Using God’s jigsaw pieces for a new beginning – Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-end and John 1:6-8,19-28

Introduction with the children before they go out:

Who like’s doing puzzles?
What sort of puzzles?

Jigsaw puzzles, 3D puzzles, I’m guessing we might have some Sudoku and crossword fans in the congregation.

Our readings this morning in this part of church give us a bit of a puzzle, a puzzle about who we are. Not our names, but what our purpose is, the sort of people we are called to be. God has put us in a place or a time of confusion, and we have to puzzle out what it is that we need to do in his name.

So I want you to give out some puzzle pieces in a moment when we’ve prayed for each other, and then at the end of the service, you’re going to collect them in again, and help me put the pieces together…

 

Puzzle pieces:   (Holy) Spirit    –     Bind Up (Heal)      –      Renew    –      Good News    –      Freedom    –    Build Up   –    Justice Comfort    –    Beauty Praise/Joy   –    Baptise    –   Serve Jesus

Sermon:

The chances are, they knew who he was.

John, the son of Zechariah, the priest descended from Aaron, Moses’ brother and spokesperson (Luke 1:5); the priest who in his later years had been struck dumb because he didn’t believe the angel who visited him whilst on duty at the Temple (Luke 1:11-20).

John, the son of Elizabeth, who was well past child-bearing age, and that same elderly priest Zechariah whose lips, unsealed by John’s birth, then prophesied that he would be the prophet who would prepare the way for God’s mercy and love to be revealed to the world.

John, who could by line and lineage have been a priest himself and worn the fine linens of the Temple, offering the sacrifices of others, and who chose instead to wander around in the desert in rough clothing, eating locusts and honey, and saying that the Jewish people needed to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, by literally being converted back in to the Jewish faith in which they were rooted.

Oh yes, the Levites and priests who came from Jerusalem, would have known very well what his name was, whose son he was, and what the stories were that surrounded him. But that didn’t answer their question: “Who are you?”

They wanted to fit him into their ordered way of defining their history and way of life through the prophets of their past. By pigeon-holing John into what they thought they understood of Elijah and Moses, they thought they could understand him, make him fit into their traditions.

But asking the question from that blinkered point of view, was completely missing the significance of where John was, what he was saying, and what he was doing. John might have looked and sounded like an Old Testament prophet, but he was very much doing a new thing, heralding the new way that God was going to be active not just among the Jewish community, but in the whole world.

John was in the wilderness because God’s people had lost their way – a fact amply demonstrated by the Levites and priests needing to ask their question in the first place. They had all the tools, the jigsaw pieces if you like, with which to recognise and take part in this new thing that God was doing, but they’d got so lost, especially around the Temple worship of Jerusalem, that they couldn’t recognise it. They couldn’t even see that other prophets of the past had prepared them for this when Israel had previously found itself with the opportunity to start a new era, a new way of living, a new relationship with God.

The words of Isaiah 61 would have been familiar to the priests and their assistants the Levites, but perhaps they had forgotten its’ context, and failed to recognise as so often happens, that history was sort of repeating itself, but with an extra twist of significance. Isaiah 61 falls in the last part of the prophesies grouped together in that name, a series of visions that spoke into two periods of Israel’s history. The first was the point where the first Israelites returned from Exile in Babylon but had few resources to rebuild the Temple, and limited self-rule to make new beginnings as a nation in the ‘between-times’ before the rest of this scattered people returned. The second point to which Isaiah 61 prophesies is another ‘between-time’, this one standing at the cusp of the old covenant and a new one, a time again when Israel was under restricted self-rule, this time anticipating the arrival of the long-promised Messiah.

John, was doing something that was normally only offered to those outside the Jewish faith and who wished to accept that Israel’s God was the one true God of all people; he was baptising people. But he was baptising his fellow Jews, something that should not have been needed. Yet, as the priests and Levites were amply demonstrating, they had lost their purpose and the vision of Isaiah’s prophesies, and therefore their understanding of what was going on around them had become lost in a wilderness of their own creation. The sins from which John was demonstrating people needed to be washed clean, were the ones that obliterated their view of what God was doing in their immediate vicinity, stopped them from setting the right example not just to their communities, but to those gentiles among whom they lived. The people who would be among the first to recognise the Messiah who already stood among them, would be those who understood that God’s anointed Messiah would bring with him those things prophesied in Isaiah. It was the people who were already gathered around John, who saw the opportunities of a life more fully focused on what God wants to reveal in the world, rather than the wilderness that bewildered their leaders, that would become the first disciples of the Messiah.

There is a very strong sense in which we too live in a period which we might be forgiven for thinking is a wilderness, where our leaders are bewildered by what it is they see, and seem unable to recognise it as an opportunity for a new beginning, or understand what it is they should be doing with that opportunity.  What we as Christians need to do, is to show them the tools at their disposal, the jig-saw pieces that mean that we can live as God intended us to. In the scriptures of the old covenant, as in Isaiah 61, and in the example and teaching of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, as well as John the Baptist, we hold those tools, those jigsaw pieces. Quite literally.

Please can all those who were given a jigsaw piece by the children hold them up please? That’s quite a lot of pieces, and there are plenty more! (Please put them down.) These few are all words or ideas within our scriptures this morning, and we can go through them briefly – please hold up the relevant jigsaw piece as I mention it:

(Holy) Spirit – The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me (Is 61:1). That’s the suffering servant, the Messiah himself speaking. That spirit would dwell in Jesus, and be offered to us through faith in him, as at Pentecost. It is the Holy Spirit of God that we must have dwelling within us if we are to find a way out from the wilderness that the nations find themselves in.

Good News ­
– The Messiah came to bring good news to the poor (Is 61:1), the poor of spirit, the financially poor, those made homeless (physically or spiritually) by the systems of the world; as those who believe in him that we are called to do likewise.

With the ideas of Binding Up (Healing) and Freedom (Is 61:1)­ we remember the healings that Jesus undertook, those he freed from physically or spiritually dark places, and we remember that this world needs us to seek the hidden darknesses of people’s lives where the light of the Messiah needs to be shone.

Vengeance/Justice (Is 61:2,8) The Messiah for whom John prepared Israel was he who challenged the corruption and structures of the time, turned over the tables of the money-changers in the Temple, released people from debt through forgiveness not extortion; if we do or enable likewise, we offer new beginnings and new opportunities for those living in the wilderness of social injustice and exclusion, the hope of Christ.

We know we need to Comfort those who mourn not just the death of a loved one, but the loss of mobility and companionship, providing practical support as well as a hug or a kind word (Is 61:2-3).

We also seek Beauty (Is 61:3) not only in God’s creation but among the ashes of people’s broken lives when they’ve become the shell of the person they once were because of the wilderness of their lives and yet are loved, as they are, by God.

God calls us to find opportunities for Praise and Joy (Is 61:3) among the ashes of our lives as well as that of others; the things for which we are thankful, friends, family, our faith in Jesus.

These are jigsaw pieces of living out our faith with which we are called to Build Up and Renew (Is 61:4) not just our church and local community, but the nations of the world. If we do not speak for freedom, justice and healing in the name of Jesus, to those in authority, how can God’s love be seen and heard?

John came and Baptised with water (John 1:26), but now through faith in Jesus, the forgiveness he offered, and the power of the Holy Spirit which enabled both the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus the Messiah, we baptise people into the body of Christ, the church, the means by which we seek to Serve Jesus, in all these ways even though we are not worthy so much as untie even his laces (John 1:27).      (Thank you).

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The jigsaw pieces that take us on a journey towards Jesus.

After we have remembered, recognised and received Christ the Servant-Messiah who stands among us in our Holy Communion this morning, we will use our jigsaw pieces with the children to make a straight path. It will serve to remind us that though we may feel we live in a spiritual wilderness, we have the jigsaw pieces of our faith, ready at our disposal to create a clear path out. The key is to remember where those pieces come from, the God from whom they come, the Messiah toward whom they point, and to seek the opportunities for new beginnings, that will show the world who we are as Christians.

During the notices, before the final hymn: I got the children to collect in the jig-saw pieces and work out how to lay them, making a straight path, pointing to the Joseph and Mary journeying to Bethlehem (in the Lord’s Table).

On being candle wax – Isaiah 64:1-9 Mark 13:24-end #Advent2017

Sunday marked the Christian ‘new year’, or Advent as we prefer to call it. It was also my second trip to preach and celebrate Holy Communion at St. Barnabas Darby Green. I may have used candles in my illustrations; including tapers there were technically four of them (Two Ronnies sketch here, if you really must). The opening of the audio version of the sermon refers to the incumbent, Rev’d Lerys Campbell, who has a snazzy, home made, Advent stole with four candles, to which he can add a flame each week of Advent… I’m not jealous, honest!

It’s strange how God speaks through us; personally, on reflection, I thought this illustration poor, and the sermon disjointed, but still it appeared to speak to people. Always humbling.

 

Hopefully at some point in our lives, we’ve all held a candle. I mean the real deal (picking up one, and lighting it), not a flame of unrequited love 😉

If we’ve held a Christingle candle, taken part in a candlelit Carol or Candlemas Service, or become a Godparent and held a child’s baptism candle, the chances are we’ve watched the wax melt, and discovered that as it trickles down the candle, it can trickle through the slits of the candle holder onto the back of our hands. Very often the nature of the service means we can do little about it, except perhaps blow the candle out prematurely if it becomes too painful. We’ll also know that as the wax cools, it mounds itself to the shape of our hands, so that when we flex afterwards, it cracks and peels off.

Many of us are well used to the symbolism of a candle flame representing Jesus, ‘the light who is coming into the world’; the season of Advent at the start of the new Christian year brings that symbolism sharply into focus.

A candle flame comes from a burning wick, something that is capable of burning with little or no wax, as we find with our church tapers (light taper, let it flame); the light burns large & faster almost that wick is consumed (blow it out).

Of course at home, we quite possibly use fat pillar candles to create a romantic or relaxing effect (light a pillar candle, leave it to burn), and with them the quantity of wax and the time it takes to melt, slows the rate of burn, helping the candle to last longer. Indeed there is often spare wax that isn’t burnt away, and the flame sinks to be hidden in a tunnel, until we come along with a sharp knife to carve it away, a job done most easily when the candle has just been extinguished and the wax is soft.

We focus so much on the light, and give little thought to the wax, it’s role or purpose, the symbolism we can usefully assign to it. So this morning I want to suggest that WE are the wax that is being melted by the candle flame of Christ ‘the light of the world’, when we let the Holy Spirit burn through us, melting us, moulding and changing us.

This first Sunday in Advent we are focusing on hope, the light of hope that exists in the darkness of our lives, the things we do wrong, the mistakes we make, the ‘hopeless’ scenarios of our existence that pertain to the terminal illness of a loved one, or uncertainty over a job, or welfare payments. What we are looking for is hope in a God of new beginnings, who is faithful to his promise that he will be with us in such darkness, and in his ultimate desire to create a new heaven and a new earth, in which are right with him, or as we might say, righteous.

Our Old Testament and Gospel readings this morning, are full of reminders of the mistakes the world, and often we God’s people, have made or are in danger of making.

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    “Are we so far from the light of Christ, that he can’t mold us and form us so we stand firm in his love and faithfulness?”
  • In Is 64:6, Israel, was recognised by God’s prophets as being like a soiled and dirty cloth that has hardened dry, and which can no longer be used. And it is likened to a faded autumn leaf that is easily blown away. Both the cloth and the leaf have become brittle, hard and useless, like the dribbles of wax we pick off a candle, or our hand, when they’ve gone cold (pick some off a ‘pre-dribbled’ candle). Are we so soiled by the world we’ve become brittle and useless?
  • In Mark 13:35-36, Jesus’ hearers are reminded that as servants of God, they need to stay awake, to recognise when it is that their master is coming. In both passages there is a sense of distance between God’s people and his eternal presence, a hidden-ness that Israel saw as God turning his face from them. If we keep the wax base of a candle away from the taper’s flame, it remains hard, and cannot be melted to mold itself to a candle holder (demonstrate – see above). Are we so far from the light of Christ, that he can’t mold us and form us so we stand firm in his love and faithfulness?
  • Even when Jesus quotes from Daniel 7 in reference to himself as the ‘Son of Man coming in the clouds’, it is a reference not so much to the hoped-for Second Coming when God will draw heaven and earth together as one in his presence, but to Jesus’s own ‘coming’ to God after his suffering, in his resurrection and ascension. It is also about God’s judgement on the spiritual system that had corrupted Israel’s worship both in the Temple and the voices of it’s religious leaders. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70, is in large part the consequence of these things that Jesus is anticipating in Mark 13. Like the extraneous wax in a pillar candle too large for the wick around which it is built, have we or the organisations of our world, built a pride and arrogance into our lifestyles, businesses and political structures such that they hide the Christ-light of the Christians within them, and thus need tearing down? (Carve a lump out the pillar candle.)

These illustrations are a reminder instead that God’s people down the ages have had an uncanny habit of making themselves blind to God’s presence, to God’s will for their lives, to God’s purposes in the world. It was not God that turned away, despite his judgement on Israel’s sins, but their sin, and the sin of their leaders that created a barrier between them and God. If we’re honest, we do it too; hopelessness is not an absence of God, but an absence of our ability to see God. That’s why we need the light; it’s why the world needed, and still needs, Jesus.

As Isaiah explains, the hope we crave is in God’s faithfulness despite we continue to do to make him feel distant, and blame him for the wrongs we encounter in the world. The prophet’s petition is ‘Do not be exceedingly angry with us Lord, do not remember our sins, our iniquities” (Is 64:9).

  • Instead we are to remember, that the God of Israel did awesome deeds throughout their history that they didn’t expect (Is 42:3), not least in their Exodus out of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, their coming to the promised land. It is important to recount what God has already done in our lives too, for there in his faithfulness is the light of hope.
  • Instead we are to remember that our creator God who brought Jesus into the world to release us from our sins, is the same creator God who brings new life to the fig (Mark 13:28) and other trees each spring. It is important to see the new beginnings of God in creation and in our lives and treasure them, for there is the light of hope.
  • Instead we are to remember, that God meets with each of us who seeks to do right, and who remembers that God’s ways (Is 64:5) are frequently not the ways of the world. It is important that we are obedient to God’s teachings, his healing touch, his justice, which we recognise in Jesus; for in them is the light of hope.

As we go though Advent, perhaps with a candle burning at home each day (show and light our Advent candle from home), as well as on our wreath here each Sunday (point to the church Advent candle), let us consider that if we are the wax of a candle, we need to be in the right proximity to the light of Christ, so that we are heated, molded, melted and changed in such a positive way that in his name, we become clear beacons of light and hope in the world.

Thanks to Grahart who’s blogging his way through Advent with the AdventBookClub2017 and Magdalen Smith’s ‘Unearthly Beauty’ for the photos, and to Liz our lovely prayerful local florist who is selling up to retire at Christmas, and from whom I got the instant prop-table!