‘Inclusion’ – 20th August, 10th Sunday after Trinity

Based around Isaiah 56:1-8.

The other evening I watched a documentary about the Beatles; there was some footage of the time when they played a short set from the roof of a building, and I found myself thinking ‘Where have I seen that before?’ Only to find myself answering “Oh yes…The Simpsons.”

In an episode where Homer and his friends form a Barbershop Quartet, they do their farewell performance from the roof of Moe’s bar, after finding out in a magazine ‘Are they hot, or are they not?’ article that they are now most definitely ‘Not’. They were no longer part of the ‘In’ crowd; no longer ‘beautiful people’, no longer part of what CS Lewis called the ‘Inner Ring’ – those folks that seem somehow materially blessed and separated from the rest of us. Mundane life was calling them home.

CS Lewis wrote in an essay the following:

“Of all the passions the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things. … As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion: if you succeed there will be nothing left. Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.

In the Old Testament there existed a particular covenant between God and the people of Israel; one that excluded foreigners; one that even excluded some people who were maimed. Some people in Israel – who may have been there for generations – were excluded from worshipping God. The exclusive nature of the relationship between God and the people of Israel would last until the coming of Jesus Christ, but as is often the case, Isaiah prophesies the changes that are to come when the Messiah comes.

Things are going to change; that a new covenant between God and man will make all of us God’s chosen.

Tonight’s reading from Isaiah reminds us that with God there is inclusion; no one will keep us away from God. There are no ‘gatekeepers’ or ‘style arbiters’ – just a desire from us to be part of His kingdom.

In Verses 1 and 2 we’re given a pretty simple reminder of what we need to do to be blessed by God.

We need to be just; to maintain justice. This can be hard in our day to day lives – but it is required of us.

We need to do what is right, and not commit acts of evil.

We need to keep the Sabbath – putting regular time aside for the worship of God, time in which we re-centre ourselves and make God the centre of our world.

The observant amongst you will have noticed that the reading tonight is what I call a ‘book end’ reading – there are a couple of verses, then a skipped section of the Bible, then the reading finishes with a couple more verses.  Let me share with you the words of Verses 3 to 5 of tonight’s reading.

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.

Verse 3 and 6 both mention ‘foreigners’ – those people who were not of Israel, who were not Jews, but who had bene living in Israel for several generations in some cases and who had been forbidden to worship God.  Not any more; God is saying ‘Don’t feel that you’re separated from me because you’re not of my people’.  If they serve God, love the name of the Lord, worship God and keep the Sabbath – most likely meant to describe the religious observances of the day – they too are welcome in God’s all inclusive Kingdom.

The rest of this excluded section deals with a particular section of society – eunuchs – men who were typically servants or soldiers who had been castrated. This group too were traditionally ‘outsiders’ and were excluded from worship under one of the Deuteronomic Laws that excluded any who had been emasculated by cutting or crushing.  They were indeed regarded as ‘dry trees’ – as branches of the Jewish nation that could not produce children, at a time when the family history and family lineage were important.  This group too would be welcome as long as they follow the observances required and worship the Lord. The eunuchs are being told that within God’s Kingdom – within the Temple and it’s walls – they will have a memorial and an ongoing name as God’s offspring that will be better than sons and daughters.

As an aside, the Hebrew for “a memorial and a name” is Yad Vashem; this was chosen from Verse 5 as the name given to the main Holocaust monument in modern Jerusalem.

Verse 6 reminds us that that we come to the Lord to serve him, to worship him, to enter in to a covenant or relationship with him, and by doing so we will be blessed by Him.

In Verse 7 we’re told that God will bring these people – now His people –  US – to His Kingdom. He will guide us, bring us to prayer and worship and then bring us joy. We may come to God mourning, damaged, broken, hurt; but through Him we will find joy.

We’re told that our sacrifices and offerings will be accepted on God’s alter – that we will be accepted by God.  And God’s house of prayer will be for all nations – not just the Jews of the Old Testament; not just the Gentiles and Jews of the New Testament – but all people, everywhere.

God wants to include us all in His plans; He wants all of us – Jew and Gentile, ‘foreigner’, the whole and the broken. Those excluded previously by tradition; those who have been in our lives and communities for generations and yet who still feel excluded.

We are all offered the opportunity to be ‘In’ with God and His Kingdom. We can all be hot; we can all be within the Inner Ring for all eternity, and God has not finished bringing us all in to His Kingdom yet.


Reader Joe Pritchard

‘Dem Bones’ – 2nd April, 5th Sunday of Lent

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

A little question to start with; what do tonight’s reading from Ezekiel, Chapter 3 of the Book of Ecclesiastes and Chapter 21 of the book of Isaiah have in common?

The answer? They’ve all provided inspiration to popular songs.  The verse from Isaiah gave us Bob Dylan’s ‘All along the Watchtower’, Ecclesiastes gave us the Byrds’ ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ and Ezekiel 37 gave us the song ‘Dem Bones’.  And you’ll be gratified to hear that I don’t intend to sing any of these!

Our reading tonight is perhaps one of the most memorable and evocative stories from the Old Testament Prophets.  Ezekiel is one of the three major prophets of the Old Testament, along with Isaiah and Jeremiah, and his message is pretty straight-forward. The people of Israel – a holy people, of the holy temple, in a holy land – have yet again broken their relationship with God and they have been punished.

An interesting fact about the Book of Ezekiel is that the events and prophecies in it can be dated with greater accuracy than any of the other prophetic books in the Old Testament.  Ezekiel received his call from God to be prophet in 593BC, and his last dated writing was 571BC – 22 years which covered the period in which Jerusalem fell, the temple was destroyed and the people of Israel exiled to Babylon. Ezekiel was also widowed during this period, and as a member of the priestly class he must have been devastated at the events in his personal life and the life of the people of God.

There was a phrase used by the people when all seemed lost and there was no hope; they would say ‘Our bones are dried up’ – and so it’s perhaps no surprise that God gives Ezekiel this terrifying vision of a valley full of dead bones.

What do you have in your mind’s eye?

For me, I think of Ezekiel standing on a raised piece of ground, looking around him, down a long, wide, limitless valley. And bones. As far as the eye can see, a sea of disconnected, random bones – nothing holding anything together in the form of a skeleton. Bones that have been there for so long that every bit of flesh has been long since eaten or rotted away. Bones jumbled in to random piles – a skull here, ribs there, leg bones and arm bones, the small bones of the hands and feet disconnected and lying around like piles of pebbles.

This represents the current situation and possible future of the people of Israel – a dead people, shattered and rent asunder, disconnected from themselves, from each other, and God.

When Ezekiel had visions, they pulled no punches, and left nothing to the imagination.

God then asks him to prophesy to these bones – and as he does so, Ezekiel sees the bones start assembling themselves in to skeletons. The bones just don’t come together higgeldy-piggeldy; they come together with structure and form – in the words of that song I mentioned:

Toe bone connected to the foot bone

Foot bone connected to the heel bone

Heel bone connected to the ankle bone


And so on until the skeletons are reformed. And that’s not all – as he prophesied, sinews were laid upon the bones, joining them together, then flesh, and finally skin. The valley was now full of bodies – perfect in every way – except they’re still not alive.

And God urges Ezekiel to prophesy again – this time to the ‘breath’ :

“Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live”

Now this isn’t just God doing a massive exercise in mouth to mouth resuscitation; we’re not just talking about air being blown in to the lungs of these bodies to make them live.  The Hebrew word used here is ‘ruarch’, which has three meanings; wind, breath and the spirit of God – what we would call the Holy Spirit. Ezekiel is prophesying for the Holy Spirit to fill these husks and turn them in to living, breathing people.

In verses 11 to 14 God explains the vision he has given to Ezekiel; and despite the apocalyptic setting it’s actually good news.  Despite everything that’s happened, things will be OK;

“I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil.”

The multitude of people raised in that valley will return to their homeland, Israel, and hence to the good graces of God. The relationship with God will be repaired; they will return home.

How often do we find ourselves in Ezekiel’s valley? Those times when our less than wise and perhaps even mean-minded – dare I use the word sinful? – actions and behaviour seem to have brought us to a place where one or more of our relationships is dry bones and devastation; our plans are dismembered and scattered around us, and all we can see is the skeletal remains of what was once our future, and is now just dry, lifeless ruin?  I know I’ve been there a few times in my 55 years.

There are times when we’ve done all that we can do, to fix the damage, but we’re still left with a valley of dry bones.  Broken relationships with friends, family, damaged careers, debts, misery and despair. All broken apart like those skeletons that Ezekiel saw in his vision.

We settle down and start trying to fix things; we might manage to get things looking good again. Rather than a total mess we get things looking sort of like what they were before we broke them; but they’re still not quite right. The bones are connected, sinew and flesh has been laid, but there is still no spark of life. Our relationships are not as they were – trust is not there. Love may not be there. The Holy Spirit is certainly not there.

And that’s when we need to be humble, and pray, and ask for forgiveness and ask that God’s grace work through us to properly repair these fractured relationships.

You may remember these words sometimes used in our morning prayers or at Communion;

“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit : a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. “

And this is what we need to bring to God so that His breath may re-animate these once-dead relationships.  Things may not be perfect, but they will be way better than when we found ourselves plonked down in that valley with the mass of dead, dry, disconnected bones.


Reader Joe Pritchard


Readings for the sermon and links:

Ezekiel 37:1-14 Isaiah 21 Romans 8:6-11

What does unity mean? – Psalm 40:1-12, Isaiah 49:1-7, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 (15th January, 2nd Sunday after Epiphany)

It starts so positively!  I can imagine the excitement at Corinth when the letter from Paul arrives.  The people assemble.  The letter is opened.  Someone starts to read out loud.  Greetings from Paul and Sosthenes.  And then a whole list praising the church for what is good there.  They have been given the grace of God.  They have been enriched in every way.  They are not lacking in any spiritual gift including gifts of speech and knowledge.  They are waiting for Christ to come again.

God will strengthen them to the end and be faithful to them.

And there our reading ends.  You’d be forgiven for thinking that all was going really well at this church.  But if we had continued, we’d have immediately realised this was not the case at all.  From the very next verse onwards and for most of the rest of the letter – all 16 chapters of it – Paul is addressing a very difficult situation that is threatening to split the church.  Yes they have these spiritual gifts, but they are elevating some of these gifts over others.  In particular, a superiority complex is developing among those who have the gift of speaking in tongues.  The people of this church are not behaving towards each other as Christians should.  And the resulting divisions will get in the way of their witness to Christ in the world.  They are not practising unity.

Unity.  This coming Wednesday sees the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  A week when we’re encouraged to pray for all Christians to work together as one body.  We can pray for the worldwide church.  We can pray for neighbouring churches of different traditions, such as the Methodists, Roman Catholics or Baptists.  We can pray for the very different traditions within the Church of England itself.  And of course we can pray for unity within our own church community here.

What does unity mean?  Well it doesn’t mean that everyone has to think in the same way, to worship in the same way, to express their faith in the same way.  That would get rather boring!  People are different from each other.  Differences are good.  Variety is the spice of life and all that.

No, what unity means here is being able to work with difference and even conflict when you passionately disagree.

And the best relationships result when people are good at negotiating difference.

But to negotiate difference, you need to try to see where the other person or party is coming from.  You need to try to be able to see an issue from their point of view.  And sometimes this means stepping out of our comfort zone.

I heard a radio programme recently that was discussing how people choose to get the news.  These days more people are getting it on the internet than from the TV or radio or newspapers.  The problem with this is that the internet quickly learns what sorts of things you’re interested in, what your political and religious bias is and offers you more of the same.  You can end up never learning the point of view of others whose views are vastly different.  The same is also true if we only read one particular newspaper.  So the programme’s contributors recommended things like regularly reading a politically different paper or looking at websites reflecting an alternative viewpoint.  Uncomfortable perhaps, but it helps to see things as someone with the opposite view to yours might see them.

Because you need to be able to see the other person’s point of view if you are to get them to hear yours.

This programme pointed out that certain issues tend to get associated with particular party politics.  Concern about Climate change is an issue that is associated with the Democrats in the US.  So when a Republican went to a conference about Climate change and was horrified about the damage being done to the planet, he hit a problem.  He tried to raise the issue with his fellow Republicans and was accused of betraying the side.  They thought he’d gone soft and become a lefty liberal.

However, this man was able to draw on something he did still have in common with his fellow Republicans.  He was an evangelical Christian.  So he was able to refer to the beginning of Genesis, to remind his colleagues that it was God’s creation.  Humankind was given the task by God to be stewards of creation.  Climate change was resulting from humanity’s misuse of its God-given role.

Because he understood where many of his Republican friends were coming from, and the way they expresssed themselves through their faith, this man was able to get through to some of them.

This week there was an article in the paper about marriage.  It noted that January is the busiest month for the divorce lawyers and offered some reasons for why relationships go wrong and what you might do to help a relationship succeed.  It reminded readers that we have this rosy idea of love.  We look for the perfect partner and then expect them to fulfil our every need.  And then we discover that the more you’re with someone, the more you realise you have less in common with them than you think.  Disappointment sets in and we can end up being our worst selves with the people we’re closest to.

The article suggests that in a successful relationship one should be more ready to love than be loved – like a parent loves a child unconditionally even when they’ve been up all night, driven to distraction all day and sometimes would gladly throttle the child.

Unconditional love.  Love when you don’t feel like loving.  This is what Paul talks about several chapters later, after he has gone on at length about the tensions which are tearing the Corinthian church apart.  The famous passage on Love from Chapter 15 which we often have at weddings.  Love that is not restricted to romantic relationships, and in the Corinthian context wasn’t intended so.

Working together when you don’t agree is hard.  Loving each other unconditionally when you have fallen out is hard.  Sometimes it’s tempting to give up on a relationship, leave a church, go it alone.

But that’s not what God wants us to do.  God has called us into fellowship.  Fellowship with his son, Jesus and fellowship with each other.  Paul reminds the Corinthian church of this at the end of the passage we heard this evening.  God has given us the gifts we need to live and work together, just as he had given the Corinthians the gifts they needed.  God has given us the gifts we need as individuals and together as a church to share the gospel with others.

God is the focus, the driving force behind our faith and the way we live as Christians, not only with our Christian brothers and sisters, but with our families and friends, our colleagues and neighbours, many of whom won’t share our faith.  It is God who calls us into Unity.  So in this coming Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, let us pray for Christian Unity in the widest possible understanding.

Reader Catherine Burchell


Readings for the sermon and links:

Psalm 40:1-12  Isaiah 49:1-7  1 Corinthians 1:1-9

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