don’t know – and there is no indication that he stopped being a Hindu. He did encounter angels named in our Scriptures – Michael and Raphael and felt their influence.

The reason I wanted to tell that story is that we none of us know what is in store for us – in the next minutes, hours, days, years. We cannot predict accurately even such simple things as whether a lightbulb will fail or whether we will catch a cold.  We certainly cannot predict or pinpoint the return of Jesus. But we are promised it will happen and we are warned and encourage to live as if we believe that so that we will not be caught off guard if it were to happen today or tomorrow.

Matthew tells of people going about their daily lives and being utterly surprised by what happens – like people caught out by a sudden earthquake or flash flood. We know the unexpected happens – cutting across people’s plans and lives – but do we ever prepare for it? People know they will die but so many never get round to writing a will …

In Advent we are reminded that Christ’s coming in glory – the final establishment of God’s Kingdom – could come at any time and we are exhorted to be vigilant, to live the ordinary routines of our lives but to live them well.  To try to live as we would want Jesus to find us living.

The man whose story I have told had a profound and life changing experience and he responded and made big changes – more focused on love and healing and people.  He broke cycles of anger and desire for materialistic rewards.  What would it take for any of us to break our less good habits and attitudes and live the kind of live that we would be happy to be found engaged in if Jesus returned today or tomorrow? If Jesus returned today or tomorrow would we be able to welcome his gaze or would we look away, saying “I’m not really ready. My life’s a bit of a shambles.  If I’d known it was today I’d have done all those things I’ve intended to but have always put off.”

Jesus knows our lives are sometimes difficult and that we struggle in many ways with current circumstances and pressures – but are we living surrounded by life-clutter that we know we should have sorted out long ago? Are we holding on to anger or resentments or cold-hearted attitudes or are we trying to live lives of love and mercy and grace?

Advent gives us time to reflect on God’s promises and the visions of peace and love from prophets like Isaiah. I heard a Bishop in a black-led Pentecostal church say “Don’t let your memories destroy your dreams”. Memories of rejection or hurt can get in the way of us going after or believe in our dreams. Don’t let the bad things of this world take your faith and hope in the promises of God.

We have seen again this week in our news how bad memories can dog people for years.  As Christians we believe we can bring all these bad memories, hurts and damage to Jesus and let him love and enfold us and ultimately set us free us from their power. We all need to find a way to live with hope and faith, to live with joy and expectation and with mercy and love.

In our uncertain and sometimes cruel, hard and violent world we need to hold on to the vision and promise of God. We need to live lives as worthy of God as we can manage and to ask for the Holy Spirit to help us. We need to look forward to the time when God’s promises will be fulfilled. Jesus will come in glory.May we all be able to say with enthusiasm – Come Lord Jesus, may we welcome your Advent here.


Anne Grant – Reader

Why Me?

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Sermon preached by Kath Boyd – Reader

Have you ever asked yourself the question “why me”? I know I have. It’s usually in a sort of tone that says “why me, how come I’m the one who got stuck with this rotten job, why am I the one who got lumbered with this, why am I the one who missed out, or something similar, why me??? Have you noticed that we seldom ask “why me?” When something good happens? Most likely we just think that’s great or think that we probably deserved our good fortune. When we ask the “why me?” sort of question we are usually feeling a bit hard done to and perhaps a little sorry for ourselves. It isn’t fair! Or so we think.

As I just said, I used to say or think this quite often, particularly if I seemed to be having a run of bad luck. Then one day I asked myself “well, why not me?” And I couldn’t really come up with a reason. Sometimes life just works out that way and in the grand scheme of things there is no special reason why I should not have my share of difficult or unpleasant or anxiety provoking tasks and happenstances than anyone else. So a few years ago I decided to stop saying why me or at least try to and I think this has helped me to have better outlook on life. I certainly don’t waste as much emotional energy on a question that can’t really be answered.

When I was thinking about what I would talk about in this sermon and I read the passage from Luke about Mary visiting Elizabeth I must admit that at first I couldn’t think of anything to add to the story as it stands, but as I looked at the passages either side of it I wondered if Mary had ever thought “why me?” One of the things we have come to believe about Mary is that she was probably quite young when she became Jesus’ mother, possibly around fourteen years of age which is very young indeed to become a mum and I think it would be safe to say that for most young girls or women of that age the prospect of giving birth and motherhood would probably be quite scary even if it was or is culturally more usual than it is for our society. I was just twenty when I had my first child and believe me I was scared.

We hear about the visit of the Angel Gabriel who announces to Mary that she has found favour with God. We are not told that she was scared by this but that she was “perplexed” about what it meant. When the Angel tells her what will happen and about the destiny of her child she asks a very practical question, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” When she is given the explanation and the news about her relative Elizabeth’s pregnancy she simply accepts everything and says “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” she doesn’t ask “Why me?”

We are not given any information about what she said to her parents or her fiancé Joseph but from a human perspective I can’t help wondering what their responses were when they eventually became aware of her pregnancy. Would she have been believed or would they have thought her untruthful or even deluded? We do later learn that Joseph, who was obviously a kind man, plans to quietly break their engagement to spare her any humiliation until he too is visited by the Angel who makes everything clear. Did Joseph think “Why me, why is this happening to me?”

The first action by Mary that we know of is what happens in the passage from Luke when she goes to visit Elizabeth who is by then six months pregnant. It seems that the response of the child Elizabeth is carrying, to Mary’s arrival must have affirmed the special nature of both babies to both women and they stayed together for three months no doubt sharing their experiences and happiness and supporting one another, not worrying what everyone else might be thinking.

Mary was obviously a young woman of great faith and trust. Instead of saying “why me?” in a negative and complaining way as many of us sometimes do when something unplanned happens she regarded herself as favoured and blessed by God even though what lay ahead of her was going to be incredibly difficult and demanding and the means uncertain, “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” What a mature response and if you go on to read the Magnificat, which follows on from the reading we  heard today, you will get an even greater sense of her maturity and faith.

Perhaps we can learn a valuable lesson from Mary. So often what is asked of us is difficult or we are tired, worn down or overwhelmed by the tasks we face or the impossible timescales involved. Maybe because of our circumstances we feel powerless to change or improve things but instead of asking “why me?” perhaps we could look at the situation differently and see that what is being asked of us is an opportunity or even an honour and a privilege. A small example of this was when I recently delivered my batch of Christmas leaflets for church. I have to admit that it’s not a job I particularly look forward to because I dread the thought of anyone getting confrontational if it’s something they don’t want or regard as junk mail; you see I have this awful tendency to fight battles that haven’t even been declared which really isn’t good for me. However, I said I’d do it and so having psyched myself up (and it wasn’t raining,) I got on with it and wonderfully no one challenged me, a few even said thank you and I found a few flats I’d never seen before so it was a sort of mystery tour experience. I was down to my last two leaflets left when I went to the back door of a neighbour next to our shop. She happened to be in and when she saw me she seemed pleased and signalled for me to wait. When she got the door open she said “would you like to come in for a drink” so I thought that’s really nice of her, why not? I’m not in a particular rush. We had a coffee and quite a long chat. She’d lost her husband a year or so ago and I think she enjoyed having someone to talk to, especially someone who had known him. When I left I couldn’t help thinking that this little encounter had been a gift and something of a privilege which I wouldn’t have had if I’d not helped out with a job I hadn’t much wantrd to do. Thinking back over my life there have been many good things that have come out of not the best of circumstances and it’s only later that I’ve been able to see this. Now I can say thank you for them instead of bemoaning the hand fate dealt me.

A great many things in life are not what we would choose but we can’t always change them. What we can change is our attitude towards them. We can choose to see things differently. Instead of seeing tasks and chores and burdens or drains on our time or other resources we can choose to see opportunities to meet and get to know other people who may turn out to be really interesting and they may even become friends. A task we previously dreaded can be an opportunity for personal growth if we are prepared to challenge ourselves and move out of our comfort zone. We may find we are actually quite good at something we never envisaged being able to do. By changing our attitude to some of the things that we feel trapped by or scared of such as other people’s opinions of us or our social status or wealth or career we can even set ourselves free. After all, it is up to each of us to decide what is important to us and what is not. We shouldn’t always allow others to dictate that for us.
So next time something comes along and you are tempted to ask “Why me?” pause for a moment and consider what you may be being offered and then ask “Why not me?” And if it feels right then take the next step like Mary did and say “Here am I”